Biden just signed a bill that could ban TikTok. His campaign plans to stay on the app anyway

President Joe Biden’s signing of legislation that could ban TikTok in the U.S. runs counter to his campaign’s embrace of the platform and outreach to influencers

WASHINGTON (AP) — When President Joe Biden showed off his putting during a campaign stop at a public golf course in Michigan last month, the moment was captured on TikTok.

Forced inside by a rainstorm, he competed with 13-year-old Hurley “HJ” Coleman IV to make putts on a practice mat. The Coleman family posted video of the proceedings on the app — complete with Biden holing out a putt and the teen knocking his own shot home in response, over the caption, “I had to sink the rebuttal.”

The network television cameras that normally follow the president were stuck outside.

Biden signed legislation Wednesday that could ban TikTok in the U.S. while his campaign has embraced the platform and tried to work with influencers. Already struggling to maintain his previous support from younger voters, the president is now facing criticism from some avid users of the app, which researchers have found is a primary news source for a third of Americans under the age of 30.

“There’s a core hypocrisy to the Biden administration supporting the TikTok ban while at the same time using TikTok for his campaign purposes,” said Kahlil Greene, who has more than 650,000 followers and is known on TikTok as the “Gen Z Historian.”

“I think it illustrates that he and his people know the power and necessity of TikTok.”

The Biden campaign defends its approach and rejects the idea that White House policy is contradicting its political efforts.

“We would be silly to write off any place where people are getting information about the president,” said Rob Flaherty, who ran the White House’s Office of Digital Strategy and now is deputy manager of Biden’s reelection campaign.

Flaherty said Biden's team forged relationships with TikTok influencers the 2020 election and that the platform has only gotten more influential since then, “growing as an internet search engine and driving narratives about the president.”

The Biden campaign says that an increasingly fragmented modern media environment requires it to meet voters where they are and that TikTok is one of many such places where would-be supporters see its content, in addition to platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

It has produced its own TikTok content, but also relied on everyday users who interact with the president. That includes a post from a family that ate fries and other fixings from the Cook Out fast food chain when Biden recently visited Raleigh, North Carolina, as well as Coleman’s putting video.

Opponents of TikTok say its ownership by Chinese company ByteDance gives Beijing a dangerous amount of influence over what narratives Americans see as well as potential access to U.S. user data. Chinese national-security laws allow the ruling Communist Party wide latitude over private business, though the U.S. has not made public evidence that the Chinese government has manipulated the app or forced ByteDance to do its bidding.

The law Biden signed Wednesday would force ByteDance to sell the app to a U.S. company within a year or face a national ban. ByteDance has argued the law violates the First Amendment and promised to sue.

Former President Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, now publicly opposes a TikTok ban after issuing an executive order while in office trying to ban the app if ByteDance didn’t sell it.

The White House doesn't have an official TikTok account and Biden banned the app on most government devices in December 2022. Yet the Biden campaign also officially joined TikTok on the night of this year's Super Bowl, as the president shunned a traditional gameday TV interview to instead spread a political message with the platform.

Former White House press secretary Jen Psaki convened a virtual briefing in 2022 for more than two dozen of the app's influencers to discuss the U.S. approach to Ukraine, a gathering later parodied on "Saturday Night Live."

There have been scores of other such events, including an influencer party at the White House last Christmas and a State of the Union watch party in March. During Biden's recent, $26 million campaign fundraiser at New York's Radio City Music Hall with former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, there was an influencer happy hour and an after-party where attendees interacted with Biden.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that the legislation Biden signed "is not a ban. This is about our national security." She added that the White House isn't saying "that we do not want Americans to use TikTok."

TikTok has 170 million U.S. users and a study released last November by the Pew Research Center found that about a third of U.S. adults under 30 regularly got news from TikTok, compared to 14% of all adults.

Adults under 30 are more likely than U.S. adults overall to oppose a ban on the use of TikTok in the United States, according to an AP-NORC poll conducted in January. Nearly half of 18- to 29-year-olds are opposed, compared to 35% of U.S. adults.

About 2 in 10 U.S. adults said then they use TikTok at least once a day, including 44% of 18- to 29-year-olds. Among 18- to 29-year-olds, 7% say they use TikTok “almost constantly” and an additional 28% are using it “several times a day.”

Priorities USA, a leading Democratic super PAC, is spending around $1 million this cycle to help fund more than 100 TikTok influencers who produce pro-Biden content ahead of November, and views those efforts as an extension of traditional organizing and communications initiatives.

Even if TikTok is eventually banned, most of its influencers are on other platforms that could continue to take their content, especially YouTube and Instagram, said Danielle Butterfield, Priorities USA’s executive director.

“TikTok users are online generally and that’s a lot of different places,” said Butterfield, who was also deputy director of digital advertising for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Biden, meanwhile, has seen his standing with young people decline. About one-third of adults under 30 approve of how he's handling his job as president, according to an AP-NORC poll conducted in March — a sharp drop from the roughly two-thirds approved when he first entered office.

Greene studied history at Yale, served as the school’s first Black student body president and graduated in 2022. He attended past White House events as an influencer, including a Juneteenth celebration and a West Wing event for the Inflation Reduction Act, a sweeping health care and green energy package, where he met both Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

About a year ago, however, Greene says he began posting about Biden’s championing a sweeping 1994 crime law that activists have long said contributed to the mass incarceration of racial minorities. He also criticized Biden's current administration for what he called “a lack of specific policy made for Black Americans.”

Since then, while Greene continues to receive more general emails from the Biden administration, he said says he's no longer invited to more personal events while some “creators who fell in line, who are less critical” are still going.

Flaherty, Biden's deputy campaign manager, said the campaign has paid influencers in specific instances, like when their content has been used in ads, and that some content creators who work with the campaign have raised concerns about legislation forcing divestment. But he doesn't see it having a major Election Day impact.

“I think young voters aren’t going to vote on TikTok,” Flaherty said. “They are going to vote on issues, which are discussed on TikTok but they’re also discussed other places.”

Greene, however, said young voters' frustration with the Biden administration in other areas — particularly its handling of Israel-Hamas war — have combined with the TikTok divestment legislation to spell political problems for Biden.

“There's no ability for me to overstate how that exacerbates the outcry," he said, “and the dissatisfaction that people already have.”

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Associated Press writer Linley Sanders contributed to this report.

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Credit: AP

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