Adeline von Drehle


Donald Trump’s first TikTok video, in which the former president arrives at a UFC fight to the tune of Kid Rock’s “American Bad Ass,” has now been viewed 78.4 million times in two days. If Trump hadn’t already cemented himself as a political social media influencer, this viral splash is sure to seal the deal.

Trump’s joining the platform is surprising in that it is a 180-degree pivot from his in-office attempt to ban the app via an executive order that was ultimately blocked by the courts. The move is no less coherent, however, than Joe Biden’s decision to join the app despite inking his signature on a law that would ban TikTok unless it is sold by its Chinese owners. The app, reaching an audience of 148 million Americans and 1.56 billion people worldwide, has simply proven too alluring a platform to resist.

Politicians everywhere are tapping into the wealth of TikTok as an advertising and promotional space. The app is the fifth most popular social media platform, and the majority of its users (69.3%) are between the ages of 18 and 34, a demographic difficult to reach by traditional political messaging.

Social media has played a role in presidential campaigning since at least 2003, when Howard Dean supporters congregated on the platform MeetUp. Since then, hundreds of  big-time politicians have harnessed the power of YouTube videos, Facebook Lives, Instagram posts and Twitter rants for advertising and fundraising purposes. At 8 years old, it seems well past time that TikTok be initiated into this time-honored American tradition.

Worldwide, politicians have been quicker to integrate TikTok into their media salvoes. The far-right Portuguese party Chega has thrust itself into the spotlight as successful users of the app. Chega founder Andre Ventura has nearly 300,000 followers – only 50,000 fewer followers than the Biden campaign account in a country with a population more than 30 times smaller than the United States.

Chega made waves for quadrupling its parliamentary representation to 50 lawmakers in Portugal’s March election, underscoring a pivot toward far-right populism in Europe. The party thrives on polarization: Ventura has come under fire for demonizing the Roma community, denying the existence of racism in Portugal, and making derogatory comments about Turkish people. A former sportscaster, Ventura is now engaging with his audience in fresh and entertaining ways, such as posting a TikTok of himself play-boxing the Social Democratic Party.

In France, too, 28-year-old Jordan Bardella – protégé and successor of Marine Le Pen as president of the far-right National Rally (RN) Party – has amassed more than 1.3 million followers in less than three years on TikTok by being the “cool” politician. Bardella’s feed is filled with videos of himself chugging wine, at a nightclub, and stopping to take selfies with his adoring fans.

As president of the RN, Bardella is France’s most prominent member of European Parliament. He was also the only politician to make a list of the 50 most popular figures in France. Polls suggest Bardella’s popularity on TikTok will translate to the ballot box in the European Parliament election this weekend; the RN is expected to be the top vote-getter in France.

The rawness of the TikTok-video format is perfect for politicians who ooze charisma and spew divisive rhetoric, like Ventura and Bardella and Trump. The app is “giving politicians faces,” said Sanne Kruikemeier, director of the Digital Data and Democracy Lab. “If you see a politician on social media, you see also a little bit more of the person behind the politician. A lot of politics is super abstract, so what these politicians try to do is share a little bit more of themselves.”

This may be why the infotainment platforms of Ventura and Bardella have been more successful than traditional advertisements as political campaign tools – because videos that give the audience a glimpse into the day-to-day life of a politician make them feel more like a friend and less like a figurehead. And the more organically social a parasocial relationship feels to the voter, the better it is for the politician.

“One of the reasons for why advertisements don’t really sway people that much is because it’s hard to get a personal connection with people over an advertisement. People scroll past very quickly,” said Mads Hove, a researcher at the Digital Democracy Centre. “But when you choose to follow someone, and you choose to see his or her videos, it’s because you trust that person. A message conveyed through someone you trust is much stronger than the advertisements that you see when you’re doomscrolling.”

Likes do not always translate directly into votes, of course. Columbia University Professor Ioana Literat notes that “examples of politicians who turned their TikTok success into electoral victories are few and far between.”

Still, there are myriad reasons why a politician would try to master an app that reaches one-fifth of the world’s population. Visibility and likeability can increase in step with one’s follower count, author of “Presidential Campaigning in the Internet Age” Jennifer Stromer-Galley told RCP.

“There’s that kind of brand recognition that comes with virality, and the hope is that that’ll translate into votes,” said Stromer-Galley. “But at the end of the day, if the public doesn’t know the candidate’s name, they’re not voting for them.”

Whether a name has reached the coveted “household” status or is spoken only in niche circles seems not to matter: Politicians far and wide have been pulled in by TikTok’s powerful magnetic field in an attempt to grow their audience. And now that TikTok has been inducted into the game of fame and power, its force will only grow.

This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

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