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TikTok returns to the campaign trail but not everyone thinks it's a good idea

President Biden takes a selfie with supporters during a rally in New York ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
SAUL LOEB
/
AFP via Getty Images
President Biden takes a selfie with supporters during a rally in New York ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.

Updated November 1, 2023 at 8:56 AM ET

Cheyenne Hunt is running for Congress as a 26-year-old, first-time candidate. In a recent TikTok, she leveled with her 91,000 followers: campaigning is hard.

"You learn really quickly that this process can be brutal," Hunt explained. "People will not hesitate to kick you when you're down."

But that's not the point of her video. Instead, it was to showcase a new milestone, her first campaign banner, hanging up in her office.

"Our tiny little office has its first piece of decor," she added, "it just feels really real."

Before choosing to run for Congress, Hunt built up a healthy following on TikTok, breaking down current events and political issues or spotlighting her career as a progressive attorney. Now, with over a year until voters cast ballots in the 2024 general election, the account has morphed into part of her campaign strategy.

"To be able to have conversations with people there, I think, is a critically important skill," Hunt, who is challenging vulnerable Republican Michelle Steele in Orange County, Calif., in a district President Biden won in 2020, told NPR.

"If it's a tool in our tool belt, then I'm absolutely going to use it," she said.

Hunt isn't alone in going from TikTok influencer to candidate. Other young Democrats with large followings have also launched recent campaigns for state and federal offices. Isaiah Martin is a 25-year-old candidate running for Congress in Houston, Tx., hoping to fill Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee's seat as she runs for mayor. Martin, who previously interned for Lee, hasover 98,000 followers.

Averie Bishop, a 27-year-old former Miss Texas, is vying for a seat in Texas' state House. She has over 836,000 followers.

Bishop, Martin and Hunt are part of a trend coming more than three years after TikTok dramatically rose in popularity across the U.S., notably among younger Americans.

But while some first-time, grassroots candidates only know a political playing field that includes TikTok, uncertainty lingers over the best way for national Democrats to embrace it. Especially when the vast majority of the party isn't on the platform.

Plus, as potential national security concerns remain over the Chinese company ByteDance, which owns TikTok, an official presence from the White House is missing. The app is banned on government devices. And as President Biden runs for reelection, his campaign is mirroring his administration in staying away.

Strategy from the top

Though with TikTok remaining in the mainstream and becoming an essential part of some new candidates' 2024 playbook, incumbent Democrats are looking for workarounds as they engage with voters online, especially among millennial and Gen Z voters who will make up nearly half the electorate next year.

"Whether or not we have a TikTok account for the campaign doesn't actually have much bearing on the strategy that we would execute," explained Rob Flaherty, Biden's Deputy Campaign Manager and previous White House director of digital strategy.

Instead, the solution remains expanding the Biden influencer network, Flaherty said.

"If you could tell me I had a choice between an account that was producing owned content or 100 accounts that were people saying good things about Joe Biden on TikTok," he said, "I would take 100 people saying good things about Joe Biden on TikTok a million times out of a million."

Throughout Biden's first term, the White House has metwith young influencers and content creators who have sizable followings on social media platforms, including TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, holding briefings and inviting creators to events that promote policy wins.

Now, the reelection campaign plans to build upon that approach – and its reach in 2020 with influencers – increasing work with nationally known figures and more regional and local accounts.

That updated strategy comes after noticeable changes to the president's social media presence over the past year, and Flaherty can admit that TikTok's cultural influence plays a role in that.

"You don't want to seem like we are trying too hard to co-opt youth culture, right?" Flaherty said. "The thing that we always kind of need to work through is how do we communicate in ways that are authentic to [Biden's] voice, that also sort of overlap with the way that young people are talking on the internet."

Though they operate separately, the White House and the campaign both post their videos in vertical formats suitable for mobile devices. When Biden first announced his reelection campaign, the video was released in vertical format on Instagram and X, the website formerly known as Twitter.

Plus – the campaign has dabbled in popularized internet trends, notably leaning in on the 'Dark Brandon' meme.

"Certainly, the "meme-ification" of all of it is a factor," Flaherty added, "if you're a person sitting in my position, a grassroots-driven meme campaign about how effective Joe Biden is, is the kind of thing that you know, a million dollars in ads could never buy."

Still, others chart a different course

By NPR's estimate, less than .05% of Congress has either a congressional or a campaign TikTok account that has posted within the last 30 days. No Republican from either chamber has an active, verified account on the platform.

Digital strategists argue that audiences on TikTok crave posts that push away from traditional political norms.

"Not just repurposing our ads, not just taking a tweet and sharing it there,"said Annie Wu, who helped lead Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman's social media strategy in 2022. "But making content in a way that people like to consume content on that platform, which is engaging and entertaining."

Wu ran Fetterman's TikTok account leading up to the midterm election. It featured a mix of comedic videos adopting trends of the time and more serious posts where Fetterman would speak directly to the camera.

Videos wracked anywhere from several hundred thousand to millions of views. After a break since assuming office, the account, which has 245,000 followers, is starting to post again with a similar style.

Now, other elected officials in both the House and Senate are dabbling in TikTok as part of a larger communications strategy. A recent video from Rep. Robert Garcia, D-Calif., poked fun at Republican infighting over whether to allow then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to keep his job.

For Rep. Jeff Jackson, D-N.C., his TikTok presence is more direct and simple. And it's working.

"It's the number one thing that I hear from my constituents when I home," the first-term congressman, who is now launching a bid for state Attorney General, said.

Jackson made an account in 2021 as a state representative and kept posting throughout his run for Congress. His following has increased eightfold compared to when he joined the House. It stands at 2.4 million, the most of any lawmaker on Capitol Hill.

Now, when he's back in his district in Charlotte, people approach him to talk about TikTok. A few months ago, it happened while at the movies with his daughter.

"We were getting popcorn, and the 17-year-old kid handing me the popcorn said, 'Hey, you know what you said about Speaker McCarthy...I thought that was really interesting," he explained, referring to the GOP infighting around debt ceiling negotiations last spring.

The video mirrors his other posts, which reflect on and explain the biggest current events unfolding in Congress. This one has more than 6 million views.

"That's supposed to be impossible," he added, "that you would be able to reach someone that age with a message that nuanced about something in political news."

For Jackson, engaging with constituents on social media is now part of his responsibilities in Congress. And he thinks others should follow suit.

"That's what our constituents want from us," Jackson said. "They've made it very clear that they expect this from me at this point. So I don't really think of this as political gain or loss. I just think of this as part of my weekly job," he added.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elena Moore is a production assistant for the NPR Politics Podcast. She also fills in as a reporter for the NewsDesk. Moore previously worked as a production assistant for Morning Edition. During the 2020 presidential campaign, she worked for the Washington Desk as an editorial assistant, doing both research and reporting. Before coming to NPR, Moore worked at NBC News. She is a graduate of The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and is originally and proudly from Brooklyn, N.Y.