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Politicians keep courting the TikTok vote. Users aren’t impressed

Washington CNN  —  TikTok may not be as hot a place for politics as many seem to think. The attention devoted to TikTok as a powerful force in US politics — for better or for worse — does not seem to match up with the experience of most TikTok users, according to new survey data released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. As the short-form video app has surged to 170 million US users, politicians have flocked to TikTok in hopes of wooing young voters. Former President Donald Trump joined TikTok last week, amassing 6 million followers in a matter of days. President Joe Biden’s campaign launched on TikTok in February and has posted more than 200 videos — though the campaign’s following is just a fraction of Trump’s at 373,000. Other politicians, meanwhile, warn that TikTok’s links to China through its parent company mean the Chinese government could theoretically try to influence US politics on a massive scale, if it ever accessed the personal data of TikTok users. (TikTok denies it has ever given the Chinese government US user data and is suing to block a law Biden signed this spring that could ban the app from the United States.) But the picture painted by Pew’s latest surveys suggests politics is still just a small part of what the platform has to offer. Many TikTok users in the survey said they care far more about entertainment, culture and friends. They don’t care as much about — or may not even want — political content in their feeds, according to the survey, a finding that’s consistent with users of Facebook and Instagram (but not on X, formerly Twitter, where news and politics have historically dominated). Pew said its research involved 10,287 adult internet users in the United States who were surveyed from March 18 to March 24. The results were weighted “to be representative of all US adults by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories,” Pew added. The research casts a slightly different light on TikTok and other social media platforms widely described as the new town square — where politicians and politically engaged Americans go to engage in cultural debate, score political points and supposedly influence the rest of the electorate. In fact, the vast majority of the US TikTok users surveyed didn’t cite politics as a major or even minor reason for using the app, and just 12% reported posting any political content at all. “Like on other platforms we’ve studied, on TikTok, politics for most people takes a backseat to things like entertainment and connection,” said Colleen McClain, a Pew researcher and co-author of Wednesday’s study. TikTok users don’t care much about politics Many TikTok users, roughly 4 in 10, said they do see at least some politics content on the app, according to the survey. Still, politics ranked dead last among reasons people cited for using the platform, implying that the lion’s share of users are not seeking out political content, to the extent they see any at all. Only a third of TikTok users said they use the app to keep up with politics; 41% said they use it to get news. By contrast, 95% said they use TikTok to get entertainment; 62% said they use it to look at product reviews or recommendations; and 53% said they use it to keep up with sports or pop culture, the results show. People who don’t post about politics on TikTok also had strong views about why they don’t do so: More than half of that group, 56%, said they don’t care about politics, while as much as 47% said politics just doesn’t belong on TikTok. Those figures highlight the challenge for political campaigns in reaching young voters on TikTok. Does TikTok lean left or right? Previous Pew research, from a survey completed in September 2023, found that 40% of TikTok users identify as Republican or lean Republican, while 52% are Democrats or lean Democratic. With Trump joining the platform, those numbers could potentially shift, as well as the ideological tilt of content on the platform or people’s perceptions of it. A TikTok official told CNN last week that pro-Trump content tends to attract much higher engagement than pro-Biden content, although other recent research has suggested that part of Biden’s lackluster performance on TikTok could be related to his decision to sign a prospective TikTok ban bill — angering even many liberal TikTok users — as well as his administration’s approach to the war in Gaza, which polls unfavorably among young voters. Right now, 22% of TikTok users say content on the app is mostly liberal, while 6% say it’s mostly conservative, according to Pew’s latest survey. But that doesn’t necessarily tell us much: Pew reported similar assessments of Facebook and Instagram by those platforms’ users. And while 28% of TikTok users took a position on the ideological lean of the app’s content, far more, 48%, say it doesn’t tilt either way or that they aren’t sure. It’s perhaps little surprise, then, that even as US politicians rail against TikTok for threatening US democracy, huge majorities of TikTok users — 82% — said the app either has no impact on or is mostly good for democracy. TikTok users who identify as Republicans were slightly more likely than Democratic TikTok users to say TikTok is bad for US democracy, but only by a slim margin of 7 percentage points. Major swings in views of X Those numbers contrast sharply with a stunning shift in attitudes toward X since Elon Musk purchased Twitter in a $44 billion acquisition in 2022, perhaps reflecting Musk’s polarizing approach to managing the platform since then. According to Wednesday’s research, Republican users flipped from overwhelmingly viewing Twitter as mostly bad for democracy in 2021 to overwhelmingly viewing X as mostly good for democracy in 2023 and 2024. “In the past three years, the share of Republican users who say X is mostly good for democracy has roughly tripled, and it’s continuing,” McClain said. “This is a dramatic shift. And the overall pattern we see here is a little bit different than on other platforms.” Just 17% of Republican Twitter users said the platform was mostly good for democracy in 2021. By 2023, that figure had risen to about half and is now at a high of 53%, Pew said. What’s more, Republican users who post about politics on X were far more likely to claim today that their views are welcome there (54% versus 33% for Democrats). Negative views of X have increased among Democratic users over the same timeframe and continues to trend negative, McClain said. “Views of X and democracy are deeply partisan,” the Pew study said. “Republicans are about twice as likely as Democrats to say it’s good for democracy. Democrats are three times as likely as Republicans to say it’s bad.” Pew’s research does not speculate on why Republican users of X have experienced a change of heart about the platform. But the shift coincides with one of the most consequential business decisions in the company’s history and its aftermath — the decision to sell to Musk, who through layoffs, policy changes and more has radically reshaped a platform once seen as central to news and politics. During his ownership of the platform, Musk has claimed he has unwound censorship of conservative speech and welcomed back users who were previously suspended for promoting hate speech and for other violations of Twitter’s terms. He has himself indulged in antisemitic conspiracy theories, rolled back protections for users from marginalized communities and amplified discredited election claims, prompting a backlash from advertisers and civil rights groups. And his changes to the platform’s verification badges, which prompted an initial wave of high-profile account impersonations, made it more difficult for users to understand if a celebrity or brand account was the real thing or if it had simply paid for the veneer of authenticity. With Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, the predominant response by users is that those platforms have little to no impact on democracy, McClain said, but the opposite is true for X. While that probably won’t stop political campaigns from flooding the zone on every platform they have access to in an attempt to reach voters, it’s a reminder that blasting a message out on social media isn’t the same thing as getting people to listen.