Trump, Biden battle for youth vote on TikTok

Former President Trump has joined TikTok, the popular social media app he once tried to ban, as he attempts to win over disaffected young voters from President Biden. 

Biden, whose campaign also has an account on TikTok, has struggled to maintain his advantage with young voters from 2020 as he and Trump prepare to face off once again in November’s election. 

“This is a vital space for political conversations, especially among specific audiences,” said Valerie Wirtschafter, a Brookings Institution fellow in the Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technology Initiative. 

“Especially for Trump, if he feels like those are voters who are disillusioned with Biden for whatever reason despite historically voting Democratic, it’s a prime opportunity to try and peel them away,” she added. 

Trump posted his first TikTok on Saturday night at an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) title fight — a move the former president’s campaign said was aimed at reaching younger voters. 

“We will leave no front undefended and this represents the continued outreach to a younger audience consuming pro-Trump and anti-Biden content,” Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung said in a statement to The Hill. 

“There’s no place better than a UFC event to launch President Trump’s Tik Tok, where he received a hero’s welcome and thousands of fans cheered him on,” Cheung added. 

Trump’s first video has garnered 5.2 million likes and 79.4 million views, while his account has gained 5 million followers, easily outstripping the Biden campaign. 

The Biden-Harris HQ account, which was created in February, has about 355,000 followers. Its first post during the Super Bowl received a little more than 885,000 likes and 10.7 million views.

Notably, on TikTok, Biden does not have a personal account, only a campaign account, which Wirtschafter suggested could be contributing to its more limited reach.

Biden has struggled to maintain his once-expansive lead over Trump with young voters.  

A Harvard Youth Poll in April found that the sitting president led the former president by just 8 percentage points among 18- to 29-year-olds. At the same point in the 2020 race, Biden led Trump by 23 points with the same cohort. 

TikTok has quickly become a key source of news for young Americans. About one-third of U.S. adults younger than 30 regularly got their news from the app last year, up from 9 percent in 2020, according to the Pew Research Center. 

However, despite the opportunities presented by the platform, it may not be the most forgiving environment for Biden. 

More than one-fifth of left-leaning creators have posted anti-Biden content amid widespread frustration over his administration’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war, according to an analysis from CredoIQ obtained by the Los Angeles Times. 

An internal analysis from TikTok also found pro-Trump content outnumbered pro-Biden content by nearly a 2-to-1 ratio, The New York Times reported last month. 

While Trump may be outpacing Biden in several measures on TikTok, Wirtschafter noted the former president “has always had a kind of viral potential on social media platforms.” 

On the social platform X, Trump still boasts 87.2 million followers, despite posting only once in the past 3 1/2 years. Biden, who often posts several times a day, has 38 million followers. 

Similarly, on Facebook, the former president has 34 million followers, while the sitting president has 11 million.  

“It really is, I think, a strength of the campaign generally, but also Donald Trump as a person and candidate,” Wirtschafter told The Hill. “So, I’m not surprised that there’s a ton more engagement.” 

The youthfulness of this audience on TikTok can pose an opportunity, as well as a risk, for Trump, Wirtschafter added. 

“The audience that is using TikTok, that maybe is of voting age, probably wasn’t paying as much attention to the Trumpian rhetoric of prior campaigns,” she said. “Maybe it’s some people’s first elections, maybe this is sort of a starting point for politics.” 

“There’s, of course, huge value in those viral numbers. I think that the fact that it was so high should certainly be something that the Biden campaign is looking at,” Wirtschafter added. “But where Biden, I think, succeeded in 2020 was in letting Trump talk.”  

“This is a new audience and a new group of people that maybe hasn’t heard him talk nearly as much,” she continued, adding, “I think that there’s potential for it, in some sense, to possibly backfire because it is a new audience that may or may not like what he has to say.” 

However, Shoshana Weissmann, digital director and policy fellow at the R Street Institute, cautioned that people can sometimes overestimate the effectiveness of new social media. 

“Snapchat, years ago, had promised that if you join Snapchat, you’ll get all these young voters, but no one was on Snapchat to learn about politics,” Weissmann said, pointing to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s decision to join the platform amid her 2016 presidential campaign. 

“TikTok is different, and I think it has a bigger value there, but I still think people sometimes overestimate how effective new shiny social media is,” she added. 

Both Biden and Trump also face varying accusations of hypocrisy related to TikTok, Weissmann noted. 

Biden, for his part, signed legislation in late April requiring TikTok’s China-based parent company ByteDance to sell the app within roughly a year or face a ban on U.S. app stores and networks. The bill sailed through Congress amid growing bipartisan concerns about national security. 

However, the Biden campaign has opted to stay on TikTok, emphasizing that the platform “is one of many places we’re making sure our content is being seen by voters.” 

“When the stakes are this high in the election, we are going to use every tool we have to reach young voters where they are,” a campaign official said at the time. 

Trump similarly attempted to ban the app through an executive order while in office, but the order was blocked in court. 

However, as Congress considered the divest-or-ban bill earlier this year, the former president reversed course, coming out against a potential TikTok ban and claiming it would benefit Facebook.

Notably, the shift came after Trump met with Jeff Yass, a major GOP donor and investor in TikTok, although the former president said they did not discuss the app. 

“Trump had wanted to ban TikTok, and now he’s all in on it,” Weissmann told The Hill. “And I think that’s both for politics and maybe donors too.” 

“Then with President Biden signing the ban and still being on TikTok, it’s just ridiculous,” she continued. “Because if anyone should be concerned about the cybersecurity effects of TikTok, it should probably be the people closest to the President of the United States.”  

“I don’t think their play is really going to be worth it for them,” she added. “In the process of it, they’re just going to make themselves look really hypocritical.” 

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