Analysis: US election: turning off TikTok is a big risk for the Democrats

Thomas Gift
Thomas Gift

Dr Thomas Gift (UCL Political Science) explores what further regulation of TikTok might mean for the Democratic party in this election year in The Conversation.

Popular social media platform TikTok  stands accused  of holding US data in China, fostering censorship, and spreading disinformation. Its popularity poses a dilemma for US politicians, but especially Democrats who have heavily relied on the app to reach its core base of young voters.

Is it " time up " for TikTok in the US? And will it be the Democrats’ own leader, President Joe Biden, who ultimately decides to close down the platform heading into the 2024 elections?

On March 13 the US House of Representatives  voted  352 to 65 to order TikTok’s parent company, Beijing-based  ByteDance , to sell the app (which is believed to have 150 million US users) or else face prohibition in the US over its  alleged links to the Chinese Communist party.

The bill follows  reports  that TikTok’s American executives are already exploring options for voluntarily splitting with ByteDance in a preemptive move to avoid regulatory scrutiny.

Although the bipartisan bill is by no means guaranteed to pass the Senate - where Democrat majority leader Chuck Schumer has  not committed  to bring it to a vote on the floor - Biden has said  he would sign the proposal  if it comes to his desk.

The campaign implications of this loom large. Many Democrats fear that banning TikTok in the lead-up to the election would be a self-inflicted political disaster, particularly when it comes to courting young voters.

One consultant  called  the Democrats "politically insane" for putting TikTok in jeopardy. And US commerce secretary Gina Raimondo  speculated  that blocking TikTok would lead to Democrats to "literally lose every voter under 35, forever".

The impact of losing even a few marginal percentage points of votes from the under 35 crowd matters.

Young voters were  pivotal  in elevating Biden to the White House in 2020. However, some  polling  shows Biden lagging behind former president Donald Trump among gen-Z and young millenials.

In recent months, Democratic party operatives have not-so-quietly invested enormously into voter outreach on TikTok, in the hopes of shoring up the youth vote. The Biden campaign account, @BidenHQ, has more than  266,000 followers  and @thedemocrats has over  529,000 .

The overwhelmingly young, progressive user base is likely to resent the government taking away their favourite app. A ban could also severely limit the Democratic party’s ability to  connect with younger voters  through advertising and other forms of engagement.

The Biden campaign, the Democratic National Committee and Democrat-aligned groups have spent millions of dollars  courting influencers  who appear on TikTok and other social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. Recently, the White House even hosted a star-studded gala for hundreds of would-be digital leaders.

Beyond Biden, many of the Democratic party’s most visible rising stars - such as  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez , who has more than 900,000 followers on TikTok - use the app to communicate with their constitutents and fans. Similarly, US transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg  has made a name for himself  on TikTok for his viral take-down videos of Fox News hosts.

Data from non-partisan organisation Pew Research  shows that the number of voters aged 18-29 who get their news from TikTok has jumped to 32%, a more than threefold increase since the 2020 election. Additionally, a  poll by NBC  found that young TikTok users skew Democrat over Republican by a margin of 47% to 30%.

Trump makes a U-turn

Biden’s position on TikTok has not gone unremarked on by his rival, who’s tried to exploit the controversy for political gain. In 2020, Trump proposed an executive order to outlaw the app in the US, which was  rejected  by a federal judge. But now the former president is  embracing it.

According to reports, that could be partially due the lobbying efforts of  influential Republican donor Jeff Yass , whose investment firm owns an  estimated 15% of ByteDance. Yet it’s also likely to be due to Trump perceiving an opportunity to peel off young voters from Democrats.

"Frankly, there are a lot of people on TikTok that love it," Trump  declared  in a recent interview. "There are a lot of young kids on TikTok who will go crazy without it."

Even if Democrats have been more aggressive in leveraging TikTok, Republicans have made inroads in countering this appeal. This includes Trump  cosying up  to Libs of TikTok and the Babylon Bee, two popular pro-Trump social media influencers.

Election timing

A potential forced divestment of TikTok could land right in the heat of the 2024 election season. If Biden were to sign the legislation, ByteDance would be  granted six months to identify a purchaser. A ban could be put in place as early as October of this year, with the election slated for November 5.

Democrats may be calculating that the odds of a sale not going through are low. For example, former US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has already  announced  that he’s convening an investor group prepared to buy TikTok if it goes on the market.

Still, the mere act of putting at risk a platform that millions of young voters use for hours of every day can only have political downsides.

The closure of TikTok would boost demand for other social media platforms, as users search for substitutes. Trump, for example, has  lamented  that banning TikTok would "make Facebook bigger".

This would force Democrats to rethink their strategies, to build new followings, and to repackage their messaging for alternative apps. Yet divergent demographics of user bases would ensure that it wouldn’t be a perfect, one-to-one transition.

For instance, according to the research firm  Insider Intelligence , roughly a quarter of Facebook users are between the ages of 18 to 34. On TikTok it’s almost half.

Biden may well perceive that the national security threats posed by TikTok are too steep a price to accept its continuation as it is. But whether he will push ahead with closing down TikTok ahead of November is - like the election result - hard to call.

This article was originally published in The Conversation  on 21 March 2024.

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