The video was not exactly the stuff of viral TikTok gold: a middle-aged guy talking directly to the camera, in a casually low monotone, about his new job.
“There have been some IT conversations that have made me feel a little young,” said the man, in a TikTok video posted in January.
“So, like, when they gave me my laptop, they looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘Sir, do you need help turning this on?’” he continued, as a GIF of a cat clamoring on a keyboard played in the bottom half of the screen. “And that was when I realized I might not be their average congressional customer.”
That final throwaway joke explains why the post ultimately racked up 2.7 million views. The new job Jeff Jackson was talking about was his gig as the congressman from the 14th District of North Carolina—and a lot of people like seeing him talk about it on the wildly popular video-sharing social media platform.
“Keep this type of content coming,” one user responded to Jackson's video. “This is SUCH a good way to get people interested in representation,” gushed another.
For the ambitious and savvy 40-year old Democrat, one company town’s trash is turning out to be his treasure.
Since that first viral post, Jackson has attracted nearly 500,000 followers on TikTok, and his plainspoken, no-frills videos careen through the app’s algorithm before plopping into the feeds of somewhere between 1 and 3 million people on any given day.
But on Capitol Hill, Jackson is a rare breed: he’s just one of roughly 30 members with TikTok accounts, and part of an increasingly small cohort of politicians more broadly who use one.
Owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, TikTok has become Washington’s favorite political pinata to bash. Both Republicans and Democrats have loudly voiced concerns that it is a surveillance tool for China and harms young users’ mental health. The recent move to ban the app from government devices was a bipartisan one; now, there’s chatter about banning the app from the U.S., period.
“The security concerns are real,” Jackson told The Daily Beast on Thursday, in between events at the House Democrats’ annual retreat in Baltimore. He said he keeps the app on a separate phone solely dedicated to receiving uploads from his Sony camera.
Otherwise, Jackson is just a self-described “guy in a kitchen” who happens to have struck gold in the social media’s latest equivalent to 1849 in Northern California.
With a budget of zero dollars, he has cornered a sizable audience and is tallying over 1 million views on each new video since mid-January. That includes some of his posts on less-than-viral topics like Chinese-Taiwanese relations, military aid to Ukraine, his committee assignments, the debt ceiling, and unmanned aerial vehicles.
It’s not the first time Jackson has leveraged a new social media platform to his advantage. In 2015, as a newly minted North Carolina state senator, he live-tweeted his experience of being the only member to show up at the Capitol during a snowstorm, putting him on the map in the state.
Jackson maintained a TikTok account through the 2022 midterm season, when he initially ran for U.S. Senate before bowing out of the Democratic primary against former North Carolina Chief Justice Cheri Beasley. Later, he ran for a newly drawn Democratic House seat in the Charlotte suburbs. After he was elected last November, he said he made a conscious shift in his approach to his TikTok account after getting elected.
“I’d been putting up little videos on TikTok throughout most of the campaign, stuff like, you know, cute moments with my family,” Jackson said. “And I decided to take a different approach completely after the election. What I wanted to do across the board with all my political communication was to give people a sense of what it was like to get elected to Congress.”
Despite the risks in an anti-China political climate, Jackson’s PR boost from TikTok may be too good to pass up. He’ll need all the help he can get, since North Carolina’s conservative Supreme Court is set to undo the current congressional map and, likely, erase Jackson’s district.
As Jackson eyes his next move—whether a statewide run or something else—getting in on the ground floor of the new attention economy could be the best gamble he’s ever made.
Editing his videos himself, Jackson is not gaming the algorithm with excessive hashtags or picking the right viral soundtrack.
While lawmakers such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) have large followings—Sanders with 1.4 million and Ocasio-Cortez with just shy of 57,000, but with fan accounts totalling hundreds of thousands of followers combined—Jackson is punching far above his weight in views per video, now steadily banking at least one million.
Unlike those figures, Jackson lacks a pre-existing online fanbase or national political notoriety, making his TikTok success all the more notable. It also bucks much of the conventional wisdom around digital strategy in Washington, where consultants charge politicians hefty rates to maximize their exposure around cable news hits and paid ads.
Without spending any money on a reworked bookshelf for MSNBC appearance backdrops or overhauling a wardrobe, Jackson is reaching audiences larger than the top-rated primetime cable shows and building a brand in a medium where he has far less competition.
Jackson said his viral blow up has shown him “how large the appetite is for substantive political engagement.”
“We are saturated with people who want to give us the daily talking points or the daily outrage,” he continued. “I don’t need to add to that. We are full.”
Instead, Jackson has leaned into the boring—and surprised himself in the process.
“There aren’t a whole lot of people who are using their platform just to level with folks about where things stand with respect to an issue in Congress,” he said. “And as it turns out, just being a halfway sensible person and speaking directly to people in a normal tone of voice about serving in Congress is pretty compelling for a lot of people.”
“I’m somewhat surprised by this,” Jackson said, “but I’m also really encouraged.”
Though the app’s China-related concerns still loom large for Jackson, some of his colleagues’ rhetoric on TikTok has reached the outer levels of hyperbole.
“Having TikTok on our phones is like having 80 million Chinese spy balloons flying over America,” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) said earlier this month.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) called the app “a Trojan horse on your phone.”
Democrats have been vocal, too. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) recently sent a letter to Apple and Google encouraging them to remove TikTok from their app stores, arguing it is an “unacceptable” national security threat.
FBI Director Christopher Wray warned in December, meanwhile, of possible espionage and “influence operations” led by the Chinese government via the American version of TikTok.
“I’ve read what FBI Director Wray thinks about it and I take his assessment seriously,” Jackson said. “I agree that not allowing TikTok on government phones is a good idea. I keep the app on a non-government phone and that phone only has one app on it, and that’s TikTok.”
As far as Jackson’s own user experience goes, he’s noticed only one red flag so far.
Instead of sending Jackson down a rabbit hole of new age wellness trends or QAnon conspiracies, TikTok began radicalizing him over what the father of three chalked up to a “demographic guess”: baking sourdough bread.
“I remember because my wife and I talked about it, there were several days where it kept feeding me sourdough baking videos to the point where I tried it and failed miserably,” he said. “It’s harder than you’d be led to believe, based on a two-minute video.”