The Media Today

Young People Get Their News from TikTok. That’s a Huge Problem for Democrats.

March 15, 2024
Evan Vucci/AP Photo

Democrats are doing the most awkward TikTok dance.

The House’s Wednesday vote to force TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance, to sell the social media behemoth to an American entity has put Democrats from President Biden on down in a tough spot. Most are now on record backing a bill that could shutter a fast-growing platform that’s most popular with the young voters they so badly need.

TikTok users aren’t just kids mindlessly scrolling dance videos. Roughly one-third of Americans aged 18–29 regularly get their news from TikTok, the Pew Research Center found in a late 2023 survey. Nearly half of all TikTok users say they regularly get news from the app, a higher percentage than for any other social media platform aside from Twitter.

Almost 40 percent of young adults were using TikTok and Instagram for their primary Web search instead of the traditional search engines, a Google senior vice president said in mid-2022—a number that’s almost certainly grown since then. Overall, TikTok claims 150 million American users, almost half the US population; two-thirds of Americans aged 18–29 use the app.

“It is astonishing the extent to which TikTok has become the primary information platform for young people,” said Jesse Lehrich, a Democratic strategist and Big Tech critic. “Us olds are slow to pick up on the ways that young people are actually using these platforms. People use it as search. People use it as their primary news source.”

Pissing off TikTok users is obviously a risk for Democrats. As Biden administration Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo told Bloomberg News a few weeks ago, if Democrats ban TikTok, “the politician in me thinks you’re going to literally lose every voter under 35, forever.” (One irate TikTok user recently left a congressman a voicemail saying that “TikTok is my Google” and that, if they didn’t vote against banning it, “you’re gonna see me at your house.”)

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The bigger issue for Democrats is how to reach the young Americans who are the heaviest users of the platform—and who polls show are far less fired up about the 2024 election than they were four years ago. Many are furious at Biden over issues ranging from the war in Gaza and immigration to social justice and police reform—topics that feature prominently on the app.

That’s why even though Biden says he supports the legislation that would force ByteDance to sell TikTok, his campaign actually joined TikTok last month. His official TikTok page has a quarter-million followers so far. That’s nothing compared to top influencers—@MrBeast (ask your kids) is closing in on a hundred million TikTok followers—but it’s a start; some of Biden’s bigger videos have collected millions of views. Biden’s campaign and the White House have also heavily courted social media influencers: last week, they brought in dozens of digital creators, including ones with major TikTok followings, for a private briefing and lunch with Vice President Kamala Harris ahead of the State of the Union.

The Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump, has been much more transactional in his stance on the app. He spent years pledging to shut down TikTok, and, while in office, signed an executive order blocking companies from doing business with its parent company. But after a recent meeting with GOP megadonor Jeff Yass, a major ByteDance investor, Trump came out in favor of protecting the app, and against the House bill. 

But the voters Trump needs to chase are a lot more likely to be on Facebook. Democrats need TikTok users. That’s part of why so many Democrats and digital experts I spoke to were torn about this issue. Some Hill Democrats privately wish TikTok would magically disappear—they believe its content has radicalized some in their base with disinformation or biased reporting on issues like Gaza and Israel, turning them against Democrats with more moderate positions.

Much of the division, even in Congress, is generational. The fifty Democrats who voted against the bill this week—almost a quarter of the delegation—included a swath of young progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who has nearly a million TikTok followers, and Rep. Max Frost (D-FL), a former grassroots organizer who, at twenty-seven, is the only Gen Z member of Congress.

There are, obviously, real privacy and national security risks associated with having a company under the thumb of the Chinese Communist Party pushing reams of news content to Americans with little oversight. Given our collective experience with Russia using Facebook and other social media platforms to help push Trump across the finish line in the 2016 presidential election, we all should be concerned about a major foreign adversary having such a direct pipeline to voters. But that doesn’t change the reality of 2024 politics. Biden needs to win back young voters. They’re on TikTok. And unless and until that platform goes away, Democrats need to be where the voters are.

Melissa Ryan works on combating extremism and disinformation online, and said that she understands the legitimate concerns many lawmakers have about China gaining access to Americans’ data—though she added that the disinformation on TikTok is no more pervasive than on other social media platforms.

But as a former Democratic digital strategist who worked for President Obama’s 2012 reelection and the pro-abortion-rights group EMILY’s List, Ryan said it was obvious what Democratic candidates should do.

“I would absolutely tell my candidates they need to be on TikTok, particularly if they need younger voters like Biden does. And I would be ready to explain the fallout from casting that vote [in the House],” she said.

Lehrich, who was a foreign policy spokesman on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, said he is alarmed about the power that TikTok gives China to influence and monitor Americans. But that doesn’t mean Democrats can avoid it—any more than they can abandon Twitter/X just because right-wing conspiracy theorist Elon Musk bought the platform. (Indeed, they could find themselves staring down much the same situation if former Trump cabinet official Steven Mnuchin buys TikTok, as he’s now apparently trying to.)

“There’s a reason the Biden campaign felt obliged to make a TikTok account even though they’re obviously critical of the platform. You just can’t refuse to meet people where they are,” Lehrich said. “We don’t want this to be the information ecosystem that we live in. But let’s not lose the election that might decide the fate of democracy because we want to take the moral high ground.”

Other notable stories:

  • Reuters obtained a report, prepared by a United Nations body in Lebanon, that concluded that Israel violated international law when it killed Issam Abdallah, a Reuters photojournalist, near the country’s border with Lebanon in October. The report found that Israeli tanks opened fire on Abdallah and several other journalists who were “clearly identifiable” as such, at a time when no exchange of fire across the border had been observed in forty minutes. The report described the reason for the strike as “not known.”
  • Yesterday—on the second anniversary of an attack in Ukraine that seriously injured Benjamin Hall, a Fox News correspondent, and killed his colleagues Pierre Zakrzewski, a videographer, and Sasha Kuvshynova, a contractor—Kuvshynova’s parents and a security consultant for Fox sued the network, alleging that it pressured its team into reporting from a dangerous area and then covered up the true circumstances of the attack. Fox said that it would “respectfully defend” against “inaccurate claims” in the suit.
  • In other international press-freedom news, Jaime Barrera, a broadcast journalist in Mexico, was found alive after going missing on Monday; he said that an armed gang had kidnapped him, beaten him, and warned him about his journalism. And municipal officials in China apologized for manhandling staffers from CCTV, the state broadcaster, during a live broadcast from the site of a deadly explosion caused by a gas leak. Per the AP, the apology was “a rare acknowledgment of state aggression against journalists” in China.
  • Phil Chetwynd, the global news director of Agence France-Presse, spoke to the BBC about the agency’s decision, along with several of its counterparts, to retract a photo of Kate Middleton, the princess of Wales, that had been provided by Kensington Palace after finding that the image had been manipulated. Chetwynd said that the palace is now “absolutely not” a trusted source for AFP, and pointed out how rare it is for the agency to retract a photo, noting that it last did so with images issued by North Korea and Iran.
  • And for CJR, Belle Cushing makes the case that print is cool again among young people. “Print may have largely vanished from the broader media landscape, but in high schools across the country, it’s alive and well,” Cushing writes. That’s partly due to the involvement of older faculty advisers nostalgic for the heyday of the print newspaper, “but in recent years, print has gained a newfound pull among young people, whose experience with physical newspapers is likely limited to visits with their grandparents.”

ICYMI: How print got cool again

Cameron Joseph is a freelance political reporter with recent work in The Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, and Politico Magazine. A recipient of the 2023 National Press Foundation Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress and the 2020 National Press Club award for excellence in political journalism, he previously worked for VICE News, Talking Points Memo, the New York Daily News, The Hill and National Journal.