TikTok offers opportunities, and risk, for Biden as his campaign reaches out to young voters

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The Biden campaign’s venture onto TikTok has been met with mixed reviews, as some supporters praise the attempt to explore new ways to reach young adults while others insist the account needs to engage on a more substantive level to appear authentic.

The account, created Sunday, has released a dozen posts, a mix of cable news clips bashing former President Donald Trump, jokes about President Joe Biden’s age, a Super Bowl video featuring the Dark Brandon meme and a clip of campaign staffers defending him against special counsel Robert Hur’s comments on his mental acuity.

Supporters of the president’s reelection efforts say the new account is a step in the right direction and offers an outlet to better tout what his administration has accomplished for young people, such as a TikTok featuring a former school principal whose student loans were forgiven through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.

But critics, and some allies, warn that there is a fine line between genuinely engaging with voters and being performative.

“If he is just getting on the platform to share memes, I think he’s going to find tons of pushback and comment sections that are full of people calling him out,” Dakota Hall, executive director of the Alliance for Youth Action, told CNN.

A new source for news

For the Biden campaign, joining the social media site presents the possibility for modest rewards but also high risks. Digital strategists see TikTok as a critical tool for Democratic candidates to reach young voters, a bloc that has soured on Biden amidst rising inflation, concerns about his age and his administration’s response to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

“I think they had to launch one,” said Cate Domino, a senior vice president for digital at Precision Strategies, a Democratic consulting firm. “At this point, TikTok use has grown extremely rapidly, even in the past four years, and to not have a place to contribute to the narrative there would be malpractice.”

Biden won 60% of 18- to 29-year-old voters and 52% of 30- to 44-year-olds in 2020, according to CNN exit poll data. But recent polling has shown his grasp on that bloc slipping. A CNN/SSRS poll released February 1 found Biden winning 49% of 18- to 34-year-olds, compared to 46% who backed Trump.

While only a third of Americans have ever used TikTok, 62% of 18- to 29-year-olds have, according to a survey by Pew Research released last month. Last November, Pew found that 32% of 18- to 29-year-olds regularly get their news from the app.

“The campaign is now on TikTok because frankly that’s where people are,” Biden campaign spokesperson Seth Schuster said in a statement to CNN. “Having a presence on TikTok gives us the chance to maximize the reach of the president’s vision.”

Campaigns have, for the most part, avoided the platform. Republicans have supported banning the app, which is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company, over national security and spying concerns. Biden signed legislation banning the use of TikTok on government devices in 2022.

Those concerns have kept the White House off the app and may have delayed the Biden campaign’s decision to join. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Monday that the ban remains in effect. The campaign has said they are taking “advanced safety precautions” around the app.

Despite security concerns, some politicians have found success on the app. Democratic Rep. Jeff Jackson of North Carolina has amassed 2.5 million followers with his straight-to-camera videos explaining the goings on of Congress. Sen. John Fetterman, a Pennsylvania Democrat, has more than 240,000 followers on his account, which was launched during his 2022 run against Republican Mehmet Oz. The account used memes to bash Oz and paint him as a financially out of touch carpetbagger.

“It’s not a copy and paste formula,” said Annie Wu Henry, a digital communications strategist who ran Fetterman’s account. “It shouldn’t look the same, because you shouldn’t be telling one person to do something that doesn’t feel right or make sense for them.”

Unlike the Fetterman and Jackson accounts, the Biden campaign’s account – Biden-Harris HQ – is not solely focused on the president, who has appeared in less than half of the videos so far. One two-minute TikTok posted Tuesday features communications director Michael Tyler and deputy campaign manager Rob Flaherty defending Biden and blasting press coverage of the Hur report on the president’s handling of classified papers.

The report did not recommend charges against Biden but said the president presented as a “a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” and struggled to recall key details, including the year his son Beau died. The president and his allies have pushed back against what they said were false characterization of Biden’s memory.

“There’s one line in the document that matters: the first one,” Tyler says in the video. “Joe Biden was completely cleared of wrongdoing, and with your help we’ll beat Donald Trump, the lazy media narrative and the MAGA Republicans they’re enabling in November.”

Coming off phony

Some groups supporting the president’s reelection efforts say Biden joining the social media platform is a step in the right direction that could help him better tout what his administration has done for young people.

“It’s a meaningful signal that the Biden campaign acknowledges the power that young voters will have in November and prioritizes engagement with us,” said Jack Lobel, the national press secretary for Voters of Tomorrow.

He added: “Young people have been left out of the political process for decades. So we need to take every route possible to bring them into the process.”

Young voters have expressed their frustrations over Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas conflict and his refusal to support a permanent ceasefire. And as Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris hit the campaign trail, protests have continued to follow them at appearances across the country – and, now, into the comments section.

Ariana Afshar, a 27-year-old California-based content creator with more than 200,000 followers on TikTok, said the campaign’s TikTok doesn’t change the fact that he has refused to support a ceasefire in Gaza. She doesn’t plan on voting for the president.

“This technique would’ve been successful, in my opinion, if he actually listened to young voters,” said. “But he doesn’t, so it’s coming off a bit phony.”

Hours after Biden released his first video on the social media platform, where he weighed in on the Super Bowl and who he’ll support in the upcoming election, Israel carried out military airstrikes in Gaza as part of a hostage rescue mission, killing more than 100 people in Rafah.

Claire Simon, the communications coordinator for Gen-Z for Change, a national youth-led organization that was once known as TikTok for Biden, pointed to the comments as evidence that some saw the strategy as “incredibly tone-deaf.” She pointed to the dozens of comments on the campaign’s first TikTok asking about Rafah.

“It’s really a substance-over-style issue he’s having,” she said. “A lot of young people are pretty unhappy with Biden … a TikTok account isn’t really going to fix that issue for him.”

Facing critics

TikTok’s comment section can be a source for engagement but also a breeding ground for trolls. To date, the Biden campaign’s videos have received comments praising the president, praising Trump, questioning Biden’s mental fitness and calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. The campaign can ignore the spam, but needs to engage with the good faith criticisms, digital strategists say.

“Once you’re on TikTok, you’re in a more one-to-one relationship with supporters,” said Kasey O’Brien, the director of social & texting at Middle Seat, a progressive strategy and consultant firm. “There will be more opportunities for him to expand on and explain his policy positions.”

Creating space for negative feedback could also help the campaign show that it’s listening and taking young voters seriously, Henry said.

“One thing that … young people don’t like is pandering,” she said. “An 18-year-old’s vote is worth the exact same as a 60 year old’s vote.”

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