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How TikTok got back into Washington’s good graces

Since then, however, the app has increased its lobbying spending and made some influential friends.

Chuck Rocha, a veteran Democratic strategist who served as a senior adviser to Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, counts TikTok among his clients and is working to bring Democratic campaigns to the platform.

Jim Messina, Obama’s former campaign manager, consults for TikTok on preparation for congressional hearings and other issues, and told POLITICO: “It’s absolutely essential that Democrats be on this platform,” praising its reach among young voters in particular.

A person close to Messina said she has not spoken to the Biden campaign about the use of TikTok. Rocha also says he hasn’t spoken out about the campaign regarding his joining TikTok.

For years, TikTok has regularly played the influence game – a long-term strategy aimed at strengthening its lobbying and protecting itself against government attacks across the Western world.

After its CEO suffered high-profile bruising on Capitol Hill last year – with some members openly calling for the app to be banned or forced sell-off – TikTok and ByteDance, its Beijing-based parent company, almost doubled their lobbying spending through 2023. Efforts continued, pumping a total of $4.4 million more into the nation’s capital than the previous year.

The company has hired lobbying heavyweights from both sides of the aisle, including former senators Trent Lott and John Breaux as well as former representatives Joe Crowley and Bart Gordon.

Privately, he also made a broad historical argument to Democrats on the Hill about possible blowback, according to a person familiar with TikTok’s strategy — likening a ban to the failed prohibition policy of the 1920s. A TikTok spokesperson told POLITICO that this was not an official part of the company’s messaging.)

And even though TikTok’s small army of lobbyists in Washington never succeeded in convincing Congress that TikTok’s ties to China were benign, observers say it managed to calm things down.

“They managed to run out of time and wait for priorities to change,” said Lindsay Gorman, a former senior adviser for technology and national security in the Biden White House.

“We tacitly agree that this is just a normal platform where we should engage in political discourse, just like Facebook, X, YouTube or any other regular platform in the United States, whereas it’s not,” Gorman said. senior fellow for emerging technologies at the German Marshall Fund.

As part of an effort to bring the app’s influencers to Washington, the company specifically targeted TikTok figures who had relationships with the Biden administration. The White House even hosted its first-ever influencer Christmas party last year, featuring TikTok stars.

In a statement, a TikTok spokesperson said it was “no surprise that candidates from both parties are increasingly using it to connect with voters and voters,” adding that age average of American users is over 30 years old.

With 170 million monthly active users in the United States — heavily tilted toward the younger demographic Democrats desperately need in the 2024 elections — TikTok is hard to resist as a political messaging tool. Both Republicans and Democrats have worked with TikTok influencers to push their campaign messages; the Democratic PAC Priorities USA even pays them to share stories about Biden’s successes and encourage voting.

TikTok is still banned on government-owned devices due to national security concerns related to ByteDance’s ties to Beijing. The Biden campaign says its employees use separate, non-government-issued phones to keep the app secure.

When asked what prompted the Biden campaign to join the app, the campaign said it had been considering joining for months. The new messages – one on Sunday and two more on Monday – are part of an effort to “reach voters in a changing, fragmented and increasingly personalized media environment,” said deputy campaign manager Rob Flaherty, former Biden’s White House campaign director. director of digital strategy.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the administration’s official views on TikTok have not changed, despite Biden campaigning on the app. Last year, the White House gave federal agencies 30 days to erase the app from all government devices. And a majority of states have banned TikTok on government devices.

“(It) is not approved for use on government devices and that remains the case today,” Kirby said during a White House briefing Monday. “And I think, again, I don’t want to get too much into the national security, the technical reasons behind this, but it has to do with concerns about data preservation and the potential misuse of that data and information confidential by foreign actors.

The application would still be under surveillance by the Foreign Investment Committee of the US administration. (An attempt by the Trump administration to ban TikTok via executive order was blocked by a federal judge in 2020.)

As part of the national security review, TikTok created a separate entity known as US Data Security in May 2022 and transfers US user data to domestic Oracle cloud servers.

A Treasury Department spokesperson did not comment on the review of TikTok, but said CFIUS is “an important part of Treasury’s national security mission and will continue to use all available authorities to protect security national”.

The campaign said its presence on TikTok is separate and independent from the CFIUS review.

But the Biden campaign’s decision to join the platform could further complicate the administration’s future review of the company.

“When you become a valuable and effective tool, people are less likely to hate you,” said a person close to TikTok’s government affairs department, noting that Obama’s 2008 campaign was one of the first to adopt Facebook.

“It led them to view the platform as positive, and I think it impacted how they viewed the platform when they took office in government,” the person added. “I think it’s harder if you want to say the platform is the worst thing ever – so ‘Why are you on it?’ is the next question.

As it prepared to build its government affairs team, TikTok was apparently studying the operations of some of its tech peers. He hired the former head of political communications at Amazon to oversee his own political communications workshop. Its main lobbyist, Michael Beckerman, is the former president of the now-defunct Internet Association.

These moves appear to give the app a place in Washington as a counterpart to Meta or Twitter, as opposed to a foreign bogeyman. Chew’s appearance before Congress last month alongside Snap CEO Evan Spiegel, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, X Corp. CEO Linda Yaccarino, and Discord CEO Jason Citron added another layer of mainstream commercial shine.

And in a dynamic familiar to anyone who has watched corporate interests compete with politicians, TikTok has simply survived many of its criticisms in Washington.

House Energy and Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), who oversaw last year’s hearing and flatly said “TikTok should be banned,” is withdrawing from the Congress. So is Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), the hawkish Republican who chairs the CCP’s China Special Committee and co-sponsored a bill to ban the app. Republican presidential candidates who beat TikTok in the presidential debates have almost all dropped out.

The app has also benefited from enormous friction within the government over how to how ban an app – or how to protect any ban from inevitable legal challenges.

Although TikTok has given itself some leeway, Biden’s adoption of the app opens a new avenue for partisan attacks against the president himself.

“I think it’s a huge mistake, and above all hypocritical,” Brendan Carr, a Republican FCC commissioner who has long advocated for a ban on TikTok, told POLITICO.

“The fact that Joe Biden is using TikTok at a time when his national security team has been unable for years to come to the view that it is a platform that does not pose a threat to national security is a real problem,” he said.

Lauren Egan contributed to this report.


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