Pro-Biden creators say that in light of Trump’s announcement, they will continue to post on TikTok, but they’re also testing out the waters on other platforms, cross-posting on alternative short-form video apps such as Dubsmash and Triller.
“We’ll see where the energy goes, but it’s going somewhere,” said Misha Leybovich, founder of Bigtent Creative, a left-leaning digital production company. “Trump can’t ban short form video.”
Although scrutiny around the short-form video app has increased in Washington in recent weeks, and the Biden campaign itself has instructed its staff to delete the app from their personal and work phones due to security concerns, content created by unaffiliated organizers is still flying, from “Malarkey” meters to graphics with animated confetti that falls around Biden’s name.
Security analysts have voiced concerns over the app’s safety, given that TikTok is owned by a Chinese company and reportedly collects users’ location and metadata.
“There have been bipartisan concerns, including by Sen. Chuck Schumer, related to TikTok, really focused on two issues: counterintelligence and censorship,” CNN national security analyst Samantha Vinograd said.
She noted that under a 2017 law, Chinese companies are required to disclose user data to the Chinese government.
The Washington Post reported in September that the app didn’t appear to feature content related to the pro-democracy protests taking place in Hong Kong. Schumer, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, among others, later questioned whether TikTok had censored Hong Kong-related content and the app’s ties to the Chinese government.
For its part, TikTok has pushed back against security concerns, calling them “unfounded.” The app, which is especially popular among members of Gen Z, has soared in downloads in recent months.
“We’re not planning on going anywhere,” Pappas said in the video. “When it comes to safety and security, we’re building the safest app because we know it’s the right thing to do … We’re here for the long run. Continue to share your voice here and let’s stand for TikTok.”
Content creators also shrug off the concerns. “It’s pretty funny to me that we have these security concerns, this, that, whatever,” said Matt Rein, 23, of Democrat Hype House, an outside organizing group that creates pro-Democratic content on TikTok. “The only reason why TikTok is being targeted in this specific fashion is because it’s a Chinese company, God forbid. Deleting TikTok, I think that’s kind of stupid.”
Trump’s Friday announcement that he would ban the app in the US was aimed at resolving policymakers’ concerns that the foreign-owned TikTok may be a national security risk, and the US government is conducting a national security review of TikTok in preparation of making a policy recommendation to Trump, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters last week at the White House.
Trump on Monday softened on his position, saying that TikTok has until September 15 to sell to a US based company, failing which he would shut down the app. He added a stipulation that the sale can only go through if the US Treasury gets a cut of the deal. Microsoft is in talks to buy TikTok from its Chinese owners ByteDance; it is committed to a complete security review of TikTok before a potential purchase.
Some young people think there is more than security concerns behind the president’s decision. “I’m angered that Trump believes he has that power. A company created a popular product and he should not be controlling the market like that. Also, we all know in part it’s just because he’s angry that TikTok was used in part to make his rallies look bad,” Grace Naquin, 19, said, pointing to TikTok users’ previous efforts to reserve tickets at Trump campaign rallies and then not show up.
Mobilizing young voters via TikTok
A number of young Democratic voters said that when they go to the polls this November, they may not be voting for their initial favorite contender.
“It’s no secret that Biden was definitely not the leader in terms of youth support,” Naquin said, noting that for most young people, among the primary candidates, Biden wasn’t their first choice.
Young voters did not unite behind Biden in the primaries. In February, for example, about 50% of young people voted for Bernie Sanders in the New Hampshire primary. In the March primaries, Biden lost the youth vote again to Sen. Sanders, in Florida and Illinois, by double digits.
Democratic organizers believe that if a growing number of 18-25-year-olds are on TikTok, their digital efforts need to be there too.
More than 15 million young people have turned 18 since the last presidential election, and this November, one in 10 eligible voters will be between the ages of 18 and 23, according to the Pew Research Center.
While young people, like everyone else, are generally not single issue voters, TikTokers were up in arms with anti-Trump messaging on the app following his announcement.
In a post following Trump’s announcement, TikToker @itsjohnwalsh dressed up as Trump and said, “Those people are on TikTok making fun of me” as a “reason to ban the app.”
“I’m going to put TikTok on notice. You have 45 days to make a deal, and I’m the best deal maker there is, so I know,” Walsh said in the satirical video.
In a post back in July, Walsh dressed up as Biden and made a fake ad for Biden, positioning Biden as the pro-TikTok president.
“If you want to save TikTok, vote for Joe,” the video says.
Groups such as the Biden Digital Coalition, Democracy Hype House, and Bigtent Creative recognize the opportunity to engage with this swath of the 2020 electorate on apps such as TikTok. While they each approach organizing on TikTok differently, they all strive to harness support for Biden this November.
Research from CIRCLE at Tufts University demonstrates that young people hear about the election most from their peers, and organizers from each of these digital groups have targeted their outreach accordingly.
“Millennials and Gen Z are more influenced by their peers than any previous generation,” Zach Fang, who formerly worked for both Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang, said. “They trust their peers, they trust their generation. So knowing that, and also knowing that [TikTok] is where they spend their time… we’re reaching them in a way that they’re receptive to, we’re reaching them where they’re spending their time.”
Fang, who said he currently volunteers for both the Biden Digital Coalition and is a consultant for Bigtent Creative added, “I don’t think you can make an argument that’s any better use of time or money than investing it on [creating content on TikTok].”
The Biden Digital Coalition was built by former volunteers for the Pete Buttigieg campaign. After the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor dropped out of the race and endorsed Biden, much of his army of young supporters came with him. Naquin, who was formerly part of Students for Buttigieg, joined the Biden Digital Coalition as a leader within the group’s Youth Coalition. She’s now a part of the Biden Digital Coalition’s hypehouse on TikTok, @bidencoalition, along with Zach Fang, Olivia Sullivan and Mary Jo Laupp.
While the Biden Digital Coalition says they will remain active on TikTok, Trump’s announcement last week made them to try other apps, including Triller. Sullivan made a Triller Sunday night and Fang said the BDC might go to Dubsmash, too. Both Triller and Dubsmash are short form video platforms alternative to TikTok.
According to Naquin, while young liberal voters may be ambivalent about Biden as a candidate, the energy from young people to elect Trump out of office is strong, even on TikTok.
“I would say it’s much more anti-Trump,” Naquin said, adding that, “there’s a lot of people on TikTok who are like settling for Biden, so to speak.”
In a TikTok posted on the Coalition’s hype house, Sullivan expresses that while reasons to vote for Biden include “a plan for climate change,” “he supports (Black Lives Matter),” and “foreign policy experience,” she concludes by underscoring: “Because Trump is the worst.”
Anti-Trump content has found its audience on TikTok, with creators both young and old speaking out against Trump on the app.
In June, 51-year-old Mary Jo Laupp organized a “no-show protest” ahead of Trump’s Tulsa rally where TikTokers reserved tickets to the rally with no intention of attending the rally to disappoint the campaign with attendee turnout numbers.
Laupp, famously known as “TikTok Grandma,” joined the Biden Digital Coalition shortly thereafter.
As a mother, grandmother, former teacher, and wife of a youth pastor, she believes organizing on TikTok works because it’s youth driven and young people listen to their peers, she said.
“I think it’s important that young voters feel really in the process so that they could bring along their friends because it’s their energy and excitement that’s going to convince their peers to vote,” Laupp said. “The number one result of the rally was that GenZ feels so motivated and so ready to rock,” she added, speaking to the enthusiasm around protesting Trump’s rally in Tulsa, when she made her big debut on the app.
While the anti-Trump rhetoric on TikTok is strong, there is also a movement for Trump on the app, including groups such as Conservative Hype House, Republican Hype House and The MagaHouse.
There is often conversation between pro-Biden TikTokers and Trump fans who respond to each other directly on the app.
TikTok may be uncharted political territory, but there’s a low barrier to entry
“Digital organizing is the new frontier,” Naquin said, speaking to the experimental nature of the Biden Digital Coalition. “Sometimes things flop and that’s OK… there’s no consequences if something doesn’t work for us.”
Leybovich, a former McKinsey consultant and MIT graduate, says his goal at the end of the day is to encourage voter turnout, and more specifically, to “vote Trump out of office and vote pro-lefty things,” he said. In threatening the ban on TikTok, Leybovich said, “Trump has succeeded in pissing off a lot of people that maybe before wouldn’t have been as political and maybe now are more so.”
Bigtent Creative is not tied to Biden in any official capacity; the group mainly spreads the word about voter registration, voting in general and anything anti-Trump.
Nia Stanford, a micro-influencer with over 270,000 followers on the app, posts content about “blackness, queerness,” and short form raps, “some of which have been politically motivated,” she said. Stanford is part of a niche community on the app focused on Black Lives Matter activism and explained that she takes to TikTok to post about her life, which, according to her, is itself “inherently political.”
Recently, Stanford posted about Trump’s pardoning record. She worked with Bigtent to come up with the idea for the post.
Organizers including Stanford, Fang, and Laupp shared that a benefit of digital organizing, especially on TikTok, is that it empowers creators and allows people to engage in political advocacy work who may have never had the opportunity to do so otherwise.
“Having TikTok as a resource is an opportunity,” Stanford said. “It’s important to note that this is a rarity and this app is actually effectively changing peoples’ perceptions. … There’s a lot of discourse on TikTok.”
Following Trump’s potential ban, Stanford said she feels that people don’t understand the way TikTok is used to build community and enact social change enabling those who weren’t previously welcomed into political conversations to join in online.
The Biden campaign relies on outside organizers to engage voters on TikTok
Given the Biden campaign’s privately expressed concerns around TikTok, it does not have an official presence on the app, nor does it coordinate with any outside organizers who use it to rally voters for the presumptive Democratic nominee. But it doesn’t try to stop them, either.
“It’s important that we’re reaching voters wherever they are. So that includes Facebook and Instagram, of course, but also channels like TikTok. It’s worth noting here that we don’t have an official account like we do on other social media channels,” a Biden campaign official said.
Instead, the campaign works with an army of 11,000 volunteer digital organizers who share content across social media platforms like Instagram, TikTok, Facebook and Pinterest created by both the campaign and volunteer content creators. The volunteer content creators are given free reign to submit content within the framework of a branding guide that includes the campaign’s color scheme and general messaging, which is then approved by Ben Cobley, the campaign’s digital community manager. In an almost entirely digital era forced by the pandemic, digital organizing has become the era’s version of door-knocking.
“For the most part, though, it is very much organic. We want [content creators] to be invested in the campaign and by giving them the ability to create on their own, that is usually the best way for them to feel bought in,” Cobley told CNN.
Cobley’s goal with the content created and shared by volunteers is to counteract the messaging of Biden’s general election opponent.
“Everybody talks about Donald Trump’s presence on social media and how he represents the darker side of the internet, the mean, the bullying, things like that. I’ve always wanted to make sure that our volunteers, especially the ones that I interact with, embrace a more positive side because we want to we want to follow Joe’s code, we want to be empathetic, we want to be joyful, we want to counter that darkness with some light, with some empathy,” Cobley said.