Wade Herring didn’t know the teenage voter who approached him at a restaurant over the weekend. But she knew Herring, a Democrat running for Congress in Georgia, from his campaign videos on TikTok.
To Herring, a 63-year-old Savannah attorney, it was proof of TikTok’s precision-guided ability to reach young voters — the very reason why he and candidates from both parties have eagerly embraced the platform ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
“A year and a half ago, I thought it was just dancing videos,” Herring said of TikTok. Young voters, he added, “aren’t watching CNN, or MSNBC or Fox. They’re getting their information on TikTok, and for better or worse, it’s the way to reach them.”
For a number of government officials, it’s worse.
TikTok’s popularity has surged despite worries from policy makers in Washington about TikTok’s handling of user data and misinformation, as well as its ties to China’s government. Those fears prompted the U.S. armed forces to prohibit the app on military devices, and spurred calls to ban it on all government computers and phones as well.
“I have serious concerns about the opportunities that the Chinese communist party has to access TikTok’s data on American users,” Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, said at a hearing this month focused on the national security implications of social media.
Still, its reach is undeniable. TikTok is consumed by two-thirds of American teens, a number that has risen as other platforms have lost popularity. It’s the world’s most downloaded app, and the second-most visited website after Google. And it’s not just about viral dance challenges anymore, but also a place to shop, learn about beauty, fashion or sports, and even find out how to register to vote.
The benefits of using the platform are simply too great to pass up even with concerns about TikTok as a conduit for misinformation or exploiting privacy.
“People are going to use it. It’s a highly effective tool,” said Colton Hess, who created Tok the Vote, a 2020 voter registration and engagement effort that reached tens of millions of young voters. “As long as that’s the game in play, you have to be in the arena.”
TikTok is owned by ByteDance Ltd., a Chinese company that moved to new headquarters in Singapore in 2020. Questions about the company’s ties to the Chinese government have hounded TikTok even as its popularity exploded.
At the Senate hearing earlier this month, members of both parties questioned a TikTok executive about the influence of government officials in China, and whether that country’s authoritarian leaders have control over the platform’s data and content.
TikTok Chief Operating Officer Vanessa Pappas, based in Los Angeles, said the company protects all data from American users and that Chinese government officials have no access to it.
“We will never share data, period,” Pappas said.
TikTok also says it works to stop the flow of harmful misinformation and has created an election center to help users find information about U.S. elections, voting and candidates.
The platform’s defenders also note that TikTok isn’t the only site criticized for failing to stop misinformation. Its rivals — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube — face their own challenges regarding data privacy too.
A report released this month from New York University faulted all four of those platforms plus TikTok for amplifying former President Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. The study cited inconsistent rules regarding misinformation as well as poor enforcement.
“While TikTok has these very strong sounding policies, the enforcement is extremely erratic,” said Paul Barrett, the professor and researcher who led the study.
Another study this month by NewsGuard, a firm that monitors online misinformation, found that nearly 1 in 5 TikTok videos about key news events contained misinformation. The videos focused on topics like COVID-19, the 2020 election, Russia’s war in Ukraine and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
TikTok’s ties to China set it apart from other platforms, according to Geoffrey Cain, a senior fellow at the Lincoln Network, a conservative-leaning think tank that studies technology policy. The country’s leaders have shown a willingness to spread disinformation that undermines the West, he said, and it would be foolish to think they haven’t tried to enlist TikTok in this work.
“This is not the Cold War where we had hardware, where we had missiles pointed at each other,” Cain said. “Now we have smart phones.”
TikTok is not available in China. Instead, the platform’s parent company offers a similar platform that has the same dance videos, but also promotes educational content about math and science, experts told lawmakers at the recent Senate hearing. Another difference: the Chinese version limits 13- and 14-year-old users to 40 minutes a day. No such limits are included in the U.S. version, which prohibits users under 13.
Concerned about China’s influence over TikTok, the Trump administration in 2020 threatened to ban the app within the U.S. and pressured ByteDance to sell TikTok to a U.S. company. U.S. officials and the company are now in talks over a possible agreement that would resolve American security concerns.
Sen. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, helped write the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act when he served in the House, and supports new regulations for data collection and marketing to children that he says will make platforms like TikTok safer.
He’s not waiting for those changes to happen before using the platform, however. Markey emerged as an unlikely TikTok sensation in 2020 when his videos were credited with helping him defeat a primary challenge from former Rep. Joe Kennedy.
“I feel lucky to join them online in pursuit of a better future and a livable planet,” Markey said of young voters, who he said are especially concerned about climate change and other environmental challenges.
While the right video can reach hundreds of thousands or even millions of viewers, TikTok also works in reverse, giving politicians and advocacy groups a window into the concerns of millions of young Americans whose political influence will only grow, according to Ellen Sciales, director of communications for the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led organization that works to address climate change.
“It’s young people talking to other young people. It’s meeting them where they’re at,” said Sciales, 25.
Younger voters will judge candidates based on their stances on issues instead of whether they’re on TikTok or not, Sciales said, adding that those who stay off the platform are missing out on a powerful tool for organizing and communicating with voters.
It’s a gamble some lawmakers say they’re not willing to take.
“I would have a great deal of caution about TikTok at this point,” Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia said in July. “I would not have TikTok on any of my devices.”
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