US President Joe Biden’s re-election campaign launched its official TikTok account during the Super Bowl on Sunday after months of weighing whether to join the popular social media platform he has banned on federal devices because of national security concerns.
The “@bidenhq” account uploaded its first video captioned “lol hey guys”, which featured Biden being quizzed about his preferences for the game between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers. Asked about conspiracy theories about whether the Super Bowl was rigged, Biden replied, “I’d get in trouble if I told you”.
Weeks before, some conservatives, including former Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, speculated that the game would be rigged in favour of the Chiefs so that pop icon Taylor Swift – whose boyfriend Travis Kelce plays for the Chiefs – could use the opportunity to endorse Biden.
The clip was viewed over five million times in 15 hours, and has garnered over 560,000 likes. The page has attracted nearly 60,000 followers so far.
Biden’s TikTok launch came a year after he ordered US governmental agencies to remove the app from all federal devices. Additionally, more than 30 US states do not allow their employees to use the app on government devices.
Last year, sources in the Biden campaign had told NBC News that the president would not use TikTok for his 2024 re-election bid, after his administration had declared it a national security threat.
Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have raised apprehensions about users’ data on the app – owned by Chinese company ByteDance – being accessed by the Chinese government in Beijing.
In 2020, then-president Donald Trump, the Republican most likely to face Biden again this election, used his emergency economic powers to ban TikTok from US app stores. The order was later blocked by two federal court judges. Trump also tried to force ByteDance to sell the app to a US company, but that pressure faded once he was voted out of office.
Caitlin Chin, who researches the impact of technology on geopolitics and society at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington-based think tank, said that the Biden campaign’s TikTok account shows the “contradictory dynamic of politicians attempting to cater to multiple audiences – pushing the ‘tough on China’ messaging on the one hand, while also capitalising on cultural moments like the Super Bowl and the Travis-Taylor fandom for younger voters”.
Despite the alleged risks, young Americans continue to use the short-video platform extensively. TikTok had 150 million monthly active users in the US in March 2023, according to the latest company data.
According to Exploding Topics, a California-based trend analysis company, 25 per cent of American TikTok users are aged 10-19 while more than 47 per cent are under 30 years old.
A June 2023 survey by Insider Intelligence, a market research company in New York, estimated that American adult TikTok users on average spend 53.8 minutes on the app each day.
Because of its appeal to youth, Democrats regard TikTok as a vital campaign tool. On Monday, the Biden campaign page posted a second video titled “weird brag”.
The nine-second clip shows Trump taking credit for ending Roe v. Wade, the US Supreme Court 1972 ruling that recognised a right to have an abortion. The court overturned the ruling in June 2022.
According to Tufts University research from November 2022, voters aged 18 to 29 in the 2022 midterm elections said that abortion was the top issue influencing their vote.
In 2020, young people showed up to vote in record numbers and backed Biden by more than 20 percentage points. But a December 2023 poll by The New York Times and Siena College found Trump leading Biden 49 to 45 per cent among voters aged 18 to 29.
As Biden aims to woo back a core Democratic support base, Republicans have distanced themselves from TikTok. Neither Trump nor Nikki Haley, his lone remaining challenger for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, use TikTok for their 2024 election campaigns.
Biden is not likely to personally join the platform. His advisers told US news outlets that his campaign staff would run the TikTok account, adding that “advanced security precautions” would be taken to protect data related to the campaign or voters.
According to James Lewis, director of the Strategic Technologies Programme also at CSIS, risks like Chinese harvesting of personal identifiable information or downloading Chinese software on devices are not increased by the campaign’s use of TikTok.
“The only other risk might be deepfakes”, Lewis said – phoney images or videos of the subject – though he noted that it was not clear if the problem was “platform dependent”.
What remains to be seen, Chin said, was “whether the Biden campaign’s mixed messaging on TikTok will intensify external criticism over any future actions that the administration might take regarding data transfers to China”.