clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Screenshots of TikTok videos by Rep. Jeff Jackson (D-NC), Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA), and Kansas state legislator Christina Haswood.
@KatiePorterOC, @JeffJacksonNC, and @HaswoodForks / Vox

Filed under:

Inside the lonely and surprisingly earnest world of political TikTok

TikTok was supposed to be the future of political communication. Now, as it faces a potential ban and growing national security concerns, a few politicians are hanging on — and posting through it. 

Christian Paz is a senior politics reporter at Vox, where he covers the Democratic Party. He joined Vox in 2022 after reporting on national and international politics for the Atlantic’s politics, global, and ideas teams, including the role of Latino voters in the 2020 election.

I don’t remember the first time I saw one of Jeff Jackson’s TikTok videos, but I definitely remember the one that turned me into a follower.

The new Republican majority in the House of Representatives was in chaos. I was on the West Coast with my non-politically obsessed family and a friend, watching Republicans fail to elect Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House 14 times over the course of four days. We weren’t just watching a historic fail unfold (the kind of embarrassment Congress hadn’t seen in a century). We were also seeing a confounding stalemate preventing the country from having a fully functioning government.

Part of my job as a political reporter during this tumultuous week was to understand why this was happening and explain it to the world (my Vox colleagues on Capitol Hill took the lead on this). But Jeff Jackson, a Democrat and incoming first-term representative from North Carolina, was a step ahead of me.

“I told you that the next time you heard from me I would be an official member of Congress, and then something very strange happened, and I’m still not,” he said in a TikTok posted to his 300,000 followers on the penultimate day of the GOP’s speaker fight. Wearing a burgundy tie loosely around his neck, Jackson looked directly into my eyes and told me about the Freedom Caucus, the group of hardline conservatives who held up McCarthy’s speaker bid. “Right now, there is no Plan B. Either these 20 folks cave, which they’ve sworn they won’t do, or the 200 other members of the majority party put up someone else as speaker, which they’ve sworn they won’t do. And nothing happens until this happens, including swearing us in.”

The whole scene felt very intimate, impressive, and quite informative. The 3 million people who watched this particular video must have felt some of this. And Jackson mentioned his other TikToks. Would they be any different from those of the scores of amateurish news recappers, college students, and aspiring Joe Rogans on political TikTok?

I, along with 2 million other people, had already watched that 87-second clip (in it, Jackson describes the “weird process” by which new members of Congress pick offices through a raffle pulled from a “mahogany box that is a century old”). And as I clicked onto his page and kept scrolling, I realized something. Jackson was accomplishing something very different from most politicians: He was not just using TikTok to chronicle his journey from candidate to officeholder; he was actually connecting with people.

Given the toxic nature of political discourse online, it’s the kind of engagement the average politician can only dream of having.

“I’m big on reaching people directly,” Jackson told me during a recent interview. “We’re already saturated with people who want to give us the daily talking points or the daily outrage. I don’t need to add to that.”

Now that he’s officially in Congress, Jackson is a rarity: an elected official posting directly on a Chinese-owned social media app that’s facing the prospect of a national ban and growing security concerns, and that has already been banished from official devices in Congress. TikTok has quickly become a convenient bipartisan punching bag for politicians who call it “China’s backdoor into Americans’ lives.”

It wasn’t always this way. Just a few years ago, TikTok was hailed as a potentially huge disruptor in politics, advocacy, and communications, but now Jackson is one of a small group of politicians using TikTok in an official or campaign capacity, and, in another rarity, has mastered the art of the political TikTok.

It’s happening at a strange moment for American politics and for TikTok. The short video app has never faced as much scrutiny as it has endured during the last year — for its collection, storage, and usage of user data, alleged spying on journalists, and Chinese ownership. The app’s future operation in the US remains in jeopardy, and though a straight ban seems unlikely, a bipartisan consensus is forming in Washington and state capitals that the app poses a national security threat and requires major reform. Its CEO will testify before a House committee in March.

It’s no surprise, then, that the landscape of political TikTok is fraught. In reporting this story, I reached out to political strategists and about a dozen national elected officials, their campaigns, and their staff. Many, like the White House and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, didn’t reply, while even some of the most well-known Democratic figures like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders didn’t want to talk about the app.

Wariness of the platform can mean missing out on a powerful tool. “Especially for Democrats, understand that the bad actors who push misinformation and inflate conspiracy theories are overrunning social media with their content,” Kurt Bardella, a Democratic strategist and former Republican congressional adviser, told me. “If we aren’t on those channels flooding the zone with an alternative, we are essentially surrendering that playing field to the bad guys.”

A spokesperson for California Senate candidate Katie Porter, who has almost 500,000 followers between her two official accounts, was positive about the app’s purpose: “Congresswoman Porter has used TikTok to reach thousands of people who may not be on other platforms. She’s called out Big Oil for fueling climate change, exposed Wall Street for hiking prices to earn record-high profits, and showed Californians how to vote by mail.”

Still, for some politicians, the nebulous specter of a national security risk isn’t enough of a reason to stay off the platform or shun the communities that use the app. Well over 130 million Americans use the platform every month, including about two-thirds of young people, who tend to use it multiple times per day. That has created a potentially huge audience for those elected officials who invest time and energy into building a presence. The preferred social media app of an entire generation has been mostly unexplored by elected officials — even as some of them try to shut it down.

The birth of political TikTok and the simultaneous risks it posed

Like any social media platform, TikTok always had the potential to become a gold mine for communicators and politicians who learned how to fit into its culture and use it. Even before the platform took off in 2020 as pandemic shutdowns closed schools and businesses and brought society to a standstill, the app offered virality and social media fame to whoever accepted the lightheartedness and silliness at its core.

Since its launch in 2018, comms and PR professionals lauded the app as a “sleeping social media giant,” while some younger journalists and media professionals who had a hunch just how influential the platform would become urged politicians and legacy news organizations to use the app. “I feel it’s my duty to act as a liaison between [Gen Z] and the generations who came before us. So here goes: Old politicians, you need to get on TikTok,” one opinion writer wrote for USA Today in November 2019.

It was around that time that the Washington Post’s TikTok account became what my colleague Rebecca Jennings called an “unofficial 2020 campaign stop” for Democratic presidential candidates, who until then had resisted using the platform. “Like all social media apps, TikTok has its own vernacular, and any transgressions of that shared language and sensibility stick out like, well, septuagenarian politicians on a social media app meant for teens. The fear of coming off as insincere or being flooded with ‘ok boomer’ comments is a real one,” she wrote at the time.

And for those who did try, the early days were rough. Only one candidate, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, had an official account on TikTok in the early days of the Democratic primary in 2020. At its peak, the account only had about 500 followers, and it rarely featured the candidate himself.

Other candidates, like Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, and Andrew Yang, simply opted for the Washington Post route: using a middleman to bring themselves to the app. That was also safer politically, avoiding the charge of inauthenticity (Gen Z can sniff out a poser better than a hog finding truffles), or “cringe” (essentially, trying too hard).

But concerns over misinformation and disinformation came hand in hand with the rise of the platform. As early as 2019, researchers and journalists were warning about the potential for the platform to facilitate the spread of disinformation or election interference, and for moderators to censor content, as TikTok was alleged to be doing for videos related to pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

TikTok’s design is often cited as part of the problem: Viral audio can spread easily without necessarily being tied to the original creator, and the algorithmically driven For You feed that functions as a homepage for a user isn’t transparent. The result is an endless stream of videos that feeds off your interests and curiosities without necessarily telling you how it knows what you want, and eventually traps you in an “algorithmic content hell.” (TikTok also recently confirmed that its moderators can artificially boost videos to make sure they show up in your feed — an open secret that many creators have long suspected and a tactic that other platforms have been alleged to use, like Facebook’s inflated video view counts.)

Then came the pandemic, and with it, the golden age of TikTok. That first pandemic summer, the app had been downloaded 2 billion times around the world and had about 50 million daily active users in the US, who overwhelmingly tended to be members of Gen Z. That number has grown steadily since, to the estimated 80 million monthly active users of today.

It was around this time that Christina Haswood, who lives in Lawrence, Kansas, decided she would start using her TikTok account to jump-start her local state House race. The 28-year-old Navajo public health researcher was finishing up a master’s degree at the nearby University of Kansas Medical Center and was the frontrunner in the Democratic primary, and she felt pressure to reach more voters, fund her campaign, and make her Native heritage better known. “It was first kind of a joke. The best thing to pass time with and relieve stress was TikTok,” Haswood told me recently.

Then she and her campaign manager began to wonder if they could use the app to educate voters about her election. Her first videos pulled in a few thousand views and were primarily informational, like checking your voter registration, requesting a ballot, and preventing the spread of Covid-19.

But when she joined a Taylor Swift challenge (how do I explain this? TikTokers would strut toward or dance at a phone camera that they pushed away in time with the beat) and she peppered in short lines of text introducing herself, her personal beliefs, and her policy positions, virality took off. That video got over 600,000 views and sprouted a loyal following of young people who were intrigued by a progressive, Indigenous young woman promising to fight for Medicaid expansion and a cut to the food sales tax.

@haswoodforks

Meet Christina Haswood, the future for democratic politics in Kansas.❤️#kansas #democrat #progressive #vote #fyp #foryoupage

♬ Love Story - Disco Lines

She kept building a following in 2020 (and she won the race in her solidly Democratic district). She transitioned the account from what was mostly a campaign tool to what now is more of a behind-the-scenes journal of a young millennial who happens to be a state legislator and progressive advocate with 150,000 followers.

“I feel like trying to explain issues through trends and humor can be a lot more digestible than reading an article or legislative summaries or minutes or watching YouTube livestreams,” Haswood told me.

Since the 2020 TikTok boom, a small group of (almost entirely Democratic) federal, state, and local politicians and candidates have found similar success on the platform — even if they haven’t won their elections. Matt Little, a former Democratic-Farmer-Labor state senator in Minnesota, and socialist Washington congressional candidate Joshua Collins, for example, built large followings of about 100,000 on the app as well, but both lost their races in 2020. Statewide hopefuls like former Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, whose gangly figure and deep voice contrasted with the memes and trends he used to make fun of his Republican opponent J.D. Vance, and social media darling former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke built big followings through official campaign accounts during the 2022 midterms, though both lost. Two notable exceptions? Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey, who was lauded for using the app to build a cushion of national and state support in Massachusetts to beat back a primary challenge from former Rep. Joe Kennedy III in 2020.

Though Sanders still uses the app to post videos shared to other social platforms, Markey’s account has stopped posting since the midterm elections concluded.

TikTok’s algorithm, data collection practices, and Chinese ownership have long plagued it

TikTok didn’t seem ready to handle the influx of political content that would come with the 2020 presidential election, or with a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.

After the 2020 election and in response to concerns about election interference and political influence, TikTok banned political advertising before the 2022 midterms and limited political accounts’ ability to fundraise through the app. But while many of these problems have plagued social media giants before, those companies and platforms aren’t owned by a Chinese company.

Establishment politicians have long viewed the app with caution because of this, and for the past three years, TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, has been in negotiations with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a group of government agencies that reviews foreign corporate transactions for national security risks, for the best way for the company to operate in the US. Recent reporting of misuse of American personal data by the company hasn’t helped TikTok’s case for proving its independence from the Chinese government, or its trustworthiness in light of alleged spying on American journalists. But most federal lawmakers default to saying they are awaiting the Committee’s final recommendation.

That hasn’t stopped more ham-fisted attempts to try to shut down the app. In 2020, Donald Trump tried to ban TikTok by executive order, sending shockwaves through TikTok communities worried about losing access to the platform. That ban never went into effect, and targeted, mostly symbolic bans have since popped up in individual states, the halls of Congress, and the executive branch. A growing anti-China consensus has also developed into a general aversion by politicians in both political parties to defending the app, and as my colleague Sara Morrison has written, it seems like a matter of time before some major change happens to TikTok.

Markey from Massachusetts, for example, has been a more measured voice among Senate Democrats concerned with TikTok’s access to personal data and its effect on young Americans. When I asked his office about his thoughts on the platform’s future in the US, a spokesperson responded with an acknowledgment of the trade-offs the app poses: “They are the best of technologies, and they are the worst of technologies. They can enable and ennoble, or they can degrade and debase. But he still believes in their ability to enable and ennoble — for example bringing young people together online around the Green New Deal climate justice movement.”

Markey also supports more stringent legislation to protect children’s and teens’ user data, like his Children and Teens’ Online Privacy and Protection Act to implement a computer code of conduct, ban targeted ads to children, raise the age of consent for collecting user data to under 17, and empower the Federal Trade Commission to monitor privacy concerns for youth.

That’s a very different position from that of most Republican members of Congress, who support either a complete ban on the app operating in the US or a sale of the app to an American company.

The trade-offs might be worth it

Jackson, the first-term North Carolina representative, fully accepts the validity of the national security concerns that his colleagues in the House and Senate have raised. “The security concerns are real. I’ve read what FBI Director [Christopher] Wray thinks about it, and I take his assessment seriously. I agree with not allowing TikTok on government phones,” Jackson told me, referencing Congress’s rules on installing or having the app on any government-issued device or public internet network.

Apart from his personal and government-issued phones, he uses a third phone as a TikTok burner, with TikTok the only app installed on it. While he shoots and edits his own videos using Adobe Premiere, he doesn’t use the app at work. And he thinks the reasons to remain on the app — like building trust — outweigh the reasons to leave.

Declining trust in institutions is one of the major paradoxes of modern American politics. Few established news organizations, branches of government, federal agencies, and politicians inspire the same confidence or carry the same authority as they once did. Looking at surveys, the problem of trust gets worse as you ask younger generations.

Jackson thinks that part of the problem has been an unwillingness by elected leaders and candidates to meet people where they are. That doesn’t mean he’s posting through every controversy of the day. As a candidate, his videos tended to be more like daily journal entries, highlighting interactions with voters at community events. Some of his posts even feel delightfully mundane: what it’s like to be a new member of Congress looking for an office, or a committee assignment, or, most recently, how his personal finances work.

@jeffjacksonnc

Rep. Jeff Jackson (NC-14): My personal finances. #politics #fyp #nc #charlotte

♬ original sound - Jeff Jackson

Jackson told me that the biggest subject his constituents and his TikTok audience tend to ask about is political corruption and stock trading by members of Congress. Allegations that prominent federal officials potentially used privileged information to make financial decisions during the early days of the pandemic renewed calls in the past year to ban members of Congress from trading stocks.

After seeing this demand in his comments, Jackson felt an obligation to film a TikTok walking his audience through his family’s finances. That video showed me a lot of the still-untapped potential of political TikTok even as its future remains in doubt. Here we have a rather standard-issue member of Congress dryly listing out facts of his financial life — “I have a 2017 Ford Fusion, which I bought used,” Jackson says to the camera — not a revolutionary line of political communication or anything resembling social media fodder. But the video still went viral. It’s been watched over 1 million times in just under two weeks.

Clarification, February 6, 10:15 am ET: This story has been updated to reflect that Haswood has said she does not identify as queer.

Culture

The conspiracy theories about Kate Middleton’s disappearance, explained

Policy

America has a good model for how to handle immigration: America

World Politics

More than 100 Palestinians were killed trying to get aid

View all stories in Politics

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.