The TikTok Election: Could Digital Campaigning Decide the 2024 Race?
This article was written by The Zillennial Zine’s summer editorial intern PJ Cunningham. Find him on Instagram at @peachycunningham. If you would like to share an article with The Zillennial, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
No one ever says they want to talk politics. Yet, everywhere, from our classrooms to our TV screens is plastered with political debates, political advertising and of course, the always subtly political, or sometimes not so subtly, day-to-day workings of local government and business. This phenomenon is true on social media as well. According to data from Pew Research, seven in 10 Americans use social media and gather information from it. Furthermore, nearly 100 million Americans are expected to be active on TikTok by 2024, while nearly 200-plus million Americans are expected to use social networking platforms such as Instagram and Facebook.
Those numbers aren’t just massive, but also politically significant. The trend of growing social media usage has corresponded directly with an increase in spending on social media ads by political campaigns. The 2020 campaigns of both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump both broke spending records on social media ads, with each campaign forking over around $100 million on digital outreach, over double the combined total from the 2016 election.
In other words, you may not want to talk politics on social media, but politics is talking you.
Here’s a look at why.
A Brief History of Campaign Outreach and Its Ongoing Evolution
On August 21, 1858, Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas sat down in a then-unprecedented debate with his little-known challenger, some tall guy with an odd hat by the name of Abraham Lincoln. While Lincoln lost and was famously never heard from again (wink wink), the debate proved significant as it demonstrated one of the first cases of candidates in a large scale election debating a serious issue in front of the public.
Over a century later in 1960, presidential hopefuls John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon would bring the tradition of public political discourse into the modern world, as they sparred over policies and personality in the first-ever televised presidential debate.
36 years later, Bob Dole proved to be an unlikely pioneer for online campaigning as the 76-year-old Republican challenger to incumbent Bill Clinton presented the first-ever candidate website as part of his innovative yet unsuccessful 1996 White House bid.
While we have indeed come a long way from Dole’s site and obviously evolved significantly both socially and politically as a result, the commonality between the campaign outreach methods of old and the political game plans today are clear. Campaigns aim to use any and all means of public outreach necessary to make sure that both their current supporters are engaged and that potential new voters are attracted to their campaigns.
Since social media plays host to millions of potential voters and supporters, it is unsurprising that it represents the next frontier of campaigning.
TikTok: Home of Possibilities… and Problems
While campaigning is ubiquitous across nearly every social media platform, TikTok presents perhaps the most promising space being a relatively new and dynamic addition to the social networking landscape.
Unlike Google, Facebook and Instagram, TikTok does not allow direct political ads. In other words, campaigns cannot directly address voters. However, that has not stopped politicians and political movements from engaging with users on the app. Through creative posting, which has featured everything from Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer dancing to a rap song about her made by supporters to now-defeated Republican California House hopeful Brian Hawkins using the app to reach out to young conservatives in an attempt to gain new supporters in a competitive district, political figures and policy issues are becoming palatable, ready-to-share clips on TikTok.
While different from the direct campaigning of old, these posts allow for familiarity, a key trait any candidate looking to attract potential voters desires. Once again returning to Whitmer, one can see that her online persona of “Big Gretch,” has made her appear likable and humorous, characteristics that matter to voters, particularly in the famously competitive state of Michigan. Even candidates who attract more divisive responses online, such as former President Donald Trump, still benefit from clicks on social media.
Therefore, in an era where candidates can reach others like never before, it is no surprise that those who have maximized their social media presence, including and especially their TikTok viewership, appear to create lasting impressions with supporters.
TikTok however, is not without its fair share of problematic elements when it comes to politics.
Firstly, the continued existence of TikTok itself is a political issue. Members of Congress across the aisle have argued in favor of regulating or outright banning the app, citing concerns ranging from youth health and development to national security. Therefore, despite the aforementioned popularity of the network, its future, particularly when it comes to politics, is shaky to say the least.
Furthermore, unlike in-person campaigning and even candidate websites, the spread of misinformation can be both difficult to stop and even harder to prove. Without official campaign pages, people can easily spread falsehoods surrounding candidate positions, or even peddle complete lies. While many politicians are hardly known for their candor and honesty, the idea that political discourse on social media apps like TikTok could determine elections is quite alarming when one realizes that new voters (looking at us in the mirror Gen Z!!) may receive the majority of their political news and information on the platform.
Unfortunately, fears surrounding misinformation do not just exist in hypothetical terms. In Germany, TikTok users impersonated opposing candidates for the 2021 German parliament, potentially misinforming voters in the process. Stakes proved even higher in the Philippines in 2022 when voters elected Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son of the nation’s former 1980s dictator, which may have been based upon TikTok posts that sugar-coated his father’s actions.
Though wishful thinking may lead us to believe that we would never fall for social media-driven political misinformation, events such as the Jan. 6 riots and hypercharged, inaccurate discourse and politicization of issues like the COVID vaccine suggest otherwise.
While TikTok’s ability to increase outreach and awareness is a major positive for both campaigns and voters alike in the upcoming election, its unclear future and lack of accountability structure could prove to create quite the electoral headache as well.
Looking Toward the Future
With candidates such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Former South Carolina Gov. and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, and of course, Trump all looking to unseat incumbent Democrat Joe Biden, 2024’s presidential election is already looking like it will be both competitive and controversial. In such a likely heated race, TikTok and other platforms could potentially play kingmaker, as its unique qualities allow for the candidates to access new voting bases like never before. In the same fashion, as in-person debating and the advent of TV and Wi-Fi changed politics forever, it is likely 2024 will usher in the era of the TikTok election campaign.
So, be safe, be smart and be ready, because views, including yours, could well mean votes and victories in the race for America’s future.
What do you think about a TikTok election campaign? Let us know in the comments below!