by Philip Wegmann
On August 9, 2021, Benito Skinner, the Millennial Generation comedian known online as “Benny Drama,” posted a video on TikTok of his day-in-the-life experience as a White House intern, photocopying, making unrequested nail appointments for then-Press Secretary Jen Psaki, and generally making a mess.
All of it was for laughs, but there was a reason the Biden administration invited him into the West Wing. They wanted Millennials and members of Gen Z to hear a public health message from the TikTok influencer: “We need to get shots in the arms of every single American.”
As hoped, the TikTok went viral. Vogue magazine gushed that with his fake extension nails, seersucker shorts suit, and over-the-top persona, the comic had delivered “instant joy.” Six days later, Kabul fell to al-Qaeda. Critics sneered that the unfortunate timing reflected an unserious administration, but mockery has not stopped the White House from partnering regularly with TikTok influencers to advance their message on everything from vaccinations to the war in Ukraine.
But there’s a more important potential pitfall than decorum. Despite repeated bipartisan warnings about the national security risks of TikTok, the administration continues to make use of the Chinese-owned social networking app. While the White House and President Biden do not have official TikTok accounts, they actively court those with large followings on the platform.
The administration invited more than two dozen TikTok influencers to the White House last month for a briefing on the Inflation Reduction Act in the West Wing. They sat down with Biden in the Roosevelt Room.
Why develop a communications strategy for an online app better known for silly dance videos than political analysis? Because TikTok’s influence is undeniable. According to data from Cloudfare, an online analytics firm, TikTok surpassed Google as the most visited website in 2021.
A spokesperson for TikTok told RealClearPolitics that they do not store the data of American citizens and that they have not, and would never, turn over that information to the Chinese Communist Party or to the Chinese government. If such a request was ever made, the company insists they would disclose it in their publicly available transparency reports. The Pentagon still isn’t taking any chances.
Despite promises from TikTok to shield user data, the Department of Defense recommended in 2020 that military personnel delete the app from their government-issued smartphones. Several military branches banned TikTok altogether. In a rare move of bipartisan cooperation, Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Republican Sen. Tom Cotton penned a joint letter in 2019 asking intelligence officials to investigate the national security risks posed by the popular app.
While he was president, Donald Trump attempted to effectively ban TikTok and took ultimately unsuccessful steps to prohibit users from downloading the application. Biden reversed those executive actions and ordered the Commerce Department to conduct a security review of TikTok and other Beijing-based apps. Even as that analysis is ongoing, his team continues to make liberal use of the platform.
A National Security Council spokesperson told RCP that the White House does not use TikTok on government-issued devices. Instead, the administration provides content and opportunities for TikTok influencers to make their own videos. They could not say, however, whether or not White House staff had downloaded the app on their personal devices.
Citing the Commerce investigation, the official declined to address security concerns posed by TikTok other than to say the administration “is focused on the challenge of certain countries, including China, seeking to leverage digital technologies and Americans’ data in ways that present unacceptable national security risks.”
The White House did not return subsequent RCP requests for comment when asked how administration staff monitor the product of those partnerships with influencers if government officials do not have TikTok downloaded on their government-issued devices.
According to Sen. Marco Rubio, the White House is playing “a dangerous game.” The ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee told RCP that “by giving TikTok ‘influencers’ the platform of White House visits and creating content, Biden is signaling to the world he believes it is safe to use an app beholden to Beijing.”
The Florida Republican added that “there are people in the administration who know better,” but said that “their warnings are ignored because the political types want to use TikTok to organize, activate, and influence.” A White House official countered that the only message that Biden is sending is that that “he wants to reach all Americans.”
Sometimes that means piggybacking off the social media accounts of others, particularly TikTok influencers who can reach a much younger crowd than those who follow the news through more traditional outlets. In order to “take credit and also tell people how they can access” the benefits of the Inflation Reduction Act, Rob Flaherty, the White House director of digital strategy, recently told NPR, “then we need to get out into the digital communities that people exist in.” Hence the recent White House briefing for TikTok influencers.
“So, we entered the Roosevelt Room of the West Wing, which is a place that like no one really gets to go to, and they gave me special permission to make TikToks in it,” gushed V Spehar, who hosts a TikTok channel called “Under the Desk News” that reaches an audience of 2.7 million. Along with more than a dozen other influencers, Spehar received an “intimate” briefing from Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff, Vice President Kamala Harris, and eventually the president himself.
Journalists from more traditional outlets were also on hand that day to cover the news but this briefing, like similar ones offered on COVID and Ukraine, was exclusively for TikTok and YouTube stars, a fact that Spehar later said on her podcast underscores the importance of the outreach to influencers who are trying “to cut through all the noise and divisiveness and just tell the truth, just give good that speaks to what this means for us, the average person.”
Democrat Sen. Mark Warner also views TikTok in light of how it affects the average person, but not in terms of civic engagement. “This is not something you would normally hear me say, but Donald Trump was right on TikTok years ago,” the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee told the Sidney Morning Herald last week. “If your kids are on TikTok … the ability for China to have undue influence is a much greater challenge and a much more immediate threat than any kind of actual, armed conflict.”
Warner did not return repeated RCP requests for additional thoughts on whether it was prudent for the White House to utilize the app. A spokesperson for TikTok, meanwhile, didn’t hesitate when asked if it was safe for Biden to use. “Yes,” Brooke Oberwetter said before adding that “currently, neither the White House nor the President has an account.”
Amidst ongoing concerns about possible foreign influence on U.S. elections, TikTok announced an Elections Center in August that allows users to access state-by-state election information, including how to register to vote and how to vote by mail. TikTok plans to link to resources provided by the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) and the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS).
A representative of the federal voting program told RCP that “FVAP is not in collaboration with TikTok and was asked by the platform for permission to share public resource links.” Similarly, a spokesperson for the secretaries of state association said that “NASS worked with TikTok in 2020 and again in 2022 to ensure users in America were able to get trusted information,” but that “no user data is collected.”
“Anytime TikTok is involved, either directly through relationships or otherwise, with political speech in this country around the elections,” Brendan Carr told RCP, “it is reason for concern.”
One of five commissioners at the Federal Communications Commission, Carr has publicly called on the Commerce Department to ban TikTok, not just because of “the possibility for espionage” if data flows from the United States “back into China,” but also because the app could provide an opportunity for Beijing “to engage in a foreign influence campaign.”
The FCC commissioner warns that China could manipulate TikTok’s algorithm and search function to boost content Beijing finds favorable while throttling posts they find objectionable. “Whether they feel like they have the cover or leeway to do that in this upcoming election, I don’t know,” Carr told RCP, noting that currently “there’s an awful lot of scrutiny on them right now,”
In the long run, he said, “there is a very real risk.”
A spokesperson dismissed those concerns from the FCC commissioner as “speculation,” telling RCP that “TikTok devotes significant resources to protect our platform from covert influence campaigns, to combat misinformation and disinformation, and defend the integrity of elections.”
The company pointed to Sir Jeremy Fleming, the head of the United Kingdom’s intelligence and cyber security agency, who recently said he wouldn’t discourage his own children from using the social media app, telling them to “take those videos, use TikTok, but just think before you do.” The British Parliament won’t be making TikTok videos any time soon. After briefly creating a TikTok of their own, Parliament shut down its official account when MPs who were sanctioned by China publicly condemned the move.
Carr sees the episode as an instructive example of what not to do in the United States. The FCC commissioner told RCP that extra security precautions taken by Parliament, such as burner phones, were essentially “an admission that there is something very wrong.” Even if governments take protective steps to shield their own security on TikTok, politicians are still “encouraging people to view those videos on the platform,” he said generally without singling out any particular lawmaker.
As Capitol Hill wrestles with the issue, the company has aggressively built out its D.C. operation. According to FEC reports, TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, has spent $4.3 million dollars in 2022 to lobby Congress and the White House. TikTok already employs a number of former Republican and Democratic representatives, and last week their latest hiring made headlines. As the DailyMail first reported, TikTok hired Jamal Brown “to manage policy communications” in the United States. Brown previously served as deputy press secretary at the Pentagon, where TikTok is prohibited.
The White House decision to use TikTok, even indirectly, may present a political liability for Biden ahead of 2024. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who previously served as CIA director and is considering a bid for the presidency, warned that when it comes to TikTok, the Chinese government is “already inside the gates.”
“If your kids have TikTok on their phone, you should know that the Chinese Communist Party knows what they look like, knows where they are, knows who their friends are, knows who they texted, and may well know their health condition,” he said in August.
“The Biden Administration’s repeated embrace of TikTok for its own political gain signals that it is content to ignore this real and serious threat to the security and privacy of all Americans,” Pompeo told RCP.
Pompeo, a TikTok spokesperson replied, was “misinformed.”
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Philip Wegmann is an investigative journalist for RealClearInvestigations.
Photo “Tiktok” by 8268513. Background Photo “The White House” by 12019 / 10257.