US ban on TikTok would rob Biden, Democrats of 2024 election tool

By Thomson Reuters Mar 14, 2024 | 4:02 AM

By Nandita Bose, Helen Coster and Heather Timmons

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – If President Joe Biden keeps his promise to sign a ban on TikTok over its ties to the Chinese government, the 81-year-old may rob his reelection campaign of a platform that he and fellow Democrats rely on to reach younger voters.

Biden’s campaign got thousands of “likes” on Tuesday for a TikTok video skewering Republican rival Donald Trump about cutting Social Security spending. But the comments were focused on another issue altogether: the proposed ban.

“Good thing we saw this on TikTok,” said one. “How are you going to use this to campaign if you ban it?” asked another.

House Republicans voted Wednesday to force TikTok’s Chinese owner ByteDance to divest its 170 million user U.S. business, or face a ban. If the Senate passes the bill, as the White House urges, Biden has pledged to sign it.

But the 2024 campaign is shaping up to be close, and Democratic-leaning U.S. political discourse online has shifted to TikTok in recent years, political strategists say. They note that X, formerly Twitter, has cut back on harassment curbs under owner Elon Musk while Facebook moved away from political content while the short-form video site is the platform of choice for a new generation of politically engaged Americans.

TikTok’s users belong disproportionately to groups that vote reliably for Democrats, which Biden needs to woo. Trump’s campaign does not have an official TikTok account.

Roughly 60% of TikTok’s regular U.S. news consumers are Democrats or Democrat-leaning, according to a 2023 study from the Pew Research Center. Nineteen percent of TikTok’s news consumers are Black, and 30% are Hispanic, versus about 14% and 19% of the general U.S. population, respectively. About 44% of news consumers on TikTok are between ages 18 and 29.

Banning TikTok risks “displacing a large part of the electorate from the ability to communicate…meaningfully about politics at a time when a highly contentious election is about to occur,” said Samuel Woolley, journalism professor and director of the University of Texas at Austin’s propaganda research lab.

“We voted Joe Biden in through social media, through the power of TikTok,” said NaomiHearts, a self-described Chicana trans woman with 1.1 million followers on TikTok, noting that youth voter participation hit a record in 2020. “Why just TikTok?”

A ban would take away young voters “favorite social media app where they get their news, where they follow their favorite people where they get entertainment, where they’re allowed to basically escape,” said Dr. Anthony Youn, a plastic surgeon with 8.4 million TikTok followers.

The measure is the latest in a series of moves in Washington to respond to national security concerns about China, from connected vehicles to artificial intelligence to cranes at U.S. ports.

“This is a critical national security issue,” No. 2 House Republican Steve Scalise said on social media platform X.

TikTok denies sharing any user data with China and says the ban would deprive Americans of their Constitutional right to free expression.


Biden’s reelection campaign joined TikTok in February, using the NFL’s Super Bowl to kick off its new account to reach young voters ahead of the presidential election in November.

The campaign’s account, @BidenHQ had 237,500 followers as of March 13, while @thedemocrats had over half a million.

The White House briefed over 70 influencers and content creators on TikTok and other social media platforms with a combined audience of over 100 million followers, on topics like student debt and economic issues ahead of the president’s State of the Union address to amplify his message.

“We are not concerned about the impact” of a ban on Biden’s reelection chances, said a top White House official. “There are lots of twists and turns before anything ends up happening here,” because Trump is opposed to the bill, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has not committed to bringing it on the floor.

A second White House official said: “National security concerns outweigh how anyone is feeling.”

“The president is not thinking of national security based on reviews from users on whether they are happy or not on TikTok or any other platform,” the official said.

Federal employees are banned from having TikTok on their phones, so Biden administration staff are not allowed to have the app on their work phones.

Biden’s campaign staff workers are not employed by the government and do not deal with national security issues, so they are allowed to have TikTok on their phones, said one source briefed on the issue.

But most campaign staffers in frequent contact with the White House have two phones. Just one engages with TikTok in order to isolate using the app from other workstreams and communications, including emails, the source said.

The White House has previously cited concerns about TikTok’s preservation of data and potential misuse of that data and privacy information by foreign actors.”We’re taking the security precautions necessary to make sure no data is getting into the wrong hands,” the source said.

The campaign is trying to reach people “where they are,” the source added. “We’ll see what happens in the Senate, and we’re far away from any decision on this. It’s wait-and-see mode for everybody.”

(Reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington, Helen Coster in New York, Shelia Dang in Austin, Danielle Broadway in Los Angeles and Heather Timmons. Writing by Heather Timmons; Editing by David Gregorio)