Despite commanding the attention of 138 million active users in the United States and serving as the primary news source for the next generation of voters, TikTok has remained more of an oil spill than a natural part of the American political ecosystem heading into 2023.
The social media juggernaut, owned by Bejing-based ByteDance, is either banned from state devices or restricted in other ways in 19 of 50 states, according to a recent tally by Reuters. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) succeeded in landing his amendment to ban the app from federal devices in the 4,115-page omnibus bill, which Congress passed on Friday and is expected to be signed into law later this week.
Aside from the security concerns—centering on a so-called backdoor where the Chinese government can access detailed U.S. user data—TikTok remains at the margins of American political campaign strategy.
The 2022 midterms once again saw record spending on TV. And while TikTok doesn’t allow political or issue-based ads, it’s already surpassed YouTube with the most viewing time per user. And still, national campaigns remain addicted to buying ads on television.
Erika Franklin Fowler, director of the Wesleyan Media Project, explained two prevailing reasons why TV has such sticking power in politics despite years of cord cutting.
“One, reliable voters—and by that I mean typically older Americans—still consume a lot of TV,” Fowler told The Daily Beast, also noting their outsize importance in primaries. “The second, I think though, is that campaigns raise insane amounts of money, and in some ways you are looking to spend it and and spend it quickly. So television is still one of the easiest places to spend a lot of those dollars.”
Particularly when a cut of TV ad spending is at the heart of the business model for many political consulting shops, it’s hard for an old dog to learn new tricks.
Then there are the generational tensions around digital strategy when it comes to spending on newer social media platforms like TikTok and Twitch—which allows real-time donations during live-streams with minimal friction for those with an account—compared to the old reliable staples of Facebook and email.
“The people in control of digital have not aged into the people who are in control of campaigns,” Stefan Smith, the former Online Engagement Director for the Pete Buttigieg 2020 presidential campaign.
The entire money conversation among the campaign consulting class—spending on TV versus organizing, Facebook or YouTube, mailers or SMS text message fundraising blasts—leaves out something more valuable, he argued.
“We’re talking about something more precious than dollars when we're talking about a TikTok, for instance, or we’re talking about Twitch streaming or whatever we’re doing,” Smith said. “We’re talking about attention.”
With access to more technology and more ways to reach people than ever before has also been met with noxious levels of spam, eliciting an equal and opposite reaction from the public.
“It’s hard to get into people’s lives now,” Smith said. “It’s hard to get into people’s digital lives, and it’s hard to get them to open the door when you’re knocking. It’s hard to get them to answer the phone or respond to a text message or open a political email—the deficit that politics is experiencing is an attention deficit, and it’s hitting every party in various ways—but it’s happening at a time when people have never spent more time on their phones.”
An annual report from the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford found news avoidance rising globally, with the United States ranking third behind only the United Kingdom and Brazil for the highest population share tuning out online and on TV. There’s a similar phenomenon in advertising.
Fowler pointed to overall increased fundraising and spending in federal races masking the longer term threats to TV. Newer ventures into digital have been “additive” relative to the ease of conventional ad spending, but that may not hold up in the long term.
“As media audiences fragment, advertisers have to reach them in more places,” Fowler said. “And so, in some ways I think you might expect to see lower amounts of spending on television as a consequence of that, but they’re also raising more money. So I think that’s part of what’s going on.”
Still, Fowler noted that streaming advertising was going to be taking dollars from television.
One campaign strategist who spoke with The Daily Beast said another major barrier in the shift to fundraising on these platforms is complying with federal regulations.
“That’s not to say that it couldn’t work in the future, but I think there’s not an existing culture of that,” the strategist said, requesting anonymity because of their current employer. “There is a culture on Twitch of subscribers and supporting streamers. That’s different than like having to fill out a form.”
A Twitch viewer may gladly fork out their wallet to watch their favorite streamer do a stunt in a video game, but providing anything beyond a screen name when FEC regulations demand full personal information is a much steeper ask.
The most notable success story on Twitch so far came in October 2020, when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) drew an audience of more than 400,000 concurrent viewers while playing the detective-style video game “Among Us” in a get-out-the-vote effort. At the time, it was the fifth-most-viewed broadcast in the platform’s history.
“I think this is where we get into what should be the difference between like a candidate and the party,” Smith said, making the case that state and even local parties are better suited to cultivate an audience and develop staff expertise specific to platforms, rather than “digital” as a whole, because they can work on longer timelines.
“If you’ve got a five-year timeline, and you’re like, ‘I wanna build an ecosystem for two, three years dedicated to turning out Gen Z,’ most candidates don't have the time or patience for that,” Smith said. “They have to win a primary, and primaries are older voters. There’s a hesitancy to build the infrastructure to reach them because it’s not so immediately beneficial.”
One of Smith’s breakthroughs in the 2020 campaign came on Pinterest, where campaign volunteers organized around the Iowa caucuses using the app’s quote board. Scores of women were churning out content for the campaign, for free, and the phenomenon took on a life of its own.
“My first time seeing people take pieces of a campaign and push messaging, push content, be so exciting, create their own, was Bernie Sanders in 2015, 2016,” he said.
The bird landing—the birth of a meme that coincided with the Sanders campaign’s record fundraising day—sketched out the playbook for how campaigns could take advantage of viral moments.
Instead of seeing platforms like TikTok and Twitch as purely transactional for voters, Smith said the new landscape of the internet requires campaigns to see these fragmented fanbases as constituencies with which to build relationships.
“There's a thought that, ‘Why do we have to talk to these children? They don’t vote.’ The thing is, they do,” Smith said. “These are not Gen Xers who needed all these Rock the Vote programs in the 1990s to get to do it. It’s not the millennials, where the economy crashed and we were so disillusioned.”
With the 2022 midterms marking the second highest youth turnout rate in 30 years, the next generation of voters has already asserted itself.
Then the question remains of which campaigns will know where to find them, or even know where to start.
“That’s where the conversation breaks down,” the Democratic strategist said, referring to age differences between leadership and the digital teams on campaigns. “If their kids are in their twenties, then in some ways their kids are actually not really using the cutting-edge stuff, so therefore they are already very far away from it.”