TikTok has banned political ads since 2019. Despite the official policy, the platform has still become a hotbed of political content. Who remembers the infamous Trump Dance Challenge?
Ahead of the US midterm elections this year, TikTok has introduced a series of new restrictions to further limit the influence of politicians and political groups. But will they prove effective? And what about the political content from influencers or brands that slips through the cracks?
With these questions in mind, let’s take a look at TikTok’s history with politics, as well as the steps it's taken to limit politicians’ influence and the spread of misinformation on the platform.
TikTok and Politics – A Complicated Relationship
The social media app, which counts more than one billion users and is owned by China's ByteDance, considers itself as “first and foremost an entertainment platform”. In theory, TikTok’s ads policy prevents politicians, their spouses, and even royal family members from running ads — deeming political campaigning “unsuitable”.
In reality, though, political ads still slip through the cracks. According to TikTok’s 2020 Transparency Report, 347,225 videos were removed in the US for spreading election misinformation, disinformation, or manipulated media. As the 2022 midterm elections heat up, it’s no surprise that the platform is taking action to protect its users from fake news. So, what’s changing?
Source: Dr. Oz TikTok Account
In August 2022, the company launched the TikTok Elections Center, a hub of reliable, objective information available in more than 45 languages. Now, the platform has taken things one step further. In a press release entitled “Our commitment to election integrity”, Eric Han, Head of US Safety, laid out a series of measures designed to take a tougher stance on political campaigning.
“At TikTok, we take our responsibility to protect the integrity of our platform - particularly around elections - with the utmost seriousness. We're proud to be a place that brings people together over creative and entertaining content, and we work hard to keep harmful misinformation and other violations of our policies off our platform.”
TikTok’s Stricter New Rules for Politicians
Recently, TikTok has cracked down on accounts belonging to governments, politicians, and political parties — and here are the main changes:
1. Mandatory Verification for Political Accounts
While many political accounts voluntarily add the “verified” badge to their profile to prove they are who they say they are, until now, this was optional.
However, TikTok has started trialing mandatory verification for accounts belonging to governments, politicians, and political parties through the midterm elections.
2. No Access to Advertising Features
TikTok has a longstanding ban on political advertising, which covers both paid ads and influencers being paid to create branded content. Now, the platform has applied new restrictions at the account level.
Accounts belonging to politicians and political parties automatically have their access to advertising features turned off. Governments can only run ads in exceptional circumstances — like to raise awareness for COVID vaccines — while working directly with a TikTok representative.
3. Monetization Tools Off-Limits
Political accounts no longer have access to features like gifting, tipping, and Commerce — and are not eligible for TikTok’s Creator Fund. This means political accounts will not be able to donate or receive money on the platform.
4. Campaign Fundraising Officially Banned
TikTok no longer allows any kind of campaign fundraising, whether it’s a video from a politician asking for donations or a political party sending users to a donation page on their website.
Why Do the TikTok Policy Changes Matter?
We’ve seen in the past how social media influences politics — like Cambridge Analytica’s Facebook campaign to skew the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom or Donald Trump’s avid use of Twitter during the 2016 elections.
Considering the design and viral nature of TikTok, it’s even more important to keep a close eye on the political messages being shared. Content on TikTok spreads fast — a video can amass millions of views overnight.
The way TikTok is built makes it particularly vulnerable to spreading political misinformation. The platform’s algorithm delivers highly-tailored content based on users’ interests, which means the “For You” page can quickly become an information bubble.
Source: MAGA 2024 TikTok
Of TikTok’s 80 million monthly active users in the US, 60% are between the ages of 16-24 and 80% are between the ages of 16-34. This makes the platform a powerful channel to reach younger voters — who, according to a recent study, could swing the election results in key states like Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
In an announcement titled “Updating our policies for political accounts”, Blake Chandlee, President of Global Business Solutions at TikTok stated:
“By prohibiting campaign fundraising and limiting access to our monetization features and verifying accounts, we're aiming to strike a balance between enabling people to discuss the issues that are relevant to their lives while also protecting the creative, entertaining platform that our community wants.”
In other words, TikTok is trying to stay true to its roots as an entertainment platform and avoid misuse.
How Effective Are TikTok’s Political Ads Rules?
TikTok doesn't provide a publicly-searchable database of advertising data, unlike other social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter. Without this insight, it’s difficult to say for sure how effectively TikTok is enforcing its advertising policies.
A recent experiment revealed that TikTok failed to catch 90% of ads featuring false and misleading messages about elections, while YouTube and Facebook identified and blocked most of them. The watchdog group Global Witness and the Cybersecurity for Democracy uploaded ten ads in English and ten in Spanish, without declaring the ads to be political. They deleted the accepted ads before they were published.
A key issue seems to be TikTok’s reliance on self-declaration. Two weeks before the 2020 US Presidential Election, left-wing content creators shared anti-Trump get-out-the-vote TikTok posts.
They were paid by the agency Bigtent Creative, which receives funding from Democratic political organizations, but failed to disclose this and the videos gained hundreds of thousands of views. TikTok only removed the posts after BBC journalists conducted an investigation and approached the platform.
Similarly, several right-wing TikTok influencers appear to be funded by conservative organizations like Turning Point USA, whose influencer program funds young conservative content creators on social media.
A brief look at the platform today shows no shortage of political content on all sides of the spectrum. This raises the question, what is an ad? On other platforms like Facebook, organic reach has been dwindling for years, so brands pay to boost their content and engage with targeted audiences. On TikTok, paid ads might be off-limit for politicians and influencers directly collaborating with them, but political content is still allowed and can reach thousands or even millions of people.
TikTok is a platform where videos can go viral overnight — no advertising dollars needed. Since politicians and political groups are still using the platform to promote themselves and their ideas, at scale, the crackdown on ads and fundraising seems like an empty gesture.
In a world where Donald Trump can launch his own social media app, Truth, and Elon Musk can buy Twitter, taking steps to limit politics on social media seems like a refreshing step in the right direction.
And as the elections creep up, brands and influencers alike will need to be careful of what kind of content they agree to post — as getting too political on a platform like TikTok may no longer be the way to go in 2022 and beyond.
But as the lines between ad and content continue to blur, the main question is, will it be enough?