How TikTok is shaping US democracy – swipe by swipe


TikTok is the new Facebook for midterm candidates reaching out to Gen Z voters as the entertainment platform is turning into a forum for political debate. Its success has not only exposed the app to public scrutiny of reported failures to contain misinformation, but it has also raised national security concerns over its Chinese ownership.

computer screen showing TikTok homepage

How TikTok is shaping US democracy – swipe by swipe

By Sabine Muscat, Luca Niermann and Omnia Abdalla

TikTok is the new Facebook for midterm candidates reaching out to Gen Z voters as the entertainment platform is turning into a forum for political debate. Its success has not only exposed the app to public scrutiny of reported failures to contain misinformation, but it has also raised national security concerns over its Chinese ownership.

Everyone knows that dogs do well on social media, and so does John Fetterman. Fetterman is a Democratic Senate candidate in the US state of Pennsylvania, an important “swing state,” that could determine the outcome of the Congressional elections this November. Mehmet Oz is Fetterman’s Republican opponent – and he has a puppy problem.

Media reports have accused the medical doctor of having overseen abusive animal experiments when he headed a lab at New York’s Columbia University. Fetterman’s campaign did not let this topic go to waste. On his TikTok account, thousands viewed his new version of a memeified TikTok of Oz with a Golden Retriever. The video shows the pouting dog facing an evil-looking “Dr. Oz,” and it is overlaid by an article about the animal tests and by the sound “I wanna go home,” taken from a song by the Nigerian gospel band Destined Kids.

Oz has not been shy on TikTok either. He has been blasting Fetterman as an irresponsible adult, who was living on his parents’ sofa well into his forties. Oz’s campaign went as far as creating an SMS hotline where users can text “LAZY” to a number and receive a man baby meme of Fetterman and the link to donate to Oz’s campaign.

Candidates can’t afford not to be on it

The TikTok war between the Pennsylvania Senate candidates highlights the popular app’s arrival at the center of political campaigns. TikTok in 2022 is what Facebook was for the Obama era – if candidates want to connect with young voters or engage in grassroots fundraising, they can’t afford not to be on it. This trend is playing out at a global scale. The German market liberal party FDP - the most popular party among young voters in Germany’s 2021 federal election – had been particularly present on TikTok in the run-up to the vote. In Colombia’s 2022 presidential election, populist candidate Rodolfo Hernández came in a surprisingly close second against the leftist frontrunner Gustavo Petro – after running a massive TikTok campaign.

TikTok’s use as a campaign tool is ironic for an app that views itself primarily as an entertainment platform. But it’s impossible to keep politics out of one of the most popular - and most downloaded – social media apps in the world. Even less so, since the video format opens up so many creative possibilities for conveying political content.

At least among young users, TikTok is eclipsing the success of established players like Facebook. In 2021, the company said it celebrated 1 billion monthly users globally. According to the web analytics company CloudFlare, it had more visits than the search engine Google in the same year. The app has its largest user base of 137 million in the United States, followed by Indonesia and Brazil. It reaches a large young audience – two out of three US teenagers use it regularly. For Generation Z, the service that became known for dance and music videos, has become a source for all kinds of information, including politics.

Its success has exposed TikTok to enhanced public scrutiny. As with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Youtube, critics point to its personalized content recommendation and lack of content moderation. The service’s Chinese ownership raises additional concerns about data security, censorship of controversial topics, and potential foreign influence.

Policymakers, experts and civil society have criticized the app for various reasons. Many concerns are familiar ones for all the leading platforms, such as the app’s use of opaque recommendation algorithms. TikTok closely monitors every detail of users’ activity on the platform. The company then feeds this data to an algorithm that shows users posts customized to their personal preferences after just a few minutes. Combined with the appealing video format, this makes the app extremely addictive. US viewers spend around 80 minutes daily on the platform, more than on Facebook and Instagram combined.

Open floodgates for harmful content

As in the case of Facebook or Twitter, the personalization and recommendation machine has opened the floodgates for harmful content that amplifies hate speech and false information. Media watchdog Newsguard found that in a recent sampling of searches on prominent news topics, almost 20 percent of the videos presented contained misinformation, and that false and misleading information ended up in the top 20 results at a far higher rate than in Google searches. In addition to videos promoting the American right's narrative of the stolen 2020 presidential election, the investigators found easily accessible misinformation about pseudo-cures for Covid-19 and about Russia’s war against Ukraine.

As TikTok struggles to keep up with content moderation, non-English content poses a particular challenge. All social media platforms are reporting that countering Spanish-language misinformation has become a headache ahead of elections in the United States, where Spanish-speaking Americans represent an important group of voters.

TikTok has now joined the fray of other platforms in enhancing its election security measures. The platform has long banned political content in advertising. It recently added a ban on fundraising by political candidates or parties, and is testing a rule that requires political accounts to be verified.

The company also said that it is working with election officials to provide reliable information in more than 45 languages. Six weeks earlier than before the Presidential and Congressional elections in 2020,  TikTok started tagging posts about the midterms with a label that leads to an in-app “Elections Center,” where users can obtain information about state-specific voting procedures and report misleading information. It also promised to stop recommending posts that are under review by moderators. Like Facebook and Twitter, TikTok relies on a combination of human and automated moderation to control the spread of harmful content.

Yet who defines what represents harmful content? TikTok has been accused of suppressing content on politically controversial issues in the United States, from references to the Black Lives Matter movement to content that either supports or opposes abortion.

A Chinese Trojan horse?

But the concerns go further. The app’s ownership structure has raised alarm about national security risks. The fact that TikTok is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance has triggered questions about possible Chinese political interference – by elevating Chinese narratives or by downgrading content on topics that is considered sensitive by Chinese authorities.

The other concern is the question of whether China’s Communist Party might be able to secure access to personal user data of Americans. In June, BuzzFeed News reported that even though U.S. user data is stored in the United States, it had been accessed from China on multiple occasions. In October, Forbes reported that ByteDance’s Internal Audit Team planned to use the app to monitor the personal location of some specific American citizens.

“I am highly concerned about TikTok and how China may be leveraging their influence to access the platform’s data on Americans,” said Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, when the Homeland Security Committee grilled the company’s chief operation officer Vanessa Pappas at a hearing in September.

Experts are divided on the dangers of the app. Some call it a “Trojan horse” for Chinese surveillance and influence, especially since the company has never explicitly excluded the reported possibility of data access from China. Others put the risks in context to those posed by big US platforms monetizing personal data, such as in Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which datasets of millions Americans were sold to Trump consultants and used with the goal to influence voters in the 2016 presidential election.

What is clear is that TikTok now takes center stage in the rivalry between the United States and China – as well as in the global competition between democracies and China’s one-party state. India has banned the app permanently along with 48 other Chinese apps following a military skirmish at the contested border, citing the protection of its national security. Matthias Döpfner, head of the conservative German Springer media conglomerate, said that, “TikTok should be banned in every democracy.” In his remarks at the Vox Media Code Conference in Los Angeles this September, he criticized the West’s “naïveté” in dealing with China.

In the United States, TikTok has taken on a leading role in the domestic political competition over the unofficial title of the biggest China hawk. Former president Donald Trump had threatened to ban the app unless ByteDance disinvested from TikTok. The Biden administration is trying to work out a security deal, under which TikTok could keep operating in the United States without changes to its ownership. The deal will reportedly include a provision to store Americans’ data on secure servers in the United States and to cut off data access from China.

The different approaches by Trump and Biden might explain why some Republicans stay away from TikTok. Or it might just be harder for them to connect with the TikTok audience. Florida’s embattled Republican Senator Marco Rubio released an attack ad against his Democratic challenger Val Demings this summer, in which he accused her of being irresponsible for using TikTok. The Demings campaign’s defense – in the words of a spokesman – was disarmingly simple: “We are on TikTok for one simple reason: That’s where the voters are.”