In many ways, the 2024 election is shaping up to be a frustratingly familiar affair, with President Joe Biden likely set to face off against former President Donald Trump once more in a de facto continuation of their previous match-up. At the same time, that broad familiarity often breeds a fair bit of weirdness at the margins, where campaigns do everything they can to shake up the dynamics of what might otherwise be a staid and uninspiring race.
It was in that spirit of unexpected disruption that the Biden campaign on Sunday debuted its newest effort to reach younger voters, posting a brief Super Bowl-themed Q&A on TikTok with the simple caption "lol hey guys."
lol hey guys♬ Fox nfl theme - Notrandompostsguy
While the video itself is fairly innocuous (save for the brief skewering of a bizarre right-wing conspiracy theory that Biden was working in consort with the NFL and Taylor Swift to engineer an electorally advantageous Super Bowl outcome) the fact that it exists at all is notable. Just eight months earlier, the Biden campaign disavowed any plans for an official TikTok account, opting instead to "[lean] on influencers and surrogates," said NBC News this past summer. Crucially, TikTok is barred on most government devices over fears of algorithmic manipulation and data collection from the Chinese-owned app.
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Given the ongoing governmental skepticism and animosity directed at TikTok, what's behind the Biden team's sudden flip-flop, and will it really make a difference when voters head to the polls in November?
'Meeting voters where they are'
The Biden campaign justified its election-year TikTok about-face in a statement to Axios, calling its new account a way to get its message across "every channel and every platform possible" in a media environment that is more "fragmented and personalized than ever." The campaign also stressed that it was "incorporating a sophisticated security protocol" for its use of the app, although it did not expand on what those measures are. Ultimately, the Biden team hopes its foray into TikTok will help with "meeting voters where they are" said campaign officials who spoke with NBC News, which noted the app has become a "powerful tool in mobilizing Gen Z in previous elections."
The campaign's debut on TikTok comes as the Biden team has "leaned hard into memes," The Washington Post said, highlighting the account's "Dark Brandon" avatar. Nevertheless, Biden has "jeopardized his standing with younger voters" lately and "drew scrutiny" for eschewing a traditional presidential Super Bowl interview, said The Wall Street Journal, which labeled the new TikTok strategy an "about-face" for the administration.
This White House has "carried on a love-hate relationship" with TikTok, said CNBC, noting that while the administration has "openly courted TikTok stars and content producers" to help spread its messages, it has also "tacitly agreed" with "China-skeptical lawmakers" who have criticized the app.
Ultimately, whether Biden's team can "make the 81-year-old president look cool on the platform" is an "open question," The New York Times said, adding that the video had racked up more than 4.5 million views as of Monday morning.
'Using a Chinese spy app'
Several Republican lawmakers wasted little time lashing out at the president for joining the controversial app, with Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) on Monday saying on X that "just like TikTok, Temu or any Chinese tech company must allow the Communist Party unfettered access to its data" which should be a "non-starter" for operating in the U.S. Earlier this month Cotton drew condemnation for a contentious hearing with TikTok CEO Shou Chew, in which the senator accused the Singaporean executive of being beholden to China. The back and forth was described as "ignorant — or even racist" by fellow Singaporeans, said PBS Newshour.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) was even more direct in his criticism of Biden for "using a Chinese spy app."
Biden campaign bragging about using a Chinese spy app even though Biden signed a law banning it on all federal devices https://t.co/hEXKGuNrvrFebruary 12, 2024
Ultimately, the example Biden is setting "might be even more damaging" than the acute national security risks of his account, said the National Review. By embracing TikTok, the president is "creating a permission structure" for other politicians to join him, and "signaling to Americans that they shouldn't listen to the severe alarm" of his own national security officials.
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