President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign announced that it had joined TikTok on Sunday, contradicting previous reports that it wouldn’t. Despite the Biden administration’s promises to crack down on TikTok, which is owned by Chinese parent company ByteDance, the company has thus far evaded repercussions or a nationwide ban and is working to increase its influence in Washington.
“Hey by the way, we just joined TikTok,” the Biden-Harris campaign said in an X (formerly Twitter) post on Sunday, featuring a TikTok video of Biden sharing his opinions on the Superbowl LVIII NFL game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs. “Lol hey guys,” reads the video caption.
Several experts and lawmakers felt that the Biden campaign’s decision to join TikTok was inappropriate.
“In the best-case scenario, TikTok is CCP spyware – that’s why governments have banned it on official phones. In the worst-case scenario, TikTok is perhaps the largest-scale malign influence operation ever conducted,” House Select Subcommittee on the CCP Chair Mike Gallagher told the Daily Caller News Foundation in a statement. “You don’t have to take my word for it – this is a message Congress has heard time and again from senior Biden administration national security officials. How the Biden campaign could embrace TikTok despite these warnings truly boggles my mind.”
Biden’s reelection campaign previously decided not to create or use a TikTok account, according to three sources with direct knowledge of the matter who spoke to NBC News. Biden’s first 2020 presidential campaign did not even consider using TikTok because of the national security risks associated with the app.
Biden said during his 2020 campaign that he saw TikTok as a “matter of genuine concern,” according to Reuters. The Biden administration and intelligence agencies have expressed concerns that TikTok may be sharing user data with ByteDance that the CCP has access to.
“This is a tool that is ultimately within the control of the Chinese government – and it, to me, it screams out with national security concerns,” FBI Director Chris Wray said during a congressional hearing in March 2023.
Biden signed a law in December 2022 banning TikTok from all federally owned devices with some exceptions for intelligence research purposes, according to The Associated Press. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) has threatened to ban TikTok nationwide if ByteDance does not sell the app.
“TikTok is a national security threat and rightly has been banned from federal devices,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies CEO Mark Dubowitz told the Daily Caller News Foundation. “Joe Biden should be making this pernicious tool of the Chinese Communist Party illegal in America, not legitimizing the platform by joining it.”
ByteDance still owns TikTok and the Biden administration has not banned the app. Janet Yellen, secretary of the Department of Treasury – which oversees CFIUS – admitted that concerns around TikTok and its potential violations of user privacy had “not yet been resolved,” during an interview with CNBC in November.
ByteDance has tried to quell U.S. concerns in part by spending $1.5 billion on an isolated data hub in Texas specifically to protect American user data. However, Tikok is telling employees to intentionally divert around this obstacle and bypassauthorized channels to send user data back to ByteDance anyway, according to internal memos reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
The Biden administration resumed negotiations with TikTok in September, six months after CFIUS issued threats against the company.
Biden and his administration have avoided broaching the issue in meetings with Beijing officials. TikTok “wasn’t an explicit matter of discussion” between Biden and President Xi Jinping during their meeting in November, according to Yellen, as reported by Reuters. Department of Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo planned in advance of her August 2023 Beijing trip to not mention the topic.
TikTok and ByteDance have ramped up their influence and lobbying efforts inside of Washington. ByteDance spent roughly $8.7 million on lobbying efforts on the U.S. Congress and federal government, according to Open Secrets. That number is nearly double the $4.9 million spent by ByteDance on lobbying efforts in 2022.
TikTok also recruited SKDK, considered to be the premier and most well-connected Democratic consulting firm in Washington, in 2023 to boost the company’s communication and public relations efforts, according to Politico. SKDK employs a considerable number of former senior Biden aides and staffers; in the past, deputy Pentagon press secretary Sabrina Singh, former White House communications director Kate Berner and Interior Department press secretary Tyler Cherry have worked at the firm.
Longtime senior presidential adviser and aide Anita Dunn is a founding member of SKDK, according to Politico. Dunn left SKDK in May 2023 to return to the White House and work as a senior adviser to Biden.
TikTok and SKDK cut ties in April 2023, a company spokesperson told The Washington Post at the time.
The White House said on Monday that “nothing [has] changed” in regard to its stance on national security concerns surrounding TikTok, but refused to comment about the Biden campaign’s utilization of it.
“I can’t speak, nor will I speak, for the campaign,” White House National Security Council (NSC) spokesman John Kirby said during a press briefing on Monday. “Nothing has changed about the national security concerns from the NSC’s perspective about the use of TikTok on government devices.”
Kirby acknowledged the ongoing CFIUS investigation into TikTok but refused to comment on whether or not the Biden administration is considering a full-scale ban of the app.
“I’m not going to speak to any hypothetical ban. I can only tell you that it’s not allowed on government devices,” Kirby said during the press briefing. “That policy remains the case, and I just can’t speak for the campaign or their decisions, I apologize.”
TikTok is still available to download nationwide, except from within Montana, which banned the app statewide in April 2023.
The Biden campaign and ByteDance did not immediately respond to a request for comment.