Wade Herring didn’t know the teenage voter who approached him in a restaurant over the weekend. But she knew Herring, a Democrat running for Congress in Georgia, from his campaign videos on TikTok.
For Herring, a 63-year-old lawyer from Savannah, it was a testament to TikTok’s precision-driven ability to reach young voters — the reason he and candidates from both parties have eagerly embraced the platform ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
“A year and a half ago I thought it was just dance videos,” Herring said of TikTok. Young voters, he added, “are not watching CNN, MSNBC, or Fox. They get their information on TikTok, and for better or for worse, it’s the way to reach them.”
It’s even worse for a number of officials.
TikTok’s popularity has surged despite concerns from Washington policymakers over TikTok’s handling of user data and misinformation, as well as its ties to the Chinese government. These fears prompted the US armed forces to ban the app on military devices and spurred calls for it to be banned on all government computers and phones as well.
“I have serious concerns about the ability of the Chinese Communist Party to access TikTok’s data on American users,” R-Ohio Sen. Rob Portman said at a hearing this month focused on the impact of the social media focused on national security.
Still, its reach is undeniable. TikTok is consumed by two-thirds of American teens, a number that has risen as other platforms have lost popularity. It is the most downloaded app in the world and the second most visited website after Google. And it’s no longer just about viral dance challenges, it’s also a place to shop, learn about beauty, fashion or sports, and even find out how to register to vote.
The benefits of using the platform are simply too great to pass up, even given concerns about TikTok as a channel for misinformation or privacy exploits.
“People will use it. It’s an extremely effective tool,” said Colton Hess, who launched Tok the Vote, a voter registration and engagement initiative in 2020 that has reached tens of millions of young voters. “As long as the game is in the game, you have to be in the arena.”
TikTok is owned by ByteDance Ltd., a Chinese company that moved to a new headquarters in Singapore in 2020. Questions about the company’s ties to the Chinese government have dogged TikTok even as its popularity skyrocketed.
At the Senate hearing earlier this month, members of both parties questioned a TikTok executive about the influence of government officials in China and whether that country’s authoritarian leaders have control over the platform’s data and content.
Los Angeles-based TikTok chief operating officer Vanessa Pappas said the company protects all data from American users and Chinese government officials have no access to it.
“We will never share data, period,” Pappas said.
TikTok also says it is working to stop the flow of harmful misinformation and has set up an election center to help users find information about US elections, polls and candidates.
The platform’s defenders also note that TikTok isn’t the only site being criticized for failing to stop misinformation. Competitors Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube also face their own privacy challenges.
A report released this month by New York University accused all four of those platforms, plus TikTok, of amplifying former President Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. The study cited conflicting rules regarding misinformation and weak enforcement.
“While TikTok has these very strong-sounding policies, enforcement is extremely unpredictable,” said Paul Barrett, professor and researcher who led the study.
Another study this month by NewsGuard, a firm that monitors online misinformation, found that nearly 1 in 5 TikTok videos about major news events contained misinformation. The videos focused on issues such as COVID-19, the 2020 election, Russia’s war in Ukraine and the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol.
TikTok’s ties to China set it apart from other platforms, according to Geoffrey Cain, a senior fellow at the Lincoln Network, a conservative-leaning think tank dedicated to technology policy. The country’s leaders have shown a willingness to spread disinformation that undermines the West, he said, and it would be foolish to think they haven’t tried to recruit TikTok to do the work.
“This isn’t the Cold War where we had hardware, where we had missiles pointed at each other,” Cain said. “Now we have smartphones.”
TikTok is not available in China. Instead, the platform’s parent company offers a similar platform that has the same dance videos but also promotes educational content about math and science, experts told lawmakers at the recent Senate hearing. Another difference: the Chinese version limits 13- and 14-year-old users to 40 minutes per day. The US version, which bans users under the age of 13, does not include such restrictions.
Concerned about China’s hold on TikTok, the Trump administration threatened to ban the app in the US in 2020 and pressured ByteDance to sell TikTok to a US company. US officials and the company are currently in talks about a possible deal that would address American security concerns.
Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., helped draft the Internet Privacy and Protection of Children Act while serving in the House of Representatives and supports new regulations for data collection and marketing for children that he believes will Platforms like TikTok will be made safer.
However, he does not wait for these changes before using the platform. Markey blossomed into an unlikely TikTok sensation in 2020 when his videos were credited with helping him overcome a key challenge posed by former Rep. Joe Kennedy.
“I feel fortunate to be joining them online for a better future and a planet worth living,” Markey said of young voters who are particularly concerned about climate change and other environmental challenges.
While the right video can reach hundreds of thousands or even millions of viewers, TikTok also works the other way around, giving politicians and advocacy groups a glimpse into the concerns of millions of young Americans whose political influence will only grow, according to Ellen Sciales, director of communications for the Sunrise Movement , a youth-led organization dedicated to fighting climate change.
“It’s young people talking to other young people. It hits them where they are,” said Sciales, 25.
Younger voters will judge candidates based on their stance on issues, rather than whether or not they’re on TikTok, Sciales said, adding that those staying off the platform are missing out on a powerful tool for organizing and communicating with voters.
It’s a gamble some lawmakers say they’re not willing to take.
“I would be very wary of TikTok at this point,” Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia said in July. “I wouldn’t have TikTok on any of my devices.”