The possibility of a ban on the social media platform TikTok is raising red flags among some Democrats, who worry it could turn off Generation Z voters ahead of the 2024 election.
The voting bloc played a decisive role in Democrats’ better-than-expected performance in last year’s election, but some in the party say that a ban could dissuade them from turning out in the same numbers next year.
“It would be a loss of a very effective and impactful tool to mobilize and activate young people and also for them to activate and encourage others,” said Annie Wu Henry, a social media and digital strategy expert, who led Sen. John Fetterman’s (D-Pa.) digital strategy during his successful election bid last year.
“Largely, Generation Z uses TikTok to communicate, to share information, and it’s a very effective tool used to inform, to mobilize and to build power and build a movement,” Henry added.
On Thursday, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew found himself in the hot seat on Capitol Hill, where he faced an intense, bipartisan line of questioning for several hours from the House Energy and Commerce Committee. At the center of the hearing was legislation banning the video-sharing app in the U.S., which has bipartisan support.
The White House has endorsed the Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology Act, which would give the Commerce Department power to regulate or ban foreign-produced technology from adversarial countries. That could include TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance.
“There are many people talking about it on TikTok itself,” Henry said of a potential ban. “I’ve seen videos that have hundreds of thousands, if not millions of views, talking about what’s happening with TikTok.”
One TikTok video that garnered millions of views was from progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who used her first video on the app to come out against a ban on Saturday. As of Monday, the video had received roughly 3 million views and more than 600,000 likes since it was posted.
Other Democratic members of Congress have also come out publicly against a ban. Last week before the House hearing, progressive Reps. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Robert Garcia (D-Calif.) held a press conference with a number of TikTok content creators to speak out against a possible ban.
But overall, Americans appear to support at least some regulations on the platform. A Harvard CAPS-Harris poll released to The Hill on Monday found that 45 percent of respondents said the government should ban the use of TikTok on the grounds of privacy and security concerns, while 34 percent said the platform should only be allowed in the U.S. “if it undergoes regular security reviews of its code base.”
Gen Z and millennial voters also appear willing to support a potential ban on the app given the national security risks. According to a survey released last week by SocialSphere Inc., 46 percent of registered Gen Z and millennial voters said they would support banning TikTok unless the company sells its shares to U.S. operators. Support for a possible ban grew to 54 percent once U.S. government concerns about the app were shared with respondents.
The same survey also found that 69 percent of millennial and Gen Z voters said they were concerned that the Chinese government could access personal information TikTok collects from its users, while 66 percent said they were concerned the Chinese government could influence what Americans see on the app. Sixty-five percent said they were worried that TikTok’s user data could be used by the Chinese government to “uncover the vices or pressure points of a potential spy recruit or blackmail target.”
“Before we talk about what’s going to happen in a year and a half, we need to respect and appreciate the fact that Gen Z has been listening and hearing about the role that China has in ownership of ByteDance and TikTok, but I think they really need to understand the specifics of it,” said John Della Vope, founder and CEO of SocialSphere Inc. “If that is done well, I don’t think that there will be a price to pay at the ballot box in 2024.”
Gen Z voters flexed their political muscles during last year’s midterm elections, largely benefitting Democrats. According to a separate study conducted by SocialSphere, Gen Z was the only generational cohort to rank abortion and reproductive rights as the political issue they were most concerned about.
“There are so many key issues on which Democrats are siding with young people, from abortion rights to gun violence prevention measures to climate action, and a TikTok ban is not going to change that,” said Jack Lobel, press secretary for Voters of Tomorrow, a group that organizes young voters.
Lobel acknowledged that TikTok has helped many members of Gen Z “become unified as a generation” by using the app to promote social and political causes, but added that a TikTok ban would not signal a make-or-break moment for the generation’s political involvement.
Others argue that the narrative pushing Gen Z’s reliance on TikTok as an organizing tool is overblown.
“This overplayed narrative of ‘young voters don’t come out,’ ‘young voters can’t be reached,’ ‘young voters are not a reliable and trustworthy voting bloc’ is simply factually incorrect,” said Antonio Arellano, national press secretary at NextGen America, a progressive group aimed at mobilizing young voters.
“We as a nation need to come to terms with the fact that this electoral bloc of a new, digital generation is here to stay whether there is TikTok or not,” he added.
And those involved in the Gen Z political and activist spaces are in agreement that another social media app would take TikTok’s place in the U.S. if it is banned.
“Another app will pop up,” Henry said. “It’s like cutting off a head, and another will grow back.”
Lobel maintained that regardless of TikTok’s future, “young people will find ways to stay connected online.”
In fact, the same SocialSphere survey found that if Gen Z was forced to choose one app to use exclusively for the next year, 31 percent said they would choose Instagram, while 25 percent said they would choose TikTok.
And Democrats say that the importance of staying connected with Gen Z voters is not lost on them.
“What is most important is that they know who we are and what we’ve done for them,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist.
“Young people will continue to show up in mass numbers for the coalition that is fighting for them,” he added. “Regardless of what happens, we have to make certain we have some sort of strategy and system in place to be able to continually and effectively message to every single constituency in this country, and that includes GenZers.”