A handful of Democratic candidates have joined TikTok this year to rally support in closely divided Senate races, a change from the 2020 election when political campaigns almost universally treated the Chinese-owned app as radioactive because of data security concerns.
NBC News found that nine Democratic candidates in this year’s 35 Senate races are posting to TikTok, while three Republican Senate candidates are using it. The most prominent of them, Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, hasn’t posted in more than a month. All nine Democrats posted this month.
In the most competitive Senate races, four of the Democrats are using TikTok: Sen. Raphael Warnock in Georgia, former state Chief Justice Cheri Beasley in North Carolina, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman in Pennsylvania and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin. The only Republican in a competitive Senate race using TikTok is Oz, who began posting there in 2019 before he left his television show for politics. His campaign did not respond to a request for comment on why he stopped posting.
While far from a broad embrace by the Democratic Party, the accounts add to a growing momentum on the app for news and politics. A Pew Research Center study released last week found that 26% of adults under 30 now regularly get their news on TikTok. And some topics such as abortion and Ukraine have resonated on the platform.
“TikTok does have such widespread use,” Madison Horn, the Democratic nominee for one of two Senate races in Oklahoma, said in a phone interview. “And with Oklahoma having the lowest voter turnout in the nation, we need to be able to leverage resources such as TikTok.”
But security questions continue to hang over the app, most notably from Republicans, though Democrats have concerns, as well.
Two years ago, the Democratic and the Republican national committees warned their staff against using TikTok, and then-candidate Joe Biden’s chief lawyer told his staff to delete the video app from both work and personal phones. Politics on the app in 2020 was largely the domain of pranksters and teenage pundits.
Privacy risks are not unique to TikTok, but they drove then-President Donald Trump to try to ban TikTok in 2020 until federal courts blocked the move, and the concerns remain for many U.S. users. Lawmakers grilled a TikTok executive at a congressional hearing last month on how much access the Chinese government might have to data on Americans.
And last week, Forbes reported that a China-based team at TikTok parent company ByteDance planned to use TikTok to monitor the location of specific American citizens. NBC News has not independently confirmed the report. TikTok told Forbes that it uses location data to help show relevant ads to users and detect fraud, among other reasons.
Republicans cite several reasons why they’re still rejecting TikTok. Chief among them: the app’s ownership by ByteDance, which is a Chinese company.
“What’s unique about TikTok? Data that’s inside of TikTok is more likely to be accessible by the Chinese government,” according to Andrew Barkett, a former chief technology officer for the Republican National Committee, who said he’s informally advising several campaigns this fall.
RNC spokesperson Nathan Brand said in a statement: “We do not have any plans to give the Chinese Communist Party our data, nor do we plan to use their spyware.”
But some campaigns are eschewing those concerns, while also taking precautions. Horn, a cybersecurity consultant before running for Senate, said a volunteer manages her TikTok account on a device that doesn’t have any other campaign data.
“I don’t trust that TikTok isn’t being used against us,” she said, citing past allegations of Chinese hacking. Other campaigns didn’t respond to questions about their security practices.
A handful of House candidates are testing out TikTok, too. In 32 House races rated as toss-ups by the Cook Political Report as of Monday, three Democrats are using TikTok and all three have posted this month, according to an NBC News tally. Four Republicans are using it in those races, although three of the four haven’t posted in more than a month.
That doesn’t necessarily mean TikTok has a liberal slant. There are a number of conservative accounts with large followings, and researchers from the Technical University of Munich found in 2020 that Republican users generated more political content on the app than did Democrats.
But even if security were not a concern, U.S. politicians might not flock to TikTok. That’s because the app has made life difficult for political candidates, in contrast to older social media apps such as Facebook and Twitter which years ago actively courted campaigns and their donors.
Last month, TikTok expanded its ban on paid political ads and announced a system for verifying politicians and political parties.
“We don’t proactively encourage politicians or political parties to join TikTok, but we welcome those that have chosen to and want to ensure our community knows the source is authentic when watching that content,” Blake Chandlee, TikTok’s president for global business solutions, said in a blog post then.
The perception that TikTok is only for teenagers has turned off some strategists, especially Republicans.
“We know that 60% of voters are logging in to Facebook every day, so with such a high concentration, that’s where campaigns are putting their focus,” said Eric Wilson, a Republican strategist and technologist.
TikTok, he said, “is a place where Democrats can reach the voters that they need to turn out.”
But TikTok’s audience is growing along with its influence on American online culture.
The app had 26.7 million downloads in the U.S. in the three months ending Sept. 30, according to Apptopia, a tech research firm. There have been 340.7 million lifetime installs in the U.S., a figure that includes all downloads including those by people who’ve deleted the app previously or those who got a new device, according to SensorTower, a separate research firm.
“We are on TikTok for one simple reason: That’s where the voters are,” Christian Slater, a spokesperson for Florida Democrat Val Demings, said in July after her Republican opponent, Sen. Marco Rubio, attacked her for using TikTok.
The Democratic National Committee itself now has a TikTok account. A spokesperson said, though, that the committee’s position and practices remain largely unchanged from 2020, campaign staff should avoid using TikTok on personal devices, and if they use TikTok at all, they should take precautions, such as using a separate device.
Bob Ellsworth, a Republican advertising consultant, said TikTok has certainly changed how Republicans campaign even if they’re not on the app itself.
“We try to emulate the TikTok look, which is fast cuts, blurry video, text on the side,” he said.
Once a video is ready, he said, the campaigns he works with then distribute it through Facebook, Google’s ad network, emails and text messages. “But we haven’t tried putting it on TikTok, because there’s no one there for this,” he said.