Biden’s Challenges in Reaching Young Voters on TikTok Include Anger Over Gaza

Biden’s Challenges in Reaching Young Voters on TikTok Include Anger Over Gaza

President Biden’s campaign aims to bridge the generation gap and reach tens of millions of mostly younger voters on TikTok, where the challenges are daunting and the benefits are hard to track.

The obstacles range from anger over the war in Gaza to what social media experts describe as the inevitably uncool way of supporting the government in power.

Mr Biden, 81, joined a Chinese company’s app last month in what was widely seen as an attempt to communicate with voters under 30, with whom he has polled poorly for months. In interviews and polls, these voters said they were unaware of his administration’s accomplishments, which could be mitigated by word of mouth on TikTok.

But navigating the platform and its more than 150 million users in the U.S. required confronting, mostly in the comments of his own posts, some of the thorniest issues plaguing Mr. Biden’s re-election effort: disaffected voters averse to politics, concerns regarding his age, outrage over the death toll in Gaza. Former President Donald J. Trump is not on the app, but his supporters are active. Making matters worse, Mr. Biden’s aides are trying to sell his record on a platform that his administration has claimed poses a threat to national security.

A bill that would force TikTok to cut ties with its Chinese owner or face a ban in the U.S. is stalled in the Senate, but the president has said he will sign it if it passes – a Position that has angered even his most loyal young supporters.

“TikTok pushes the culture, but ultimately also reflects it. “This is clearly a time when young people are dissatisfied with the world they are inheriting and are not particularly enamored with the institutions of power that they believe have failed them,” said Teddy Goff, a Democratic digital strategist . “I think President Biden actually has a pretty amazing record, but saying ‘rah rah’ to the guys who are already in charge isn’t exactly the coolest message for a group of 19-year-olds.”

Since the last presidential election, the video-sharing app has exploded in popularity, becoming a dominant source of news and political discourse, used by 56 percent of U.S. adults ages 18 to 34. Since joining TikTok in February, the Biden campaign has posted dozens of videos to it and has fewer than 300,000 followers.

Some feature the president making sales stops and answering questions about the Super Bowl, while others feature campaign ads and excerpts from his State of the Union address. In an effort to re-engage voters fired up by Mr. Trump in 2020, many posts focus on the former president. A video highlighting Trump’s plans for a second term is among the campaign’s most viewed videos.

Users often use TikTok features to comment on his posts in a mocking manner. After the campaign released a video in which Mr. Biden criticized Mr. Trump and said, “He’s going to cut Social Security because of my dead body,” some users responded with videos that drew attention to the president’s age — and received more views than that Original.

Mr. Biden’s campaign has tried to use TikTok to address these larger voter concerns: In one video, Mr. Biden makes a joke about late-night host Jimmy Fallon’s ratings after Mr. Fallon complains about Mr. Fallon’s age Biden had made fun of. The mocking videos and comments are considered normal by the campaign when engaging on a social media platform.

“We see TikTok as one of many tools to reach voters in an increasingly fragmented media environment,” said Lauren Hitt, a spokeswoman for Mr. Biden. “Thanks to record-breaking grassroots fundraising, we are reaching voters where they are and on every platform, from TikTok and Instagram to TV ads and door knocking.”

Similar to how the White House works with social media influencers, Mr Biden’s campaign plans to use TikTok creators to spread his message. However, political activity is discouraged on TikTok compared to other platforms: its community guidelines do not allow paid political advertising, and users are prohibited from “receiving payments for creating political content.”

What might appeal to Mr. Biden is a somewhat open question. In January, TikTok restricted access to a tool that measures hashtag popularity, making it harder to independently track content performance.

Joan Donovan, a misinformation researcher who studies TikTok, said the campaign may find it difficult to reach a disinterested audience without enabling a relationship with viewers on a platform that rewards authenticity.

Some younger Democrats, such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez of New York and Rep. Jeff Jackson of North Carolina, have gained significant TikTok followings by explaining politics to viewers in conversation. The campaigns of Senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania in 2022 and Senator Jon Ossoff of Georgia in 2020 successfully used TikTok trends to reach potential voters, in part because they were new faces to many.

Mr. Biden “has been a political creature for decades, so the idea of ​​renaming him and reintroducing him to the world is simply not going to work,” Ms. Donovan said.

Annie Wu Henry, the architect of Mr. Fetterman’s TikTok strategy, said the landscape has changed even since his successful Senate run, in part because more people are using the app and that it’s not enough “just on.” Being TikTok.”

“It doesn’t matter how good, funny or creative a TikTok is if the person watching it is upset or doesn’t like the person being posted about,” she said.

Many young people using the app were particularly upset by what they saw as American complicity in Israel’s military operation in Gaza. Images and videos of war abound on the app, as do posts urging people to punish Mr. Biden’s support for Israel by not voting for him in 2024. Little attention is paid to his government’s efforts to reach a bilateral ceasefire agreement and provide more aid to Gaza. Pro-Palestinian users flood his campaign’s posts with comments referencing Palestinians and Rafah, the Gaza city where more than a million people are seeking refuge and Israel has said it will attack.

“Biden recognizes the power TikTok has to influence young voters. But he and the campaign don’t seem to understand that appealing to young voters must go hand in hand with political change on Gaza and a range of issues,” said Aidan Kohn-Murphy, the 20-year-old founder of Gen Z for Change. , a nonprofit coalition of TikTok creators. “You’re not going to win back young voters by posting a meme on TikTok.”

The “Gen Z for Change” account, which Mr. Kohn-Murphy opened four years ago under a different name to promote Mr. Biden’s 2020 campaign bid, now regularly posts videos critical of the president to its 1.7 million followers.

Mr Biden’s campaign has left communication about the war to the White House. Arab American leaders in Michigan declined to meet with Biden’s campaign manager in January, expressing a desire to reach political officials.

TikTok creators who support Mr. Biden, like Harry Sisson, a 21-year-old student who has posted videos praising the president, have tried to fill the void. “If Donald Trump wins and destroys America because all these people decided to wait, then don’t complain,” he said in a November video, dismissing posts urging people not to support Mr. Biden.

In response, Mr. Sisson received a flood of negative comments and videos attacking him, which he said is common when campaigning for the president.

Where even Mr. Sisson diverges from the president is in Congress’s bipartisan attempt to force a sale of the app or have it banned, which he said would be “very bad” for Democrats. The White House recently privately lobbied talent agencies that represent TikTok creators to emphasize that they want divestment.

For his part, Mr. Trump has walked back previous efforts to ban the app and said he does not support the legislation.

Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist who encouraged candidates to join TikTok, said data collected after the 2022 midterm elections showed more Republicans, particularly young and pro-Trump Republicans, were using the platform regularly. Mr Biden’s supporters are fighting for a voice against conservative users whose content ranges from praising the former president to highlighting issues such as the refugee crisis.

Mr. Wilson said the biggest digital challenge for both presidential campaigns this year was “combatting voter apathy and ensuring their supporters turn out to vote.” Republican politicians have been more hesitant to join TikTok, he said, but are able to reach voters on platforms like Facebook, while young voters who are accessible to Democrats on TikTok are “hard to reach elsewhere.”

But whether influencers can help Mr. Biden in a politically tense environment remains to be seen. Emily Koh, a YouTuber who recently teamed up with a group promoting progressive causes, said in an interview that she supports Democrats and wants to be more politically active, but was dissatisfied with Mr. Biden’s stance on TikTok legislation and the Gaza war disappointed.

Mr. Biden and his allies, Ms. Koh said, “have to do two things: They have to be willing to work with this new kind of media, and they also have to actually do the things that we as voters are demanding.”

“Although there are people who can create really great content, it’s not like they can erase what’s actually happening,” she said.

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2024-03-26 14:50:51