TikTok is proving to be potentially game-changing for connecting with young voters of color. It also might not be around for long.
Illustration by Rafael Garcia for POLITICO
By Nancy Scola
Nancy Scola, a contributing writer at Politico Magazine, is a journalist based in Washington whose work examines the complicated intersections of technology and society.
It’s just days before the 2022 midterm election that has professional Democrats fretting about a “red wave,” and though she’s new to politics, Thao Nguyen is confidently nailing all of her marks. The Atlanta-based college student is filming in her mom’s Honda while back home visiting in Michigan, the sort of caught-in-the-middle-of-real-life setting that TikTok seems to eat up. Plus the natural light does wonders for the skin.
Nguyen — known as @_nguyenthaoo to her 334,000 followers — is making the latest in her series of #redflags videos, listing the behavior she considers warning signs in a person. One, openly hating on certain fast-food side items: “You know McDonald’s French fries hit different.” Two, only listening to one type of music: “What’s the point of being friends with you if don’t even know, like, old Disney pop songs?” And lastly, being uninterested in politics or voting: “Like, at your big age, you don’t really care about what’s going on around you? It doesn’t make any sense.”
Blink and you might have missed it: The future of political persuasion, slipped into a mostly apolitical piece of online content — an innovation that could be a game-changer for politics and, by tapping into the votes of those most likely to sit out elections otherwise, democracy itself.
“Thao came up with the most interesting ideas,” says Linh Nguyen, 35 and no relation.
Linh, who lives in Houston, is executive director of Represent Us Now (a.k.a. RUN) AAPI, a left-of-center nonprofit founded in 2021 by Chloe Bennet, an activist and actress who appeared in Marvel’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and Funny or Die managing director Brad Jenkins, a veteran of the Obama White House’s Office of Public Engagement. The pair founded the group to funnel the growing cultural and political might of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States into political power capable of swinging elections. Linh started at the group as executive director in 2022, shortly after running outreach efforts to Asian American voters in the Georgia Senate elections on behalf of the coordinated Democratic campaigns of Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, who were both ultimately elected.
In the waning days of the 2022 election, RUN AAPI and its voter-turnout push, called “Give a F*ck About Midterms,” got a sudden influx of funding, $75,000 that Linh and her colleagues decided to pour into the video app TikTok. They turned to five previously non-political creators with ties to key swing states, including Thao, and who had a combined reach of 6.7 million viewers.
A RUN AAPI influencer coordinator found Thao, whose posts are often related to Vietnamese identity, on TikTok shortly before election day while scrolling online, and, on an intro call, pitched her on the mission. The coordinator wanted to tap into the creativity of young Asian Americans to boost in that cohort a shared sense of political participation, emphasizing that even if they’re rightly dismayed by the state of American politics, they have the opportunity to make outsized use of their political power by voting in often-overlooked non-presidential year elections. Linh recalls Thao as especially receptive: She had been bothered by what she saw as the political apathy of her peers.
“She was so sweet, so down, and just really understood it,” says Linh — including what her audience would respond to. And Thao, says Linh, was given particular creative freedom: “She pitched just a ton of different ideas. By that time, as much as we wanted to maintain and honor a feedback protocol, to make sure that we were being supportive with how the content was being created” — including fact-checking to be sure influencers were given out accurate voting information — “it was just so close to Election Day, and Thao just ran with it.” Thao posted twice for RUN AAPI; the creators, says the organization, were paid between $2,500 and $5,000 for their participation.
What Linh knew was that TikTok was a particularly powerful channel for reaching her target audience. The 150 million TikTok users in the United States skew younger and more diverse than the general population — which represents, to Linh and to other political strategists, a big opportunity to get through to the most hard-to-reach voters.
Linh is not alone in trying to meet these voters where they are. In interviews with nearly two dozen digital consultants, political aides and voter mobilization experts, mostly but not exclusively Democrats, sources took me inside the quietly booming campaign ecosystem that is spreading on the app and that has become crucially important in connecting with voters of color. These strategists aren’t turning to TikTok just for brand-building, messaging and mobilizing on behalf of candidates and causes, but for establishing trust and combatting disinformation, which have proven to be particular challenges in connecting with these voters in recent years.
But TikTok is also in serious jeopardy. Many critics fear that the Chinese Communist Party has unacceptable influence over TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, that it could use to, say, extract Americans’ data from the app or tweak its powerful algorithm to negatively influence public opinion. And many in Washington on both sides of the aisle find TikTok’s defense — for example, CEO Shou Zi Chew testified before the House of Representatives in March that “We do not promote or remove content at the request of the Chinese government” — unconvincing. “Republicans ain’t got no swag,” Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) has said, offering his explanation for why the GOP overwhelmingly backs restrictions on TikTok. But Republicans’ stance against the app also likely has to do with the party’s hardended posture towards China since the presidency of Donald Trump, who frequently condemned the country.
The app has been banned on official devices — that is, on government-owned computers and mobile phones — in nearly three dozen states, as well as, with some exceptions, federally under a bill signed by President Joe Biden on Dec. 30 of last year. There have been pushes in Congress to ban TikTok outright, for everyone, and the Biden administration has for years been reviewing whether TikTok should be forced to sell itself to an American firm or face prohibition.
If TikTok is banned, young people won’t just be losing out on a place to participate in the latest viral dance challenge, share anthropological memes about the ways we live today (see, “beige flags”) or learn life hacks like #tenminuterecipes. Both political parties will be losing out on a chance to connect with voters who are notoriously hard to turn out — and whose influence in politics is already hamstrung by restrictive voting rules and gerrymandering, which have been shown to have a disparate impact on minority voters.
Since its launch in 2016, “the versatility, the trust of this platform has grown exponentially,” says Linh Nguyen. “Understanding the power and growth of TikTok, it’s not even an emerging platform anymore. It’s the platform for younger generations.”
Jamaal Bowman didn’t think much of TikTok when he became a member of Congress in the winter of 2021. But Bowman, a New York Democrat representing parts of the Bronx and Westchester County, was soon persuaded to try the app by his then-22-year-old press secretary-slash-digital director, a University of Toronto grad named Emma Simon. Simon, who was otherwise trying to appease the TikTok algorithm with a steady diet of news clips, convinced Bowman to try posting updates on California Republican Kevin McCarthy’s attempt to be elected the next speaker of the House in the winter of 2023. Bowman embraced the role of political analyst; in one TikTok video, on the 12th vote, he cracked open a bag of Act II microwave popcorn in the cloakroom just off the House floor. On the 14th and penultimate vote, he offered a blow-by-blow of McCarthy’s chaotic struggle to get votes, in confessional-style talking straight into the camera, “It’s like they personally just don’t like this guy.” The video pulled in nearly 30,000 views and praise for giving viewers a behind-the-scenes look at Congress. Went one comment, “This is like when your cousin updates you on the big family fight.”
Bowman was hooked.
TikTok, says Bowman’s office (which would only speak without attribution to discuss the inner workings of his shop), is a good match for the 47-year-old congressman’s personality — what he calls his “middle-school principal energy,” his frequent references to hip-hop super group WuTang Clan, the “peace and love” with which he signs off of his clips — than other platforms. It’s also a safer space than X, the website formerly known as Twitter, where Bowman, a Black man and member of the so-called Squad, is often greeted with derision — “Such a drama queen!!!,” goes one recent comment — if not vitriol — “You’re just a race hustling court jester,” goes another. Comments on his TikTok clips run more along the lines of “This man has my heart.” A March video clip of Bowman saying at a House committee hearing, “Why can’t we leave trans people alone?” got just 103,000 views on X, but two million on TikTok.
Bowman’s 216,000-follower TikTok account is a best-in-show example of what the app can do for politicians: recognition and brand-building — Bowman makes the young Black and brown Americans like the ones he led as a school principal in the Bronx a centerpiece of his work — but, crucially, not fundraising or formal advertising.
That’s because TikTok has tried to sell itself as a place for everything but politics. Since 2019, the company has banned paid political advertising on the site (“the nature of paid political ads is not something we believe fits the TikTok platform experience,” TikTok’s then vice president of global business solutions Blake Chandlee said at the time the restrictions were imposed), a policy critics say is full of loopholes and is regularly abused but that reflects the firm’s belief that it’s better off without the political headaches that have plagued Facebook and other platforms.
Still, campaign consultants, particularly Democrats, have been watching candidates like Bowman take off on TikTok — and are determined to emulate their success on a bigger scale while not running afoul of TikTok’s restrictions on political speech. RUN AAPI, for its part, argues that their work is focused on increasing civic engagement, not explicit political advocacy, and thus colors within the lines of TikTok’s restrictions; TikTok did not respond to requests to clarify its political content rules.
BlueLabs Analytics is a Washington, D.C.-based firm that does predictive modeling of target audiences for progressive groups like Democratic Congressional Campaign, American Bridge and the League of Conservation Voters. Central to the model is a “contactability score” — in other words, a measure of the effectiveness of reaching a would-be supporter through one channel or another. In the last few years, BlueLabs has begun including TikTok in that research as a medium of interest, even though, at the moment, TikTok’s ban on political ads means that BlueLabs does not provide modeling for its political clients to use on the platform.
BlueLabs’ data paints TikTok as both a challenge and opportunity. According to previously unpublished BlueLabs data shared with POLITICO Magazine for this story, TikTok users are, it turns out, less politically engaged than users of other social media platforms, even controlling for age. For example, while some 65 percent of the control group knew that Republicans now hold a majority in the House of Representatives, only 51 percent of frequent TikTok users did. What’s more, while 32 percent of the control group under the age of 30 voted in the 2022 midterm election, only 26 percent of frequent TikTok users did.
I ask Ali Collins, BlueLabs’ director of political strategy and advocacy, if that data suggests the TikTok audience is, politically speaking, beyond reach. Collins suggests it’s the opposite: It’s a way into an audience that could be turned into voters, if an effort is actually made to engage them. “They’re spending less time on traditional modes of communication where a lot of political discussion happens, such as cable or broadcast TV,” she says. But, says Collins, it’s not a lost cause: “It’s just that we need to figure out how to reach them in an effective way.”
The political habits of TikTok users are an exaggerated version of those of the group most of them are coming from. Young people are typically less politically engaged: In 2022, people ages 18 to 29 voted at a rate of 31 percent, compared to nearly 47 percent of people 30 to 44, and 48 percent of people 45 to 64, according to Census data analyzed by the Brookings Institution. And those numbers dip further among young people of color: Some 26 percent of young Black Americans and 24 percent of young Hispanic Americans voted last cycle, compared to 35 percent of their white counterparts. Across age groups, Asian Americans are less likely to vote than white Americans. (Pollsters say there’s insufficient data on Asian American voting habits to break down across age groups.)
And TikTok, say experts, can help reach and motivate more of these voters. Hilary Nachem Loewenstein, managing director of the left-of-center public affairs and communications firm Bully Pulpit Interactive, says a best practice is to lean into using TikTok as a testing ground for what works. “What is interesting about TikTok is the ability to use the algorithm to find your audience — to be able to put out five or 10 or 20 messages, and to better understand what is resonating, because the algorithm is very good at determining what people are interested in.”
Often, though, that isn’t politicians themselves at all.
“A bit of a new Hollywood era,” says Lowenstein, referring to TikTok users often called, sometimes with a bit of derision, “influencers,” a term that more generously refers to the people who other people listen to on the app. For politicians who might not themselves be fodder for TikTok traction, there’s another way: borrowing the reach of others.
It’s likely a space in which TikTok will expand — tapping into influencers who can help carry political messages on a platform largely allergic to them, going the way of corporate brand marketing, which is turning more towards seemingly organic influencer-driven content rather than old-school advertising in a bid to capture Americans’ enormously fractured attention.
Vickie Segar, founder at Village Marketing, a New York City-based “influencer-led creative agency,” notes that the Biden campaign in 2020 recruited unpaid influencers on TikTok (thus exempting them from the app’s ban on paid political ads) during the country’s debate over Black Lives Matter to explore Biden’s record on race — and the doubts some Black Americans had about where a President Biden would stand on everything from policing to economy opportunity. It was, the thinking went, more powerful than simply having Biden tackle the topics without intermediaries. “If you allow an influencer or creator to be able to ask the questions they want, which we did,” says Segar, “they usually ask the questions their community wants to ask, in the way their community wants to ask them.”
In 2019, Alex Kronman realized that his company Flytedesk, which he had started six years earlier to sell advertising space on college campuses, could take on a new opportunity: influencers on Instagram and TikTok.
Today, as part of its “Campus Influencers” program launched in February of 2020, Flytedesk partners with the business staff of campus news organizations and others on campus, paying those students a fee between $50 and $300 to identify would-be student influencers with outsized reach on campus, such as student-athletes, sorority leaders and heads of Black student unions.
Once harvested, those names go into a database made accessible to brands and organizations looking for micro-influencers on Instagram and TikTok. If paired with the campaign, those content creators are given a brief on what the organization is looking for and are paid at least $50 per post with less than 10,000 followers, and at least $100 with more.
In 2020, the nonpartisan voter turnout group VoteAmerica tapped some 700 influencers through the Flytedesk system, with a focus on students at some of the country’s hundred-plus historically Black colleges and universities. (VoteAmerica is non-partisan non-profit, and sees its work, like Run AAPI, as civic engagement within the boundaries of TikTok’s political content rules.) Overall, VoteAmerica spent about 25 percent of its outreach budget on turning out students at historically Black colleges and universities in 2020, VoteAmerica founder and CEO Debra Cleaver told me.
“With 50 kids,” says Kronman, “we can saturate a college campus.”
The business model is not without its challenges. For one thing, “the entire audience turns over 25 percent year over year,” says Kronman, referring to the graduation of seniors. And, says Cleaver, “For all we know by next year, there’ll be some new hotness all the young people will be on.” But for now, says Cleaver, it’s a powerful way to reach otherwise reluctant voters.
Cleaver says that while the scramble of the final days of the campaign didn’t allow for much time to analyze the program’s success, she says that it allowed her group to tap into the triumvirate of factors they know to persuade people to vote: knowing the date of the election, fear of missing out on something everyone’s doing, and a message delivered by a persuasive voice. “The best messenger is someone you trust already,” says Cleaver, and “when I say ‘trusted,’ I mean someone you know, like literally someone from campus.”
There are, naturally, worries that TikTok and its powerful algorithm can be used as a tool for misinformation. “This is a platform that can be very easily used to manipulate people en masse, in an instant,” says Brandi Geurkink, a senior research fellow at the digital-rights group Mozilla Foundation.
But fans of the platform argue it can also do the opposite.
Last year, Trilogy, a left-of-center digital firm, was hired to work on Michigan’s “Yes on Prop 2” campaign. The measure would amend the state constitution with the aim of protecting access to voting, and the campaign to pass it was backed by a coalition of groups that included the Michigan branches of the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Federation of Teachers.
The problem was, polling and focus-group work done by the campaign found that Michigan voters — particularly young Michiganders and Michiganders of color — were suspicious of “voting reform” amid pushes from the right to make voting laws more restrictive. The campaign’s challenge was then, as one focus-group member put it, to convince would-be supporters that the measure was “from the good side.”
With no candidates or other human face to rally around, Trilogy sought other trusted messengers to make the case. A Michigan-native Trilogy staffer, Jake Levy-Pollans, helped pick a handful of hashtags used by TikTok users to narrow in on possible TikTok influencers the campaign might want to work with, including #DTW, as in the location code for Detroit Metro Airport; #pistons, for the local NBA team; and #TheMitten, a reference to the state’s unusual and oft-invoked shape. From there they tossed out, for obvious reasons, anyone showing violent tendencies, and they also dropped from the pool one-hit wonders, or TikTok users whose high-follower count could be traced back to a single blockbuster post.
At the same time, though, they weren’t looking for the biggest names; a rather dry test post found that former University of Michigan basketball player and then-ESPN analyst Jalen Rose — “Your voice needs to be heard,” Rose intones, looking straight at the camera — didn’t have the same bang-for-the-buck traction on TikTok as others with lower public profile but more active on TikTok. They ended up working with 13 creators. A local parent might be paid $800 for a post; the most the campaign offered was $15,000 to a former college sports figure in the state they’d rather not name. The influencers submitted scripts for vetting, but Trilogy CEO Larry Hyunh says they endeavored to only lightly edit them; one video produced by the campaign features Trellevision, an edgy Detroit comedic content creator, who shot a skit of himself in one of his go-to formats, getting yelled at by a drive-through fast-food cashier. (Creators who film while actually driving were out; it’s too irresponsible a look for a political spot, Trilogy staffers say.)
In the sponsored post, just over a minute long, Trellevision tells the cashier that while he intends to vote, he’d do it when he had “some time.” Shoots back the cashier, “Your girl watching the kids and you got Tuesdays off! You outta all people have the time!” Says Hyunh, “It isn’t something that you would typically see in a paid ad. [But] doing it in their style, doing it in a way that communicates with their audience, I find it exhilarating.” Proposition 2 passed.
National campaigns are getting in on the action, too. The presidential campaign of Joe Biden in 2020, for its part, did some light influencer work, partnering with unpaid creators who numbered in the dozens. Many of the influencers the Biden campaign worked with were aimed at connecting with communities of color.
Biden’s attempt to win a second term is also aided by external actors working explicitly in his name. Gen-Z for Change, a coalition of left-leaning volunteer influencers, for example, has helped organize TikTok boosters for the candidate among that coveted sub-26-years-old demographic. And EMILY’s List, the long-standing progressive political action committee that supports women candidates, has said that it plans to spend “tens of millions of dollars” boosting the reputation of Vice President Kamala Harris, including via TikTok. (BlueLabs’ data suggest there might be particular wisdom to that strategy; while frequent TikTok users are generally less politically engaged than their less-TikTok-using counterparts, they were able to correctly identify Harris as vice president at nearly the same rate, 92 percent to 94 percent. “That would suggest that Kamala Harris has some salience with these voters,” says BlueLabs’ Ali Collins.)
While most of the research and experimentation into what TikTok can do for politics is on the left, largely because the app’s users overlap with the demographics of the Democratic Party, that’s not to say there isn’t any hope for Republicans hoping to harness its power.
Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist, hopes that whichever Republican runs against Biden avails him or herself of the same TikTok tools. Wilson was the digital director for the 2016 presidential campaign of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a prominent critic of the app who has said “It is time to ban Beijing-controlled TikTok for good.”
But research conducted by the Center for Campaign Innovation, a right-of-center group for which Wilson serves as director, found last fall that one in five Republicans between the ages of 18 and 49 open TikTok every day. That’s maybe not a ton of voters, but it’s not nothing — and it’s also likely to increase as users age. Not engaging on TikTok, says Wilson, “is just a total failure to protect our flank.”
“We either need to kill it or embrace it,” says Wilson. He says he tells candidates to think of TikTok like a local tomato festival that draws in great swarms of voters: “You may not like eating tomatoes, but you’ve still got to be there.”
The possibility of a TikTok ban loomed over all of these conversations. During several interviews, strategists and staffers mentioned all of this research and experimentation could be for nothing if Congress or the Biden administration succeeds in implementing a ban on TikTok.
But for now, Republicans are also the ones more likely to support a ban entirely. In March, Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and John Thune (R-S.D.) introduced a TikTok-targeted bill that would empower the Department of Commerce to ban it and similar apps, and its co-sponsors are split nearly evenly between Democrats and Republicans, but it has the backing of just a quarter of the Senate. Of the 32 governors who have banned the app on official devices, a full three-quarters are Republicans. That’s of a piece with the American population at large: A recent Wall Street Journal poll found that 62 percent of Republicans back a ban on the platform, while only 33 percent of Democrats feel the same.
Banning TikTok might feel satisfying, admit campaign experts, but they warn of possible considerable negative consequences — cutting off a channel for reaching a key slice of the American electorate at a time when faith in American democracy is dwindling.
Cheryl Hori, founder of Pacific Campaign House, a left-of-center digital agency that has worked with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Color of Change and the LGBTQ+ group Equality California, argues that restrictions on TikTok hurt the kind of outreach her company does, even if they’re not strict prohibitions. “If you’re going to invest your time in a platform to reach a certain audience and then you know that if you get elected, all that work is gone,” says Hori, “from a 1,000-foot view perspective, it doesn’t make sense to invest it.”
And, says RUN AAPI’s Linh Nguyen, that creators are already preparing to diversify to other platforms, from Snapchat to Discord. “A lot of creators are anticipating, ‘This shit might not be around in a year.’”
For the politicians and advocacy groups who are spending this election cycle trying to break through on TikTok in a bid to reach young voters of color, it presents a brand-new challenge: figuring out where they’re headed next.