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They talked makeup and video games. But a proposed TikTok ban awoke influencer giants

When Abby Rivera endorses makeup, she turns out buyers. This year, for the first time, she might turn out votes.

Just last spring, her review of It Cosmetics’ Bye Bye Under Eye Bags cream was played 16.7 million times. The product sold out overnight.

That’s because 43-year-old Rivera’s videos are all about navigating life as a widow, a single mom and beauty with a rare skin condition. TikTok has allowed Rivera to build community and put food on the table. 

But now all of that is up in the air should Congress’ TikTok ban become law. Rivera hasn’t cast a ballot in an election in 12 years. This year, that changes.

“If they voted for it, then they have a vote against them when the election comes,” she said.

Prep for the polls: See who is running for president and compare where they stand on key issues in our Voter Guide

Rivera is one of many influencers, no matter whether they cover beauty or politics, speaking out over a proposed TikTok ban that could damage creators’ livelihoods and their ability to get out the vote come November.

In an overwhelming bipartisan vote last week, the House approved a measure to force the sale of TikTok to American owners or ban it from operating in the U.S. At issue is TikTok’s Chinese parent company ByteDance. Proponents of the bill argue that ByteDance could be forced to hand over the personal data of TikTok’s 170 million American users to the Chinese government. 

President Joe Biden said he would sign the legislation into law if it passes the Senate. 

But Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has signaled it could be a while before the Senate picks it up for discussion. The delay means the bill could land on Biden’s desk only a few months or weeks ahead of the Nov. 5 election – with a potential to upset influencers and set millions of followers against anyone in favor of the ban.

Former President Donald Trump said while in office that he would approve a TikTok ban but has since retracted his support for one on the campaign trail.

More:House approves bill on TikTok that would force sale or effectively ban company

Politicians recognize TikTok creators are powerful

Keith Edwards was one of 70 influencers the White House briefed ahead of the State of the Union address, hoping they would spread the word about Biden’s economic plan and student loan forgiveness to their young audiences.

Edwards, 39, is originally from Macomb County, Michigan – one of the counties that flipped from blue to red in 2020. He is one of the 61% of millennials without a college degree, according to Pew Research Center, and said he told Biden’s advisers about their experience of the economy.

On the night of Biden’s address, he told his 200,000 followers across TikTok, Instagram, and X, formerly Twitter that he was “already loving this speech. When it was over, he brought attention to a CNN poll that found 62% of speech viewers said Biden’s policies would move the U.S. in the right direction.

Mar 7, 2024; Washington, DC, USA; President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

But now, Edwards said, he is scared about the idea of giving any president the power to remove apps from the App Store.

“My friends at the Pentagon have been like: ‘There’s a loaded gun on the table. Let’s take away the gun,’” Edwards told USA TODAY. “OK I guess, but giving a president vast power just because something could happen? I don’t know how to feel.”

Presidential candidates have long sought celebrity endorsements, but in the social media age, they have begun courting content creators as well.

Biden met with influencers in past election cycles, and Trump has befriended conservative influencers, including Libs of Tik Tok founder Chaya Raichik and Seth Dillon of Babylon Bee. 

Now these same TikTok influencers are crying foul and showing what happens when followers cancel them.

North Carolina Democratic Rep. Jeff Jackson became a TikTok darling while campaigning for Congress for his personal, easy-to-understand videos.

But when Jackson took to the app last week to explain his vote in favor of the TikTok ban, his 2.3 million followers were quick to point out his hypocrisy. He soon followed in the footsteps of many content creators before him – he released an apology video. 

Influencer Noah Glenn Carter, 27, covers video games and entertainment news for his 8.7 million followers on TikTok. He said he saw the tide turn against Jackson among his younger audience.

“Jackson could use the app when it benefited him. But now he tells everyone that they can’t use it when it benefits them. I have more respect for the politicians that voted yes for the ban that don’t use TikTok than I do for the ones that voted yes and do use it.”

Josh Helfgott, an LGBTQ+ activist and content creator, worries that kind of a backlash could extend to all politicians who vote to ban TikTok, all the way up to the presidency. 

“The impact of that backlash toward Jeff Jackson is what I fear happening to every Democrat who votes yes for this, especially President Biden,” Helfgott said.

More:House passes TikTok bill. Are TikTok’s days numbered? What you need to know.

How the ban could disrupt communities and the economy

TikTok contains a sprawling amount of communities, ranging from #NewsTok to #BookTok and everywhere in between. It has become a central hub of information for young people, in many cases replacing Google and other search platforms. 

“TikTok has become the new Twitter,” Helfgott said. 

Thirty-two percent of young adults in the United States now get their news straight from the app, and the number is growing year over year. It’s not just young people either; 14% of all Americans – across every age demographic – say they regularly get their news from TikTok.

TikTok wasn’t always a hub for news. 

The type of content on the app began to shift in summer 2020, at the height of the social justice protests after the murder of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis. Young people wanted a way to mobilize and disseminate updates about the protests. Within months, TikTok – once overrun with breadmaking tutorials in the early days of the pandemic – gave way to breaking news, analysis and get-out-the-vote messages.

If the legislation passes, it could be devastating, Helfgott said. “ It would leave a huge wound that wouldn’t be patched up by other platforms.”

This federal TikTok legislation is not the first of its kind in the U.S., but it goes further than similar social media bills proposed in Montana, Ohio, Utah, Arkansas and Florida, many of which are held up in court amid First Amendment concerns.

Influencer and former counsel to Senate Democrats Emily Amick was also one of the influencers invited to the White House briefing. She said she was shocked to see the Republican-controlled House known for gridlock pass the bill quickly without a thorough public explanation.

“The Republican House that had gotten very little done over the past year-plus, suddenly seemed highly competent at pushing forward bipartisan legislation,” Amick said. “We still don’t really know why they did this.”

Mar 13, 2024; Washington, DC, USA; Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) after the House approved a bill Wednesday, March 13, 2024, that would force TikTok’s parent company to sell the popular social media app or face a practical ban in the U.S. Mandatory Credit: Jack Gruber-USA TODAY ORG XMIT: USAT-tik tok vote (Via OlyDrop)

Controversial beauty influencer James Charles has amassed close to 39 million followers on TikTok, and his comments at the GLAAD awards about the proposed ban went viral over the weekend.

“We’re starving. People are dying. … We’re in a war that we should not be in, and TikTok is our most pressing concern? I don’t think so,” he said on the red carpet.

Many social media creators and users have expressed similar sentiment: that Congress has more important things to focus on. Rivera said the ban would hurt influencers and small businesses who depend on TikTok for income.

“People are living paycheck to paycheck. That’s what the government needs to be focused on,” she said.

Rivera views TikTok as her full-time job and has begun posting more content and directing her followers to other platforms in case the ban becomes law.

Some content creators, however, don’t have the luxury of being able to start again. 

Sidney Raskind, a creator who has migrated from platform to platform over the years, pointed to TikTokers with niche content who may be unable to replicate their success elsewhere.“A lot of these small businesses, a lot of these farmers, a lot of these people that grew on TikTok because of their trade or special interest don’t have any other choice but TikTok.”

Vitus “V” Spehar of @UnderTheDeskNews, a TikTok account that explains daily events and politics, agreed that pivoting to another platform is not as easy as people assume. 

“There is a unique culture to each platform that makes somebody successful on it or not. So to suggest you could just go somewhere else, that’s like saying to someone, ‘I’m going to burn down your house, but you can move in with your neighbor.’”

How the ban could affect young voters

Colton Hess, creator of the Tok the Vote coalition, knows the influence that TikTok can have on young voters. He has seen firsthand how the app can be used to mobilize people.He founded Tok the Vote in the months leading up to the 2020 election, when voter registration among young adults was down because of the lack of in-person events during the pandemic.  

“We wanted to go to where the young people were, and that was TikTok,” Hess says. Seeing the explosive growth on the app, he knew that “this is where we’ve got to reach people. This is where we’ve got to get people registered.”

The coalition got to work. Tok the Vote started the first nationwide voter registration campaign on TikTok. More than 300 content creators and influencers got on board to encourage followers to get registered. Throughout the course of a single weekend, the coalition registered thousands of people across the country, and the hashtag #TokTheVote received more than 35 million views.

The turnout among young voters that year was historic. Fifty-three percent of voters under 30 cast a ballot in the 2020 presidential election, an 11% increase from the 2016 election. That helped carry Biden to victory, as nearly two-thirds of young voters went with the Democratic candidate. Today, another campaign is happening on the app: #KeepTikTok. An ad appears when users search “TikTok ban” on the app asking them to enter their ZIP code to determine their senators’ contact information.

“Tell your Senator how important TikTok is to you. Ask them to vote no on the TikTok ban,” the ad reads.

Amick said politicians shouldn’t be surprised about the backlash to the ban.

“It seems a pretty obvious response from users who adore TikTok,” Amick said.

Devotees of TikTok gather at the Capitol in Washington, as the House passed a bill that would lead to a nationwide ban of the popular video app if its China-based owner doesn't sell, Wednesday, March 13, 2024.

Creator Johnny Palmadessa, 24, said he believes the proposed ban is drawing more young people’s interest in politics, but he doesn’t know for sure how it will affect their votes.

“I don’t see this helping Democrats,” Palmadessa said. “Then I look at the Republicans and the first thing that comes to mind is well, ‘President Biden might need to sign a bill that hurts his chances among young voters.”

Others see the TikTok ban as a reason to turn to an alternative candidate like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. 

The presidential candidate has seen explosive growth on TikTok since the ban passed the House and has continued to position himself as a staunch supporter of the app and its users. 

Spehar said they don’t plan on voting for RFK Jr. but recognizes the smart strategy behind his sudden pro-TikTok content. 

“He is filling a vacuum with promises that he can − or can’t − keep on TikTok,” Spehar said. “It’s not that the kids aren’t going to vote for Biden. It’s that the kids are going to vote for RFK Jr. because he has made himself feel like one of them.” 

Even Rivera, who has shied away from political content, has taken to TikTok to explain the process to her followers.

Most recently, she answered questions on how a bill becomes a law to her followers during her regular TikTok livestreams. She said she might create a post telling her followers to call their politicians when the measure is taken up by the Senate.

“Maybe I will make a post saying something like ‘Pick up the phone and call your state senator. Let them know how important this is,’” Rivera said. “When I made the phone call I said: ‘Listen. I am a single mom. I’m a widow. If it wasn’t for TikTok I wouldn’t have a job.”

Source link : https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2024/03/22/tiktok-ban-awakens-influencer-giants/73018143007/

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