Republican presidential hopefuls have largely shunned TikTok, the hugely popular video-sharing app that some in both parties allege is a potential spy mechanism for China.
But entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy recently became the first 2024 candidate to join the platform, which says it has over 150 million U.S. users. That’s even as he’s accused Beijing of pushing TikTok as “digital fentanyl” to Americans and wants the app banned entirely.
“We’re in this to reach young people, to energize young people, and to do that, we can’t just hide,” Ramaswamy said in his first post earlier this month. “You can’t play in the game, and then not play in the game, so we’re here.”
His competitors face the same conundrum. With U.S.-China tensions already running high, the Republicans running for president have all called for new economic and political measures to punish Beijing. Several major GOP candidates have said they want to ban TikTok. But they also want to reach the younger audiences that don’t watch television ads but consume videos on TikTok or similar apps.
Many campaigns produce short video clips that can be shared between apps, a workaround to not being on TikTok directly. Or they work with conservative influencers on the app who argue Republicans need to engage on it.
About three in 10 U.S. adults (29%) have a TikTok account, according to an Ipsos study conducted in July, with 20% saying they use it at least from time to time. TikTok usage is much higher among younger adults, with half of 18- to 34-year-olds saying they have a TikTok account and 37% using the app often. Overall, Republicans (22%) are slightly less likely than Democrats (35%) to have a TikTok account.
A spokeswoman for Ramaswamy’s campaign defended both the decision to join TikTok and Ramaswamy’s criticisms that the app is dangerous.
“You have to reach young people where they are,” said Tricia McLaughlin, the spokeswoman. “TikTok does collect user data. This data collection should not be happening. It is tailored to promote toxic behaviors.”
TikTok in a statement defended its efforts to safeguard U.S. user data and “protect our platform from outside influence.” The company argued a ban would unlawfully restrict the free speech of Americans using the app.
“Censoring their voices is contrary to conservative values and principles enshrined in our constitution,” the company said in its statement. “If candidates are truly concerned about protecting data, a better approach is a national privacy law that applies to all technology companies equally.”
Ramaswamy’s approach to TikTok is in some ways indicative of his campaign. While he is trying to make himself attractive to younger voters, Ramaswamy has promoted policy ideas that would directly target them.
He has called for raising the voting age for Americans from 18 to 25, something that would require a constitutional amendment. He would carve out exceptions for people who serve at least six months in the military or as a first responder, or for people who could pass the test given to people seeking to become naturalized citizens.
TikTok has split Washington since its launch in 2016.
U.S. officials have for…