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An entire generation of new voters are on TikTok, but Biden and Trump are neglecting them

  • As a possible ban still looms over TikTok’s growing user base, discussions about politics exist on nearly every corner of the video-based app.
  • But absent from these political discussions often are the candidates themselves, like President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden, whose campaigns have avoided the controversial platform.
  • One political scientist told Business Insider candidates will likely regret not joining the platform, while a digital strategist said it makes less sense for candidates to use TikTok because the app requires more authenticity than others.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

 

For months, TikTok users have been confronted with US politics as the November election draws near and President Donald Trump continues to take aim at the popular app over security concerns related to China.

At the center of the controversy is TikTok's parent company, ByteDance. The China-based company has raised the eyebrows of US officials who argue it could collect the data of US users and turn it over to the Chinese government. TikTok has repeatedly denied the allegations, which have been leveled by both Democrats and Republicans.

Most recently, a federal judge sided with TikTok and against the Trump administration, issuing a preliminary injunction on Sunday that halted a download ban on the app just hours before it was slated to go into effect. A week prior, the Commerce Department delayed the ban by one week, citing progress around selling the app so US-based companies Oracle and Walmart would have a stake in the company. 

Unsurprisingly, the Trump campaign has steered clear of TikTok, having no official presence on the app. The president and his son, Donald Trump Jr., however, have posted videos to Triller, a competing vertical-video app.

Meanwhile, Trump's rival, Democratic nominee Joe Biden, recently called TikTok "a matter of genuine concern," and his campaign has opted out of using the app.

In July, the Biden campaign asked its staff to remove the TikTok app from their personal and campaign-issued devices, citing security and privacy concerns. While the Biden campaign declined to further comment on internal policies around using TikTok, they have embraced other platforms, including Reels, Facebook's TikTok competitor that launched in August. 

But even without top political players, TikTok remains a political platform

While TikTok's most well-known stars, like Charli D'Amelio and Addison Rae, have made the TikTok brand synonymous with snappy dances to popular songs, other creators have used the platform to discuss politics. 

Most notably, the 17-year-old daughter of Trump's former senior counselor, Kellyanne Conway, made headlines when she joined TikTok and posted anti-Trump content as well as openly criticized her parents. 

"I think TikTok is a huge platform especially for Gen Z kids," Conway told Insider earlier this year, adding she was using the growing platform to make "cute little videos" to express her opinions.

Similar to Conway, other Gen Z users — sans politically famous parents —regularly talk politics on TikTok.

Olivia Julianna, a 17-year-old Texan who is known to her over 55,000 followers as "The Gen Z Political Analyst," told Business Insider she didn't intend on using TikTok for politics. 

"When I started TikTok, I made stupid videos like most teenagers do," said Olivia, who asked that Business Insider not publish her last name due to safety concerns about users finding out where she attends school. "The real shift in my political beliefs came after everything happened with the Black Lives Matter movement and George Floyd." 

"I saw how much anger, hatred, and exhaustion there was in the world and how fed up and frustrated Gen Z was and how there was so much misinformation being spread," Olivia said. "I felt like there really needed to be someone who could talk about politics where it could be educational but also being able to criticize your own party."

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Since turning political, more than 5.2 million people have since liked her videos. Her first TikTok video to gain traction speculated that Biden would choose his former rival, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, as his running mate. 

"It reached over one million views in two weeks, which was crazy because I never got that many views before," Olivia said. "Then I started posting more and more. People would ask me questions and I would post. And I really enjoyed it because I felt I was helping people learn about politics." 

While she won't be able to vote this year — she turns 18 two weeks after the November election — Olivia has encouraged eligible Gen Z followers to register to vote alongside a cohort of TikTok creators. Their campaign, which part of the recently formed "Tok the Vote," has been spearheaded by Colton Hess, a recent Princeton graduate who earlier this year left his job as a product manager at Amazon to start the organization.

"We've reached this point in the last few months where there's been a change in people's willingness to post on social and political issues," Hess said. "Everyone is looking for ways to help and use their platform and power and position of privilege to get the word out about these things and to help others." 

A page for Tok the Vote has amassed more than 22,000 followers while videos tagged with #TokTheVote have received over five million views and garnered more than one million likes. 

"TikTok presents an incredible tool and an opportunity for activism, and it's really entirely untapped right now," Hess said. "We've seen young people finding it as a way to express themselves politically even if they're new to this and they're not really sure how — they're trying, and they're trying in unique, creative, new ways, and we think we're going to continue to see this."

TikTok announced last week it would launch an in-app election guide, connecting its userbase to reliable sources for information about the upcoming US election.

In the meantime, political TikTok videos thrive on the app as they range in diversity and reach. Some feature creators passionately talking to their phone cameras, educating TikTok users about issues that range from cultural appropriation to climate change. Other creators have relied on popular meme formats and the TikTok sound library to poke fun at or criticize politicians, like Trump or Biden. 

"Red Kingdom," a hype song used by the Kansas City Chiefs, has been used more than 123,000 times on the app, especially for pro-Trump memes and parody videos created by TikTok users with opposing political views. Similarly, "Real Women Vote for Trump," a song by the pro-Trump group known as The Deplorable Choir went viral on TikTok with more than 31,000 videos on one version of the sound. 

Videos using the hashtag "settleforbiden," in which users explore their decision to rally behind Biden after supporting other candidates in the primary race, have racked up more than 176 million views.

Videos on #Trump2020, which feature an assortment of pro and anti-Trump content, have raked in more than 11.1 billion views. The hashtag Biden2020 consists of videos that have received a total of 2.4 billion views.

A handful of elected officials and candidates have braved TikTok 

Few candidates have taken the plunge into TikTok, and those who have joined the app have yielded varying degrees of success.

Sen. Ed Markey, of Massachusetts, earlier in September won the primary race against his challenger, Rep. Joe Kennedy. During the primary race, Markey's campaign utilized TikTok to reach voters, making him the highest-profile politician to use the platform thus far. 

"Ed Markey is 74-years-old and popular on a platform that is largely composed of teenagers and young people," said Paul Bologna, the campaign's digital communications director, in a statement to Business Insider. "Even before our campaign was on TikTok, TikTok found Ed Markey. Our use of this platform is part of our strategy to organize everywhere and to tap into online grassroots enthusiasm to engage with and turn out young voters during this election." 

While the Markey campaign has an official presence on the app, Bologna noted the vast majority of the 2.9 million TikTok views on videos using the "edmarkey" hashtag came from users unaffiliated with the campaign, who posted about the progressive senator on their own accord. 

In August, The Verge's Makena Kelly reported about the social media users who made up Markey's "stan army," a group of about 100 people who used platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok to create viral moments that helped garner support for Markey in the heated primary campaign. The digital outreach strategy was not just about getting votes, either. The campaign used the platforms to solicit donations or to encourage people to phone bank for Markey.

"Ed Markey recognizes that TikTok as a platform is far from perfect when it comes to privacy and he has called for the Federal Trade Commission to increase its attention to the dangers that minors encounter online, including the use of their personal data for advertising dollars," Bologna said of the bipartisan concerns stemming from the app's Chinese ownership.

Matt Little, a 35-year-old member of the Minnesota Senate, has also embraced TikTok during his reelection campaign. Known on the platform as the "Little Senator," he has amassed some 150,000 TikTok followers since he joined in February. 

"The reason we started was the same reason we are using all sorts of different platforms, which is I try to talk to people where they are," Little told Business Insider. "Right now, if you want to talk to Gen Z or the younger generation, you've kinda got to be on TikTok or Instagram." 

Little said the security risks associated with TikTok, which have been amplified by prominent Democrats like Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, were about the same as those associated with other mobile apps, adding that Congress should work toward passing consumer protections that target more than one app.

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"TikTok has become a political talking point," Little said. "If you're concerned about TikTok, you should probably delete just about every app you've got on your phone, including Google Maps, Facebook, and maybe even Instagram." 

As Business Insider's Isobel Asher Hamilton previously reported, there is still no proof that TikTok is spying on users for China, and experts say the app poses similar data-harvesting risks to Facebook and Google.

While his substantive TikTok videos about policies are less popular than content featuring self-deprecating humor, Little said his presence on TikTok has still reached his community and helps introduce him to voters. 

"We were going through the McDonald's drive-thru, and the person working there was like 'I like your videos, Mr. Little.' The same thing happened at Taco Bell a couple of weeks later," he told Business Insider. 

Occasionally, Little uses TikTok to discuss issues that matter to him. Otherwise, he said he used the platform to fundraise, and as the election nears, he plans to use the app to get voters to register and help them figure out how to cast their ballot.

Still, a following on TikTok doesn't directly translate to support at the polls. Joshua Collins, a 26-year-old in Seattle who ran a campaign to become the youngest member of Congress, had a significant following on TikTok earlier this year.

Central to Collins' campaign were his social-media accounts, including his TikTok profile, where he shared his Democratic Socialist ideology and his support of other progressive lawmakers, namely Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Despite his hearty TikTok following, Collins earned less than 1% of the vote in his primary race and came in 15th place among the 20 candidates vying for a seat currently occupied by outgoing Democratic Rep. Denny Heck, according to The Post Millennial.

Despite its political nature, the biggest names in politics are nowhere to be found 

It's not just Biden and Trump who have avoided using TikTok — most elected officials in the US have steered clear from the platform which has drawn criticism and concern from Democrats and Republicans alike. 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York Democrat known for her Instagram Live chats and her fiery tweets, has similarly bypassed TikTok. The lawmaker in July posted a video to Instagram that she called a "bootleg TikTok," confirming in a tweet that she didn't use the app.

"Social media has always been a major player" in politics, Vincent Raynauld, an associate professor at Emerson College who researches the impact of social media on politics, told Business Insider. 

Political candidates would likely regret their decision to steer clear of TikTok taking into account the platform is where young people have decided to get political, Raynauld said. He pointing to the TikTok campaign credited with tanking attendance at Trump's June rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  

The Trump campaign did not immediately return Business Insider's request.

Politicians "should definitely be on there because there's a lot of politics being discussed on that platform," Raynauld said. "There's a lot of energy, there's a lot of excitement, and people are willing to talk about politics and spread messages based on issues and candidates."

"However there's a lot of risk of being on these platforms because they could certainly lose control or see their message hijacked," he told Business Insider, noting that it's likely more difficult for candidates and politicians to keep control of their own message on TikTok.

"Campaigns are closely watching what's happening on TikTok, but they're still trying to figure out how the platform works and how they can use the energy of the platform to their advantage," Raynauld added.

In addition to this lack of control, Little said lawmakers might avoid TikTok because the app is more complicated to use.

"It requires a level of complexity that's not on other social media apps," Little said. "Everything else is a picture and some words. There are so many moving parts on TikTok that it's logically more difficult."

TikTok is also largely personality-based — so if candidates weren't funny enough or are perceived as "lame," they're more likely to get "roasted" than they would on other platforms, he said.

Annie Levene, a partner at the DC-based digital marketing agency Rising Tide Interactive, said she unsure it made sense for candidates like Biden or Trump to use TikTok as a campaign tool. More than other platforms, TikTok requires a certain authenticity that makes it harder to crack. 

"What I would spend my energy on, as a campaign, is instead of building up your own TikTok — especially because we don't have a great sense of how the algorithm works, and what videos tend to get to the forefront — would be to forge some sort of partnership with people on TikTok who already have an existing following," Levene said.

She called this strategy cross-pollinating: the practice where campaigns leverage other popular social media accounts or celebrities to spread their message rather than using their own accounts. It's one of the ways campaigning has evolved — even since 2016, as social media continues to become more important in reaching voters. It's also one of the ways campaigns have connected with voters as COVID-19 has, in many cases, thrown a wrench in typical canvassing, Levene said.

The Biden campaign, for example, began an initiative called #TeamJoeTalks in July, where members of Biden's campaigns were interviewed on Instagram Live by various celebrities. For the September issue of Elle, Biden was interviewed by rapper Cardi B.

"They can speak to why it's important to vote, or why it's important to register, or why they're supporting a certain candidate in a way that feels really authentic to their viewers," Levene said. "It's one thing to just get on (social media) and create content, but it's another thing for people to really consume it, and respect, and be persuaded by it."

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