To Congress, TikTok is a bogeyman. To campaign strategists, it’s absolutely necessary.
The app, which says it has 150 million active users in the country, is one of the most popular social media apps for young people. Those voters, generally under 30, are sometimes credited with turning out in large numbers to bolster Democrats in last year’s midterm elections. And for some Democratic strategists, that’s exactly why campaigns should be on it.
“It would be a malpractice not to be on the platform,” said Paul Bell, senior vice president of digital at Precision Strategies.
Last week, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified before Congress for the first time, where he faced a barrage of criticism from lawmakers. Both Republicans and Democrats raised security concerns about the Chinese-owned tech platform, which collects data from users. Officials are pushing ByteDance, the company that owns the app, to sell the app or risk an outright ban.
It’s unclear if a nationwide ban could be enacted. But as long as TikTok exists, strategists say it’s necessary for campaigns and candidates on the app.
They acknowledge that a presence on TikTok comes with some risks, but as long as campaigns are implementing safeguards — like using a separate phone for the app and not linking it to official campaign emails — it’s one of the best ways of reaching a core demographic. TikTok is not the only security concern a campaign may face, but is one that’s increasingly in the public eye.
Even if a campaign is wary of having an account on the app, there are still other ways to engage. Kasey O’Brien, director of social and texting at Democratic firm Middle Seat, said that tapping influencers to share the campaign’s message could be effective. That’s a strategy that addresses some security concerns, but also practical ones, especially if campaigns lack the resources or knowhow to produce content for the app.
“It’s not so much that you the candidate needs to be on TikTok, but you need to have people who are speaking about you on TikTok and sort of spreading your message,” she said. “If you want your message to get across and to become part of popular discourse, it needs to be where the popular discourse is being created.”
The prospect of a ban is one that has the potential to impact Democratic candidates and campaigns in a substantial way, as Republicans have been less inclined to engage with TikTok.
In last year’s midterm elections, there were more than twice as many Democratic candidate accounts on TikTok compared to Republicans in Senate, House, governor and secretary of state races, according to a study from the Alliance for Securing Democracy.
Much of that has to do with Republicans being more vocal about China’s ownership of the app, said Lindsay Gorman, senior fellow for emerging technologies at the group and co-author of the study. But after last week’s hearing showing bipartisan concerns, Democrats could find themselves “in a tough spot.”
“The longer this uncertainty drags out, especially as it potentially bleeds into the 2024 election season, that’s when we’ll see hard choices among politicians that they’re going to have to make, of if there are voters still on this platform — but we still haven’t resolved the national security concerns, they’ll probably still continue to use it in some fashion,” she said.
The app is critical to a broader strategy, strategists argue, to reach voters who don’t normally consume political content. A recent poll conducted by SocialSphere found that just one-third of Gen Z and millennial users of the app regularly view content about current events or politics. A majority are instead there for entertainment.
“The fundamental goal of all of our digital strategies across these platforms is to get in touch with voters, entice them to think about your campaign and your candidacy, the platforms, the issues that you care about, and then engage them offline,” Bell said. “Voting doesn’t happen on TikTok.”
Eric Wilson, a GOP digital strategist, said Republicans who choose to not engage with TikTok out of principle are missing out on a core demographic.
A post-election survey conducted by the Center for Campaign Innovation, which Wilson is director of, found that 18 percent of Republicans between the ages of 18 and 49 use TikTok daily. That’s compared to 12 percent in that group who use any conservative social media, including Truth Social, Rumble, Parler, Gettr or Gab. Wilson said that the gap of not being on TikTok can be filled by relying on content creators who are. He pointed to influential media personalities like Joe Rogan and Ben Shapiro, whose clips from their podcasts are circulated on TikTok.
“If Republicans don’t engage there at all, we run the risk of missing out on shaping narratives and reaching younger voters and I think that will be a mistake,” Wilson said. “You need to have a presence there. Now, whether it’s the core of your strategy, it shouldn’t be. But at least having positive information flow is a minimum.”
The SocialSphere poll also found that more than half of respondents are concerned about the app’s Chinese ownership, but there’s less of a consensus when it comes to supporting a ban unless the company sells its shares to U.S. operators. Sixty-six percent of Gen Z-ers have a favorable view of the app, as do 46 percent of millennials.
Still, strategists say they’re doubtful the increased governmental scrutiny on the app will change TikTok’s dominance among young people — and thus campaign strategies likely won’t change. What they do hope will change, however, is how digital communications are regulated.
“This also just really points to the need for a much broader set of regulations around data governance and privacy of America where we’re having these conversations about one off apps like Tiktok, because we don’t have an overarching platform as a country, and that’s something that our lawmakers really need to focus on,” said Mark Jablonowski, president of DSPolitical, a digital advertising firm that works with Democratic candidates and causes.
And some lawmakers agree. At last week’s hearing, House Energy and Commerce Ranking Member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) called for Congress to pass privacy legislation that establishes baseline data minimization requirements and provides privacy protections for young people. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.), who recently created her own TikTok account, said that banning the app is “putting the cart before the horse because our first priority should be” passing such legislation. Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), who’s been outspoken about not banning the app, also discussed legislation to deal with social media comprehensively.
Campaigns are reevaluating their balance of spending on platforms as they enter the 2024 cycle, but so far there’s not a massive move away from TikTok — yet.
“That’s the challenge: Youth are still out there using it,” Bell said. “We need to continue to find avenues to engage people who are not engaged in the political process, traditionally, and bring them on to the campaign.”