Biden, Trump look to TikTok to woo voters in US presidential election

Supporters of former US President Donald Trump hold signs and flags as they show their support for the Republican 2024 presidential candidate during a "Caravan for Trump" demonstration in West Palm Beach, Florida, on June 2, 2024. [AFP]

It's my honor," said former U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday in the first video post of his account on TikTok, a social media platform he tried to ban as president on national security grounds, amassing 4.6 million followers.

The post, which showed Trump, the Republican Party's presumptive presidential nominee, waving to the audience at an Ultimate Fighting Championship game in the U.S. state of New Jersey, has garnered around 73 million views and received over 4.7 million likes.

Trump has not been a fan of TikTok. When he was president, he issued an executive order in 2020 banning U.S. transactions with TikTok and its Chinese parent company ByteDance, citing national security concerns. The order was blocked by a federal judge.

Embroiled in a series of criminal and civil lawsuits at the federal and local levels, he has lately tried to distance himself from the ban attempt.

"There are a lot of people on TikTok that love it. There are a lot of young kids on TikTok who will go crazy without it," Trump said in an interview with CNBC, adding that without TikTok, you can make the "enemy of the people" bigger.

Trump's emergence on the platform comes as the former president's own social media platform, Truth Social, faces new pressure after he was found guilty of falsifying business records to influence the 2016 presidential election, according to a National Public Radio report.

He became the first former president in U.S. history convicted of a crime after a jury in New York on Thursday found him guilty of all 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in a bid to hide hush money payment to a porn star in 2016, shortly before the presidential election.

The move by Trump to join TikTok is an effort to reach potential voters, especially younger ones, in the run-up to the November election, reported Politico, a U.S.-based politics-focused digital newspaper.

"The campaign is playing on all fields... Being able to do outreach on multiple platforms and outlets is important and this is just one of many ways we're going to reach out to voters. TikTok skews towards a younger audience," said the report, citing an adviser to Trump's campaign.

Before Trump joined TikTok, his 2024 presidential contender, the incumbent U.S. President Joe Biden, had already opened a TikTok account in February. To date, the account has posted over 200 videos and amassed over 350,000 followers with 4.6 million likes.

While using the platform to woo voters, Biden signed a bill into law in April after it was passed by both houses of U.S. Congress. The law required TikTok to divest from Chinese tech giant ByteDance, or face a nationwide ban in the United States.

"We would be silly to write off any place where people are getting information about the president," said Rob Flaherty, director of the White House's Office of Digital Strategy and deputy manager of Biden's reelection campaign.

Biden's team forged relationships with TikTok influencers in the 2020 election, and the platform has only gotten more influential since then and has been growing as an internet search engine and driving narratives about the president, according to a report by the Associated Press (AP), citing Flaherty.

The Biden campaign says that an increasingly fragmented modern media environment requires it to meet voters where they are, and that TikTok is one of many such places where would-be supporters see its content, in addition to platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, said the AP report.

A third of U.S. adults, including over 60 percent of adults under 30, use TikTok. While news consumption on other social media sites has declined or remained stagnant in recent years, the share of U.S. TikTok users who get news on the site has doubled since 2020, when 22 percent got news there, according to Pew Research.

Both parties are loath to discount the app's influence, especially in an election that will be determined by a few hundred thousand voters in a handful of battleground states, said Tara Palmeri, partner and senior political correspondent at Puck, a U.S. digital media company.

"There's a core hypocrisy to the Biden administration supporting the TikTok ban while at the same time using TikTok for his campaign purposes," said Kahlil Greene, who has more than 650,000 followers on TikTok and is known as the "Gen Z Historian." 

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