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Biden says he’ll ban TikTok if Congress passes bill, but he’s campaigning on it until then

When Joe Biden joined TikTok on the eve of the Super Bowl last month, political analyst Maggie Macdonald was impressed by the “meta” aspect of his first post.  

In the video, Biden mocked the conspiracy theory that he manipulated the Super Bowl in favor of the Kansas City Chiefs to boost his reelection campaign.  

“Yeah, I’m old, but I’m on TikTok, and I’m in this super online place talking about this super online concept,” Macdonald, an assistant political science professor at the University of Kentucky, said of Biden’s video’s language and tone. 

While Biden made a fun debut on the immensely popular social media app, his use of TikTok in this year’s reelection campaign has sparked a heated debate in Washington, D.C. about whether the site should even exist in the United States. The app, owned by China’s ByteDance, is regarded as both an invaluable tool for reaching out to large numbers of young prospective voters who are disconnected from conventional media and an easy means, supposedly, for the Chinese government to spy on American consumers.  

Members of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party proposed a measure this week requiring ByteDance to divest from TikTok or risk a US ban, building on previous federal and state-led initiatives that failed. On Thursday, the committee voted 50-0 to advance the bill to the House floor.  

Shortly after the bill was passed by the committee, Rep. Troy Balderson, R-Ohio, referred to TikTok as “a surveillance tool used by the Chinese Communist Party to spy on Americans and harvest highly personal data.”  

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew rejected any ties between the app and the CCP during Senate proceedings. According to a statement sent to CNBC on Thursday, “The government is attempting to strip 170 million Americans of their Constitutional right to free expression,” and that such a move “will damage millions of businesses, deny artists an audience, and destroy the livelihoods of countless creators across the country.” 

Since Biden’s lighthearted introduction post, his campaign’s TikTok account has gained over 222,000 followers and 2.4 million likes. With eight months until the general election and a possible rematch in 2020, Biden lags Republican candidate Donald Trump in most national surveys in what is expected to be a close race to the finish.  

Biden’s age has been a constant concern in polling data, so experts say reaching out to younger audiences is critical in winning over indecisive young voters and mobilizing a traditional Democratic demographic whose members may stay home on Election Day

“It’s really important for him to have a presence, and for him to interact directly with voters, not just through creators and influencers,” said Aaron Earls, CEO of social media influencer business Activate HQ, which specialises in political campaigns. “The turnout in 2020 was really significant with that younger audience and, everyone’s suggesting that maybe there will be a similar turnout with the younger audience again.”  

During the State of the Union address Thursday evening, Biden’s campaign streamed excerpts of the speech on TikTok, indicating that the president intends to continue using the app despite growing concerns in Washington. But it’s a particularly complicated issue for Biden because if the bill passes the full House and Senate, it would go to the president’s desk.  

On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters, “This bill is important, and we welcome this step.” She stated that the administration intends to “meet the American people where they are,” but that “it doesn’t mean that we’re not going to try to figure out how to protect our national security.”  

On Friday, Biden stated that if Congress passes the bill, he will sign it.  

The Biden campaign did not immediately reply to a request for comment.  

TikTok is attempting to rally user support following the House’s decision on Thursday. Users of the app were met with a screenshot informing them that Congress was “planning a total ban of TikTok.” Multiple staffers and senators told CNBC that their offices had received a torrent of calls, the most of which were from children. 

TikTok is being used in political campaigns around the United States.  

In recent cycles, Facebook has been the social media platform of choice for campaigns due to its ability to target people with fundraising advertising and instructive postings. Apple’s 2021 iOS privacy upgrade made it difficult to target customers, increasing the expense of ad campaigns on Meta’s platforms. 

Furthermore, Facebook has skewed older over time, with younger audiences preferring toward TikTok. The difficulty for campaigns is that TikTok claims it does not allow political adverts or “content such as a video from a politician asking for donations, or a political party directing people to a donation page on their website.”  

To yet, big campaigns have depended on well-known TikTok influencers to raise support for specific causes. Last April, for example, the White House announced that it was enlisting a group of volunteer TikTok and Instagram influencers to assist raise awareness about the Biden campaign. 

According to Earls, this is a long-standing political strategy. TikTok simply introduces a new media.  

“That has historically been a tactic that’s happened since the Kennedy days, but just more in traditional media,” Earls went on to say. “Like you’re going to get an endorsement from Marilyn Monroe or Joe DiMaggio or whatever.”  

Political parties are examining TikTok for influencers with positions that appeal to potential voters, and they are focusing on swing states that could decide an election. During the 2022 midterm elections, the Democratic National Committee and communications groups such as Climate Power used TikTok and influencers to raise awareness about issues such as abortion rights and organize voters. 

Despite its growing popularity, TikTok remains a marginal weapon in politics.  

Last year, Anupam Chander, a Georgetown University Law Center professor, published a study with several colleagues that found that fewer than 10% of members of the United States Congress have a “TikTok account from which they post content,” most likely because of the app’s ties to China. The article stated that 34 House members and seven senators had official TikTok accounts.  

The analysis found that Democrats account for the vast majority of significant politicians that use TikTok. Some of Republicans’ opposition might be traced back to Trump’s ultimately unsuccessful promise to ban TikTok during his administration. 

Reaching ‘young Americans where they are’  

Former presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy is one of the few high-profile Republicans on the app, having stated during a primary debate that “part of how we win elections is reaching the next generation of young Americans where they are.”  

Earls said he would not be surprised if Trump used TikTok throughout his campaign. He believes the decision is less about China and more about Trump’s link to his own social media network, Truth Social, where he frequently publishes

“We’ve seen him do whatever it takes to win an election including trying to stop the peaceful transition of power,” Earls went on to say. “He will do what he thinks will help him win so I suspect we’ll see his campaign join TikTok in the coming months depending upon how things develop with his ability to monetize Truth Social.” 

The Trump campaign did not immediately reply to a request for comment. 

Anish Mohanty, communications director for Gen-Z for Change, stated that his nonprofit advocacy group was originally dubbed TikTok for Biden when it was founded in 2020 as part of an effort “to defeat Donald Trump.” The group changed its name the following year and now uses its network of hundreds of TikTok social media influencers to fight for a variety of progressive causes, including climate change, universal health care, and Biden’s call for an urgent cease-fire in Gaza.  

Given the numerous hurdles Biden confronts with younger groups, Mohanty believes his mere presence on TikTok is insufficient to win votes, especially if the president’s campaign is “just using it to post cringy memes about Trump.”  

“Young people care about issues, that’s why young people are so unhappy with Biden over action on climate change, over the situation in Gaza,” he remarked. “Just because Biden is posting on TikTok, that’s not what’s going to pull young people over.”  

Still, Macdonald sees a significant potential for Biden. 

“If you want to reach younger people who are very apathetic, they’re on TikTok,” the University of Kentucky professor explained. “You have an incentive to reach them on TikTok, and it does seem that the Republican Party as a unit is just not doing it.”  

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