TikTok Music launched on Wednesday in Australia, Singapore and Mexico for a small group of users.

Yap Ariens | Nurphoto | Getty Images

When Joe Biden joined TikTok on the eve of the Super Bowl last month, political scientist Maggie MacDonald was struck by what she called the “meta” nature of the president’s first term.

In the video, Biden poked fun at a conspiracy theory that he rigged the Super Bowl — in favor of the Kansas City Chiefs — to somehow help his re-election effort.

“Yeah, I’m old, but I’m on TikTok and I’m in this super online place where I’m talking about this super online concept,” McDonald, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Kentucky, said of the messages and tone of Biden’s video.

While Biden’s debut on the wildly popular social media app came in tongue-in-cheek fashion, his use of TikTok in this year’s re-election campaign is at the heart of a heated debate in Washington, D.C., over whether the service should even exist in the U.S. The app, owned by of China’s ByteDance, is seen as both an invaluable tool in efforts to reach masses of young potential voters who are shut out of the mainstream media, and an easy way for the Chinese government to spy on American consumers.

Members of the Chinese Communist Party’s House Select Committee introduced a bill this week that would require ByteDance to divest from TikTok or face a U.S. ban, after earlier federal and state efforts never came to fruition. result. On Thursday, the committee voted 50-0 to send the bill to the floor.

Shortly after the committee advanced the bill, Rep. Troy Balderson, R-Ohio, Named TikTok “a surveillance tool used by the Chinese Communist Party to spy on Americans and collect highly personal data.”

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew denied in Senate hearings any ties between the app and the CCP. In a statement to CNBC on Thursday, TikTok said, “The government is trying to strip 170 million Americans of their constitutional right to free expression,” an act that “will harm millions of businesses, deny artists an audience, and destroy the livelihoods of countless creators in the whole country.”

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the online sexual exploitation of children at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, U.S., January 31, 2024.

Nathan Howard | Reuters

After Biden’s catchy intro post, his campaign’s TikTok account scored over 222,000 followers and over 2.4 million likes. With eight months to go until the general election and a likely rematch of the race in 2020, Biden is narrowly trailing Republican challenger Donald Trump in most national polls in what is expected to be a tight battle to the finish.

Biden’s age has shown up as a persistent concern in polling data, so experts say reaching a younger audience is key in trying to win over undecided young voters and mobilize a traditional Democratic constituency whose members sometimes stay at home in election day.

“It’s really important for him to be present and interact directly with voters, not just through creators and influencers,” said Aaron Earls, CEO of influencer social media firm Activate HQ, which specializes in political campaigns. “The activity in 2020 was really significant with that younger audience, and everyone is suggesting that maybe there will be similar activity again with the younger audience.”

During Thursday night’s State of the Union address, the Biden campaign posted clips of the speech on TikTok, a sign that the president plans to stick with the app despite swirling concerns in Washington. But it’s a particularly tricky issue for Biden because, if the bill passes the full House and Senate, it will hit the president’s desk.

White House press secretary Karin Jean-Pierre said reporters on Thursday that “This bill is important, we welcome this step.” She said the administration plans to “meet the American people where they are,” adding that “that doesn’t mean we’re not going to try to figure out how to protect our national security.”

Biden said Friday he would sign the bill if Congress passes it.

The Biden campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

TikTok is trying to generate support from users after the House action on Thursday. In the app, users were greeted with a screenshot warning them that Congress was “planning a total ban on TikTok.” Multiple staffers and lawmakers told CNBC that their offices have been flooded with calls, mostly from children.

TikTok is going to Washington

Political campaigns in the US are generally trying to figure out how best to use TikTok.

In recent cycles, Facebook has been the social media app of choice for campaigns because of its ability to tightly target users with fundraising advertisements and informational publications. However, of Apple The 2021 iOS privacy update made it much harder to target audiences, raising the cost of ad campaigns in of Meta platforms.

Also, Facebook has skewed older over the years, with younger groups gravitating to TikTok. The challenge for the campaigns is that TikTok says it doesn’t allows for political ads or “content such as a video of a politician asking for donations or a political party directing people to a donation page on their website.”

To date, major campaigns have relied on high-profile TikTok influencers to help rally support for specific issues. Last April, for example, the White House said was recruiting a team of volunteer TikTok and Instagram influencers to help spread awareness of the Biden campaign.

Earls says it’s a strategy that has long been used in politics. TikTok just introduced a new medium.

“This has historically been a tactic that’s been going on since the Kennedy days, but more so in the traditional media,” Earls said. “It’s like you’re going to get an endorsement from Marilyn Monroe or Joe DiMaggio or whatever.”

Political groups scour TikTok for influencers with positions that resonate with prospective voters, targeting certain states that could be critical in the election. During the 2022 midterm elections, the Democratic National Committee and communications groups such as Climate Power enrolled the help of TikTok and influencers to discuss issues such as abortion rights and to mobilize voters.

Even with its growing popularity, TikTok remains a niche tool in politics.

Anupam Chander, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, released a survey with some colleagues last year showed that less than 10% of members of the US Congress have a “TikTok account from which they post content,” most likely because of the app’s connection to China. In total, according to the report, 34 members of the House of Representatives and seven senators had an official TikTok account.

Among major politicians using TikTok, the overwhelming majority are Democrats, the survey found. Part of the Republican backlash can be traced to Trump’s promise — which ultimately failed — to ban TikTok during his administration.

Reaching “Young Americans Where They Are”

One of the few well-known Republicans now on the app is former presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, who said during a primary debate that “part of how we win elections is to reach the next generation of young Americans where they are.”

As for whether Trump will use TikTok in his campaign, Earls said he wouldn’t be surprised to see it. The decision, he said, likely had less to do with China and more to do with Trump’s relationship with his own social media platform, Truth Social, where he frequently posts.

“We’ve seen him do whatever it takes to win an election, including trying to stop a peaceful transition of power,” Earls said. “He’s going to do what he thinks will help him win, so I suspect we’ll see him campaign to join TikTok in the coming months depending on how things go with his ability to monetize Truth Social.”

The Trump campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Anish Mohanty, director of communications for Gen-Z for Change, said his nonprofit advocacy group was originally called TikTok for Biden when it was created in 2020 as part of an effort to “defeat Donald Trump.” The group changed its name the following year and now uses its network of hundreds of TikTok social media influencers to a lawyer on a host of progressive issues related to climate change, universal health care and Biden calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

Given the many challenges Biden faces with younger groups, his TikTok presence alone isn’t enough to win votes, Mohanty said, especially if the president’s campaign “just uses it to post creepy Trump memes.” .

“Young people care about the issues, that’s why young people are so unhappy with Biden about action on climate change, because of the situation in Gaza,” Mohanty said. “Just because Biden posts on TikTok, that’s not what’s going to attract young people.”

Still, McDonald sees a big opportunity for Biden.

“If you want to reach younger people who are very apathetic, they’re on TikTok,” said the University of Kentucky professor. “You have an incentive to reach them on TikTok, and it seems like the Republican Party as a unit just doesn’t.”

I’M WATCHING: Denying a platform does not mean denying free speech.

Denial of platform does not mean denial of freedom of speech: Fmr.  Senator Heidi Heitkamp on a possible ban on TikTok