Political Debate Is Rife on TikTok. Politicians? Not So Much.
President Biden and the White House regularly post to millions of followers on social media, talking about the economy on Facebook, sharing Christmas decorations on YouTube, showcasing pardoned turkeys on Instagram, posting about infrastructure on the X platform. They’re even on Threads.
But they aren’t speaking directly to 150 million Americans on TikTok. There’s no official @POTUS, White House or Biden-Harris 2024 account. You’ll find only one of the Republican presidential candidates there — and just 37 sitting Congress members, according to a New York Times review of accounts.
Some pundits call next year the “TikTok election” because of the ballooning power and influence of the video app. TikTok may have been known for viral dances in 2020, but it has increasingly become a news source for millennials and Gen Z-ers, who will be a powerful part of the electorate.
But less than a year from the election, most politicians are keeping their distance from the app, as efforts grow in Washington and elsewhere to restrict or ban it because of its ownership by the Chinese company ByteDance. Many lawmakers and regulators have expressed concern that TikTok could put users’ information into the hands of Beijing officials — an argument that the company disputes.
By passing up a huge microphone because of those concerns, however, politicians are running the risk that they and their campaigns will not directly reach young people on the app. They might also be upstaged by savvy challengers who may not feel so conflicted and who can figure out how to use TikTok to their advantage.
Many campaigns are trying to hedge their bets by turning to a growing network of TikTok political influencers to share their messages or by making short videos on YouTube Shorts and Instagram Reels in hopes that they’ll end up trending on TikTok. They have to give up some control to do that, and they need to persuade creators to work with them, often for little to no pay.
To many political consultants, the politicians’ absence on TikTok is perhaps untenable.
“The discourse is being shaped by this thing even if you yourself don’t use it,” said Teddy Goff, a top digital strategist for President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist, said that he was telling candidates “if you didn’t get it banned in 2023, you need to get on in 2024.”
Several Republican presidential candidates have slammed TikTok at their recent debates and criticized Vivek Ramaswamy, the one candidate who has joined the app despite previously referring to it as “digital fentanyl.” He has defended joining TikTok, saying he did it to reach young voters.
Mr. Biden’s re-election campaign team said that it did not need its own TikTok accounts to reach voters.
“The reality is us having an account would not make a substantial difference in what we need to do on TikTok,” said Rob Flaherty, Mr. Biden’s deputy campaign manager and the former White House director of digital strategy. “The most important thing you can do is work through influencers.”
TikTok arrived as a political force during the 2022 midterm campaign, when Senator John Fetterman, Democrat of Pennsylvania, successfully roasted his opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz, in a flurry of cutting videos, and Representative Jeff Jackson, Democrat of North Carolina, used a video filter to make his head look like a piece of broccoli while talking about reaching younger audiences.
Annie Wu Henry, a 27-year-old digital strategist who helped run Mr. Fetterman’s TikTok account in 2022, said his use showcased TikTok’s potential reach and influence. She said she was amazed as she watched clips and memes that Mr. Fetterman’s campaign posted on the app take off “and become actual parts of conversation or picked up by traditional media sources.”
Weeks after the elections, though, Washington’s sentiment toward the company turned sour. The Biden administration, as well as most states, some cities and some college campuses, has barred the app from being used on official devices. Some lawmakers have called for a national ban.
Today, just 7 percent of the 533 Senators and Representatives have verified accounts on TikTok, and some have never posted, according to the analysis by The Times. None are Republican. The few who have joined often post to the app from separate “TikTok phones” because of security concerns, said Mike Nellis, a Democratic digital strategist.
Mr. Jackson is the most popular, with 2.5 million followers, and Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, comes in second, with 1.4 million. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota each have over 200,000 followers.
Ms. Wu said campaigns, including Mr. Biden’s, were potentially leaving major audiences on the table.
“It needs to be figured out, and there’s almost this rush right now of who’s going to do it,” she said.
The White House has tapped into TikTok in the past few years by working with social media stars to promote access to Covid-19 vaccines and to brief viewers on the Russia-Ukraine war and the Inflation Reduction Act. Several stars told The Times they weren’t paid but were eager to participate.
That sort of workaround is expected to be even more popular next year.
“There’s this booming industry under the surface of both agencies and platforms that are helping political organizations, social impact groups and politicians themselves sponsor content on TikTok and partner with creators and influencers to put out messaging,” said Brian Derrick, a political strategist and co-founder of Oath, a platform for guiding donations to Democratic campaigns.
TikTok prohibits paid political ads, including paying creators for endorsements. It doesn’t encourage politicians to join the platform, though it does verify official accounts.
A White House spokesperson, when asked about the use of TikTok, pointed to a rule barring the app from being used on federal devices as of March and declined to comment further.
Harry Sisson, a 21-year-old junior at New York University and a political commentator on TikTok, started posting in 2020, when he was a high school senior, to help Mr. Biden’s campaign for president. He has amassed 700,000 followers.
Mr. Sisson said that in the past year and a half, Democratic groups had offered him more opportunities, including filming voting videos with Mr. Obama and watching the State of the Union at the White House. He wasn’t paid but was thrilled to be involved.
With the White House in particular, he said, “They’ve always stressed, we’re not here to tell you guys what to say, if you disagree with us, we’re not going to be upset.”
Mr. Sisson said he earned money through views on his TikTok videos and accepted some paid collaborations with advocacy groups that he believed in like Planned Parenthood, but his goal was to help elect Democrats.
A.B. Burns-Tucker, 34, is another political content creator who has joined White House briefings. She posts on TikTok as @iamlegallyhype, and has over 700,000 followers. She said her account took off after she made a popular explainer video about the Russia-Ukraine war, which colloquially referred to world leaders as “Big Daddy Biden” and “Big Bad P.” She says she’s now a news source for people who don’t tune in elsewhere.
“I talk about current events with my friends all the time, but most of them are like, ‘Girl, I don’t watch the news, if you don’t tell me I don’t know,’” she said. “I took that and ran with it.”
Ms. Burns-Tucker believes that she has influenced voters, pointing to the approval of a recent Ohio ballot measure that enshrined a right to abortion in the State Constitution. She was paid by Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights to make a TikTok video that urged people to vote for the ballot measure, which aligned with her personal beliefs, she said. “A lot of people in the comment section were like, I didn’t even know, I’ll be in line first thing tomorrow,” she added. The video passed 45,000 views.
People like Mr. Sisson and Ms. Burns-Tucker don’t have a parallel among conservatives, said Amanda Carey Elliott, a digital consultant for Republicans.
Ms. Elliott said that she was firmly against using TikTok based on the party’s stance on China — but that there was also less incentive for Republicans to use it.
“There’s not a huge culture of TikTok influencers on the right — it’s just not the same for us,” she said.
Still, some Republican consultants say the opportunity is too big to pass up. Mr. Wilson, the Republican strategist, has been trying to guide candidates on how to sign up for the app after criticizing it.
“Candidates drive in cars all the time — that doesn’t mean they want cars to be unregulated,” he said. “There’s not necessarily a hypocrisy there if you’re clear about what your position is and how you’re using it.”