Campaign season has more Democrats turning to TikTok as they seek to reach new demographics ahead of the crucial midterm elections – despite warnings from colleagues about security issues tied to the popular app.
While primarily known for viral dance videos and dishing up a lighter side of the internet, lawmakers see an opportunity to reach new and different demographics, especially younger voters.
But that opportunity presents security risks. So much so that intelligence officials have cautioned some lawmakers against using the app due to concerns that the Chinese-based tech company could face pressure to share data stored by the platform with Beijing.
“I would not use TikTok,” Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) told The Hill, given fears about it being a “backdoor” to the Chinese government.
“If you are a [People’s Republic of China] company, or a company that is based in PRC, there are certain rules and regulations you operate under that you don’t if you are an American company and one of those is when Uncle Chinese Communist Party, Uncle CCP calls upon you to gain access, you can’t give them the stiff arm.”
Lawmakers were concerned enough about the security risks of the app that nearly every Democratic lawmaker backed a provision in the 2021 defense policy bill that barred federal employees from accessing the app on any government-issued device.
But an increasing number of Democrats have been dabbling with posting content there, largely brushing off such warnings, saying they need to use the popular app to reach out to constituents in different ways.
“I use it because we try to communicate with constituents through every medium available. We do town halls, mailers, surveys, tele-town halls, Twitter spaces, Instagram, Facebook, door knocking, TikTok. If I thought people were going to look at smoke signals and decipher that we would have a smoke signal program,” Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.) told The Hill.
His videos primarily show him talking about legislation, though in one he’s seen writing a response to Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) office, complete with a timelapse video of him riding the Senate subway to hand deliver it.
“It’s a fractured media environment, and so we have to now talk across a bunch of different media to be able to reach folks and hear their concerns and then talk about what we’re doing.”
Others said they have only recently started using the app.
Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor under the Obama administration who has been critical of the Chinese government, has just one video on the site.
“We only just put something up for the first time. So it’s not something I have used extensively. I do have concerns about the company. At the same time, tens of millions of Americans are on the site. So, you know, we’re on Facebook, even though I think Facebook has probably done more damage to American democracy than any company anywhere in the world. So this is always a dilemma,” he said.
“I have a lot of concerns about social media – including with regard to TikTok – but it’s very hard for a member of Congress to not be on a platform that my constituents are communicating on,” he said. “I’m not just going to send snail mail to my constituents. I’ve got to be on the platforms they’re on.”
Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), a Twitter star in his own right, had been featured in TikTok videos from his daughter before recently making a campaign account.
“My daughter is sort of a monster on TikTok, she leverages me to be a total monster on TikTok so we finally did it on the campaign side because I didn’t want to do it on the official side. But you know, you look at the audiences right? And that demographic that’s hardest for us to reach lives there and on Instagram. So on the campaign side, we just opened up an account,” Himes said.
But Himes, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said they have not put the app directly on his phone, something he said is designed to create an “air gap” to address any concerns about accessing data, adding that “whether TikTok exposes people to a counterintelligence threat, it’s possible, but not known.”
“TikTok is not on any of my equipment. And it’s not on any of my official staffs’ equipment, as far as I know. …But the TikTok account I have is on other people’s campaign equipment. So, that feels kind of air gapped to me,” he said.
“I was not going to put it on my phone,” he said.
While some aides have been encouraging their bosses to get on the app — even sending emails to other offices asking for a follow — others have warned against it.
“Most of these members voted to ban this on government devices, so either they’re hypocrites, they’re ill informed, or they’re chasing clout at the expense of good policy and what’s in the best interest of the American government,” one Democratic aide told The Hill.
“We literally just ratified a bill that will put $280 billion to compete against the Chinese,” they said, referring to a recent bill boosting U.S. chip production and scientific research.
“But for the interests of the likes and popularity we’re going to expose either their data or the data of their closest advisors to the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese intelligence community. That seems to me like poor judgment.”
But Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) said he’s no more worried about TikTok than any other platform.
“The same thing can happen on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or via our emails. I have similar security concerns with everything we put into the Twitterverse and to the internet, so yeah, it’s not much different than my concerns with other stuff that we put out there,” he said.
“For me, it’s just another way to engage voters, another way to engage constituents, another way to engage with a certain demographic of constituents who use the platform who tend to be younger, more social media savvy. So that’s why I use it. It’s just another way to connect and communicate,” he said.
His videos on the site range from serious to silly, in some cases reacting to the Supreme Court’s reversal on abortion rights or speaking at various graduations, to the lighter side, showing the former educator participating in an egg drop competition with middle schoolers or petting goats.
Lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee have received briefings advising against using the app.
“Many of us have been given a warning that it could compromise security because of the potential backdoor to the Chinese government through the app. I understand that TikTok disagrees with that,” Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), one of the committee’s members said.
“There are a lot of people, particularly young people and young voters who are on the app. So there’s certainly a benefit to it. But there’s also potentially a big downside to it.”
TikTok has taken efforts to respond to concerns about its security.
In June, it began migrating U.S. data to Oracle cloud servers located in the U.S., one of “several measures as part of our commercial relationship to better safeguard our app, systems, and the security of U.S. user data,” the company wrote in a blog post.
It is still in the process of deleting American users’ private data from its own data centers.
In a statement to The Hill, a TikTok spokesperson said, “while we’re an entertainment-first platform, we’re pleased to see people of all backgrounds using TikTok to express themselves,” and that they have “no higher priority than promoting a safe and secure app experience that protects our users’ privacy and data.”
Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) said guidance to lawmakers on the app has been shifting.
“Yes, there are some concerns about it being a Chinese company. But at the same time, you know, formally here in the House and in the Senate, we’re actually looking at what that means and what it doesn’t mean as far as national security and stuff. So right now, we’re trying it out,” he said.
Cárdenas’s videos, like others, show a side of lawmakers constituents might not usually get to see. In one video, audio from another popular video where a man says “another one, thank you” plays over Cárdenas, barely concealing a smile, as they hand over folders representing the money he’s secured for his district.
But Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said he wouldn’t advise it.
“I don’t use it. And wouldn’t until I had more confidence in the security issues involved,” he said.
Still Krishnamoorthi says he understands what lawmakers are struggling with.
“We’re not going to buy Huawei equipment in our office. We’re not going to source stuff that was made in the PRC, because the CCP is so aggressive and its collection at this point,” he said.
“The challenge is this: Have we seen TikToks? Yeah. Do children in our families have TikTok? Probably. But when it comes to congressional business or anything that’s sensitive that we are communicating in Congress, I just would not do it on a phone with TikTok on it.”