Why Donald Trump Decided To Join TikTok

Former President Donald Trump recently joined the popular social media platform TikTok just days after he was convicted on 34 counts of falsifying business records in his hush money trial in New York.

Most notably, Trump now has a presence on a social media app he unsuccessfully tried to ban as president through executive order in 2020 while he was still in the White House.

“We will leave no front undefended, and this represents the continued outreach to a younger audience consuming pro-Trump and anti-Biden content,” Steven Cheung, a spokesperson for Trump’s campaign, said of Trump’s decision to join the platform.

Amid his third presidential run, Trump has changed his tune on TikTok, opposing a congressional bill threatening to ban the app in the U.S. unless its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, divests its stake in the platform within a year.

President Joe Biden signed the bill into law in April. The legislation could ultimately end up before the U.S. Supreme Court as ByteDance and TikTok filed a lawsuit, claiming the bill violates the First Amendment rights of the 170 million Americans who use the platform.

Trump opposed the TikTok divestiture bill even though many of his allies in Congress, including House Speaker Mike Johnson, pushed for its passage. Ahead of Biden’s signature on the law, Trump said a potential TikTok ban would be the president’s fault as he urged young Americans to hold Biden accountable over it on Election Day.

“He is the one pushing it to close, and doing it to help his friends over at Facebook become richer and more dominant, and able to continue to fight, perhaps illegally, the Republican Party,” Trump wrote on his Truth Social platform.

(Several social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, suspended Trump’s accounts over his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. All three platforms have since reinstated his accounts.)

Why now?

Despite his previous position on TikTok, Trump now appears to recognize the site is especially popular with young adults, who also use it as one of their main sources of information. According to a survey conducted by Pew Research in the fall of 2023, about a third of U.S. adults aged 18 to 29 regularly get their news from TikTok.

Thomas Gift, the director of the Centre for U.S. Politics at University College London, said polling data indicates “a dramatic swing” toward Trump among young voters compared to the past election cycle.

“He’s still not getting the majority of the votes, but it’s been a dramatic improvement,” Gift told HuffPost. “I think he does see young voters as kind of a target demographic that he can reach, and so he’s gonna go after them.”

Trump’s campaign had been mulling joining the platform for a while, according to The Washington Post, with some of his allies, including Kellyanne Conway, pushing Trump’s team in recent months to make the move despite the scrutiny TikTok has received.

Conway, a former senior counselor for Trump during his administration, was hired by the conservative Club for Growth to lobby for TikTok in Congress, Politico reported in March. The investment company of one of the main financial backers of the group, billionaire Jeff Yass, who is also the biggest donor in this election cycle, has a 15% stake in ByteDance.

While Yass previously opposed Trump, the two men have recently grown closer. Notably, Yass met Trump in Florida the week before the former president first came out against the bill that could ban TikTok. Trump told CNBC in March Yass “never mentioned TikTok” during their brief encounter.

Regardless of his motivation, Trump’s move to join TikTok seems to be paying off, at least in terms of numbers. As of early Thursday, Trump’s account had garnered over 5.7 million followers.

His first 13-second TikTok video, posted Saturday, has more than 93.4 million views. It shows the former president attending a UFC fight alongside UFC CEO Dana White in Newark, New Jersey.

“The president is now on TikTok,” White says at the video’s opening.

“It’s my honor,” Trump replies.

Why is Trump’s account gaining more traction than Biden’s?

Biden’s 2024 campaign has had an account on the platform for months, and his team has continued to use it despite his signing of the divestiture bill. Their account has way less hype than Trump’s, boasting just over 361,900 followers.

Gift said TikTok is ultimately more conducive to Trump’s brand.

“Trump is a consummate entertainer. And he’s very adept at using social media, as we saw in the 2016 campaign with Twitter,” Gift said.

Gift added that Trump’s campaign style and unfiltered sharing of his opinions “jives more with TikTok.”

People “don’t go on TikTok to assess the finer points of public policymaking,” Gift said. “They go on TikTok to be entertained. And to the extent that Trump is an entertainer, I think it’s very unsurprising that he has gained more traction through that as a medium.”

Caitlin Chin-Rothmann, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, echoed Gift, telling HuffPost that many people who follow him or look at his posts may simply be curious to watch his content even if they don’t plan to back him in November, and may not even be eligible to vote in the U.S. election.

“It’ll be interesting to see whether this attention continues throughout the rest of the campaign cycle, especially after his sentencing next month,” in the hush money trial, Chin-Rothmann added.

Did the changing social media landscape play a role in Trump’s decision?

Meanwhile, the right-wing has been picking up steam on TikTok, giving Trump another incentive to get on the app to stay on top of that movement.

An internal TikTok analysis reported by Puck found that since November, over 1.29 million positive Trump videos or images have been posted on the platform, with 9.1 billion views, compared to 651,000 positive Biden posts, which have about 6.15 billion views.

Some in Trump’s orbit have also been joining the platform, including Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump, and former GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, who is floated as a potential member of Trump’s cabinet team if he wins in November. (Ramaswamy recently bought 7.7% stake in Buzzfeed, the parent company of HuffPost, acquired in 2021.) Pro-Trump super PAC MAGA Inc. also launched an account on TikTok last month.

Trump is no stranger to using social media as a political tool. During both the 2016 and 2020 presidential election campaigns, he used Twitter extensively to reach voters.

Since then, Twitter has been renamed X and changed dramatically under Elon Musk’s ownership, losing a big chunk of its user base. That, combined with the fact that Meta’s Facebook and Instagram deprioritize news and politics, has made TikTok an attractive option to his team.

Trump’s joining is “a reflection of the fact that the social media landscape really has changed, and Twitter is becoming just the less viable option for political candidates to communicate with voters and the public,” Chin-Rothmann told HuffPost.

Will Trump’s change of heart cost him?

Despite TikTok’s growing popularity, U.S. lawmakers view the platform skeptically due to privacy and national security concerns, given its China ties.

U.S. officials have long claimed that TikTok would be required to share its user data with the Chinese government if requested under Chinese law. TikTok has repeatedly pushed back against those concerns, pointing to the launch of its initiative to safeguard the data of American users, dubbed Project Texas.

“Under Project Texas, all protected U.S. data will be stored exclusively in the U.S. and under the control of the U.S.-led security team. This eliminates the concern that some have shared that TikTok US user data could be subject to Chinese law,” the company says.

The former president’s decision to join TikTok makes him one of the few Republicans with a presence on the platform. GOP lawmakers have been some of the loudest critics of the social media site’s ties to China.

It also points to a stark reversal of his previous position, given that Trump famously signed an executive order in 2020 forcing the company to divest or risk a nationwide ban. The courts deemed his move unconstitutional.

Even though his change of heart on TikTok could seem hypocritical, it’s unlikely to hurt him politically given that his major opponent, Biden, is also on the platform, thus muffling his ability to criticize Trump on the issue.

Besides, Trump’s fellow Republicans, even those skeptical of TikTok, are unlikely to attack him over it.

“There’s certainly political fissures within the Republican Party with regard to TikTok,” Gift said. “I do think, though, ultimately, Republicans are just going to fall in line with whatever Trump wants to do on any issue, and that includes TikTok.”

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