Three years ago, TikTok imposed strict rules prohibiting campaign advertising as the video-sharing app tried to avoid the scandals over political content that have long dogged its social media rivals.
But with Election Day fast approaching, TikTok can’t manage to stay on the sidelines.
As Washington wavers on TikTok, Beijing exerts control
Nearly 30 percent of all major-party candidates in Senate races have TikTok accounts, and one-fifth of all major-party House candidates have an account on the platform, according to a new analysis from the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a U.S.-based nonprofit group that examines efforts by foreign nations to interfere in democratic institutions.
Democrats have been more likely to embrace the app, with 34 percent of candidates in Senate, House, governor and secretary of state races having TikTok accounts, according to the report. But 12 percent of Republican candidates in the same races also have TikTok accounts, the report says.
The majority of candidates mentioned in the ASD report have created their accounts since 2020, when very few politicians were on TikTok.
A Washington Post review of what appears on TikTok from these accounts shows that politicians are still learning how best to use the app. Some clips attack their opponents or feature cameos from celebrity supporters. Others encourage young people to vote.
In one video that has been viewed more than a million times, the campaign of Democratic Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman pokes fun at his opponent, Republican Mehmet Oz, for shopping for asparagus and salsa, using a popular audio clip of a British broadcaster saying, “What on earth is happening in the House of Commons?”
In another video that garnered slightly over 10,000 views, North Carolina state Sen. Jeff Jackson (D) appears using a video filter that turned his face into a head of broccoli, saying, “Politics is very serious business.”
But other candidates’ posts are more similar to videos they might share on more traditional social media like Facebook and Twitter. A recent video on Oz’s TikTok showed him at a gas station, criticizing President Biden’s economic agenda.
Democrats outreach to TikTok: A trip to D.C., a private chat with Obama and an hour with Biden
Even though politicians are still figuring out how to harness the app’s power, their increased presence signals that TikTok could play a bigger role in future U.S. elections. That’s worrying to some national security and social media experts alike, who say the app isn’t as prepared as other social networks to spot misinformation.
“It’s very clear that TikTok is not ready for the onslaught of political content,” said Lindsay Gorman, a senior fellow at ASD and a former senior adviser in the Biden White House. “And there’s a question whether TikTok — being owned by a Chinese company — can ever really be ready for handling U.S. political content responsibly.”
She recalled the Russian use of Facebook in the 2016 election, when Russian agents bought ads in rubles and organized a dirty-tricks campaign on the social network that wasn’t really understood until after Donald Trump was sworn in as president.
“If Russia had owned Facebook during 2016, the amount of influence that Russia could have exerted on American voters might have made that effort much, much more successful,” Gorman said. “That’s the vulnerability that we’re talking about with TikTok. … And that vulnerability is too big to tolerate.”
But it’s becoming difficult for politicians to ignore TikTok as it increasingly shapes culture and media. It is the fastest-growing social media app, with more than 100 million users in the United States. Ten percent of all U.S. adults now regularly get news from the app, according to a study from the Pew Research Center.
How TikTok ate the internet
TikTok has announced multiple new policies and initiatives to prepare for the midterm elections, which include adding labels on political content that connects people to an Election Center, which is intended to counter misinformation. TikTok spokesman Ben Rathe said that the company takes “our responsibility to protect the integrity of our platform and elections with utmost seriousness.”
“We continue to invest in our policy, safety and security teams to counter election misinformation and verify accounts of politicians in the U.S.,” he said.
The surge of candidates has tested TikTok’s ability to carry out its own policies requiring, for example, that political accounts be verified, to prevent impersonation. ASD researchers found that the app had verified only 40 of the 227 accounts associated with politicians that ASD catalogued in its report.
It also has a mixed record as it decides which potentially rule-breaking posts to leave up or take down during a heated campaign season.
Fetterman began using TikTok in August, successfully building an audience of about 140,000. In early October, however, TikTok suddenly began banning Fetterman’s content. Five videos were removed for violating the platform’s policies, but the videos were benign and didn’t contain any violative content. Within 24 hours, TikTok reversed the decision and reinstated the videos, but the dust-up showed the volatile nature of building an audience on the app.
And in another recent experiment, TikTok failed to detect 90 percent of ads featuring false and misleading messages about the election, according to researchers at the watchdog group Global Witness and the Cybersecurity for Democracy team at the New York University Tandon School of Engineering.
The findings follow a Mozilla report released in 2021 that found more than a dozen examples of influencers posting on behalf of political organizations without disclosing they’d been paid to do so. TikTok prohibits advertisements that promote a particular political candidate, government leader, or a stance for or against an “issue of public importance” and also bars creators from being paid by outside groups to produce such videos.
The Technology 202: Influencers are evading TikTok’s political ad ban, researchers say
Last week, Reps. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) and Lori Trahan (D-Mass.) sent a letter to TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew, demanding a briefing about its ability to curb misinformation and potential incitement of violence ahead of the 2022 and 2024 elections.
“We believe that TikTok needs to be more transparent about how the platform’s automated and human systems flag and remove content, and the effectiveness of their systems, especially regarding content related to the Midterm Elections,” the lawmakers wrote.
Misinformation is also evident on the site. Large TikTok influencers, such as the Republican Hype House, a right-wing content collective, and other right-wing influencers have had their accounts suspended and, in some cases, permanently deactivated for promoting election fraud conspiracies and anti-vaccine messaging, but only after those videos racked up thousands of views.
The White House is briefing TikTok stars about the war in Ukraine
“TikTok is absolutely grappling with the same issues” as other social media sites, said Samuel Woolley, program director of the propaganda research team at the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. “They tried to take more of a hard-line policy against disinformation but they have nothing like the staff and capacity and experience that you see at companies like [Facebook parent company] Meta and [Google parent company] Alphabet for dealing with these kinds of things.”
For Democrats, though, the TikTok demographic might prove crucial in the party’s battle to maintain its majority in Congress. That’s one reason NextGen America, a progressive political action committee founded by billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, who briefly ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, has worked with influencers to target young people.
“There’s no way that we can be a youth organization trying to reach young people and not be on TikTok,” said NextGen America president Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez.
The Democratic National Committee also has embraced TikTok, recently organizing a trip to Washington for influencers to meet with their campaign arms and take videos with former president Barack Obama. The group also met with Biden in the Oval Office.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party has resisted such efforts. “We do not have any plans to give the Chinese Communist Party our data, nor do we plan to use their spyware,” Republican National Committee spokesman Nathan Brand said.
TikTok officials consistently deny that the Chinese government has pressured them for data on its users and say that if asked to do, so they would refuse.