Candidates have turned to TikTok to reach young voters despite security fears

Wade Herring did not recognize the teenage voter who approached him at a restaurant last weekend. But he knew Herring, a Democrat running for Congress in Georgia, from his campaign videos on TikTok.

For Herring, a 63-year-old lawyer in Savannah, it’s proof of TikTok’s precision-guided ability to reach young voters — the reason why he and candidates from both parties have eagerly embraced it. on the platform ahead of 2022 midterm elections.

“A year and a half ago, I thought it was just dance videos,” Herring said of TikTok. Young voters, he added, “don’t watch CNN, or MSNBC or fox. They get their information on TikTok, and for better or worse, it’s the way to reach them. “

For many government officials, it’s worse.

TikTok’s popularity has soared despite concerns from policymakers in Washington about TikTok’s handling of user data and misinformation, as well as its relationship with the Chinese government. Those fears prompted the US armed forces to ban the app on military devices, and prompted calls to also ban it from all government computers and phones.

“I have serious concerns about the opportunities that the Chinese communist party has access to the TikTok data of American users,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, in a hearing this month focused on the national security implications of social media.

TikTok’s reach is undeniable

However, its achievement cannot be denied. TikTok is used by two-thirds of American teenagers a number that has increased as other platforms have lost popularity. It is the most downloaded app in the world, and the second most visited website after that Google. And it’s not only about viral dance challenges, but also a place of shop, learn about beauty, hip or sports, and even find out how to register to vote.

The benefits of using the platform are too great to be overlooked even with concerns about TikTok as a conduit for misinformation or privacy exploitation.

“People are going to use it. It’s a very effective tool,” Colton said Hess, which 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 of the game, you should be in the arena.”

TikTok is owned by ByteDance Ltd., a Chinese company that moved to a new headquarters in Singapore in 2020. Questions about the company’s relationship with the Chinese government have dogged TikTok even as its popularity has exploded.

Who controls TikTok?

At a Senate hearing earlier this month, members of both parties questioned a TikTok executive about the influence of Chinese government officialsand whether the country’s authoritarian leaders have control over the platform 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 do not have access to it.

“We don’t share data, period,” Pappas said.

TikTok also said it will work to stop the flow of harmful misinformation and has created a election center to help users find information about US elections, voting and candidates.

Defenders of the platform also note that TikTok is not the only site criticized for failing to stop misinformation. Its opponents – Twitter, FacebookInstagram and the YouTube – also face their own challenges regarding data privacy.

A report released this month from New York University faulted all four of those platforms and TikTok for promoting former President Donald Trump false about 2020 election. The study cited inconsistent rules regarding misinformation as well as poor enforcement.

“While TikTok has these strong-sounding policies, the implementation is very flawed,” said Paul Barrett, the professor and researcher who led the study.

other study this month in NewsGuard, a company that monitors online misinformation, found that nearly 1 in 5 TikTok videos about important news events contained false information. The videos focus on topics such as COVID-19the 2020 election, Russia’s war on Ukraine and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol.

TikTok’s relationship with China it is set 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 weakens the West, he said, and it is foolish to think that they have not tried to enlist TikTok in this work.

“This is not the Cold War where we have hardware, where we have missiles pointing 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 with the same dance videos, but also promotes educational content about math and science, experts told lawmakers at a recent hearing in Senate. Another difference: the Chinese version limits 13- and 14-year-old users to 40 minutes per day. No such limitations are included in the US version, which prohibits users under 13.

Concerned about China’s influence on TikTok, the Trump administration in 2020 threatened to ban the app within the US and forced ByteDance to sell TikTok to a US company. US officials and the company are currently in talks about a possible deal that would address American security concerns.

Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., helped write the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act when he served in the House, and supported new regulations for data collection and marketing of children he said will make platforms like TikTok safer.

TikTok as a political weapon

He didn’t wait for changes to happen before using the platform, though. Markey emerged as an unlikely TikTok sensation in 2020 when his videos were credited with helping him defeat the primary challenge of former Rep. Joe Kennedy.

“I feel fortunate to join them online in search of a better future and a livable planet,” Markey said of the young voters, whom he said 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. are young Americans whose political influence will only grow, according to Ellen Sciales, director of communications for the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led organization working to address climate change.

“These are young people talking to other young people. It’s meeting them where they are,” Sciales, 25, said.

Young 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 aren’t on 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 have a lot of caution about TikTok at this point,” said Democratic Sen. Mark Warner in Virginia in July. “I don’t have TikTok on any of my devices.”

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