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TikTok Can’t Save Biden’s Campaign

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Technologies don’t usually tip elections, but they certainly condition them. How a candidate formats a message inevitably shapes the content of that message and, in turn, the quality of American political discourse.

From the cozy intimacy of Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside radio chats to TV shrinking the distance and, thus, awe of leaders, casual—even confessional—talk long ago replaced formality and reserve. Over the years, the more Politics became media spectacle-driven—that is, existing first and foremost for the photo-op—the more performances of “authenticity” tried to cover that up.

All that explains President Joe Biden’s “lol hey guys” debut on TikTok last week.

Like any celebrity or brand, he’s chasing a perceived fountain of youth. And, yet, the platform’s aesthetic bias—toward being unpolished and vulnerable—will actually highlight his liabilities. Biden might win on TikTok, but he risks losing the larger battle against the growing attention to his age.

To be sure, it’s not that his inaugural TikTok was a huge bellyflop. Posted on Super Bowl Sunday, it has the jittery zooms, meme-savvy, and haphazard mise-en-scéne that defines the platform’s look and feel. At 81, Biden doesn’t need to “get” TikTok as long as his comms team does. And, to their credit, this was no Steve Buscemi-esque, “How do you do, fellow kids?” pandering cringe.

Moreover, as audience-targeting, it seems like sound strategy. Pew recently found fourfold growth in the percentage of Americans who get their news regularly from TikTok, including one-third of Gen Z adults. The issue, for Biden, is not that quantity of news consumption, but its formal quality.

“The campaign is now on TikTok, because frankly that’s where people are,” campaign spokesperson Seth Schuster explained to CNN. “Having a presence on TikTok gives us the chance to maximize the reach of the president’s vision.”

Such has been the timeless narrative for two decades: that Politics on social media represent grassroots, spontaneous movements that rise up from the people rather than being imposed upon them. Each subsequent election cycle added a then-cutting-edge tool, but most shared that same techno-populist framing in media and political circles.

From Obama’s blogosphere to Trump-era Twitter to 2020’s campaign-iNFLuencer shills, social media functions as “a steroid tool to amplify authenticity,” one veteran GOP advisor told me. Voters and journalists demand ever more access to politicians’ private lives, where authenticity minimizes the difference between public appearances and behind-the-scenes selves.

To quote US Weekly’s long-running feature, we want leaders of the free world to be “just like us.” That’s not, however, what Biden needs.

“The work we do with creators has the most upside and potential of all the communications methods we employ,” the White House’s digital strategy director reportedly told a VidCon gathering of iNFLuencers in 2023. “It’s about how we can find a way to appear in the feed in a way that feels authentic, organic, and ultimately surprises you.”

TikTok’s ascendance shows that aesthetics matter, but not in the way you might think: Simple, even shoddy production, conveys authenticity. Scholars call this look “curated imperfection” and “aspirational ordinariness.” It’s a genre of stylistic norms expressed most emblematically on TikTok, but in evidence across the social media landscape.

“One of the ideas that’s floating around the Business right now is that you’re almost better doing a phone video… than a produced piece of content, because people will pay attention to it,” a senior creative at a Democratic media firm told me. “It’s like what their friends put out.”

That aesthetic is inherently sloppy: off-kilter angles, funky editing, unflattering footage; BeReal’s unretouched selfies; Snapchat’s informal impermanence. The substance follows form in its unfiltered ambition: Candid self-disclosure about personal struggles authenticates an online creator. Showing off your flaws shows you to be somehow more “real.”

Hence, when Politico canvassed leading TikTokkers on behalf of Biden, the themes and tips could have come straight out of a Facebook-playbook, circa 2012: “don’t just post highly polished content;” “show us the off-book, behind-the-scenes;” “be relatable.”

Yet none of these slapdash prescriptions augur well for a candidate battling perceptions of being too old to run for office. A lack of sharp polish looks like absent-mindedness; the vulnerability valued on TikTok betrays frailty. And the traditional press exposure that Biden’s team has minimized thus far suggests there’s not exactly a gold mine of content to be excavated behind-the-scenes.

Unfairly, of course, these aesthetics and optics that hamper Biden are the same that aid his opponent. Donald Trump’s authenticity has long dealt in style, not substance. Hence, all those Twitter typos over the years supposedly index unrestrained honesty rather than him having lost his marbles, as it would surely scan coming from Biden’s account.

Read More: Why Biden’s Age Has Become a Bigger Deal Than Trump’s

Trump speaks internet—unfiltered, undignified, authentic—a radically different tone than traditional political communication afforded. Biden can’t indulge so indecorously, even as that’s precisely what TikTok will ask of him.

And, for that matter, there is no singular TikTok to really speak of. One of Biden’s campaign advisors told Axios, “In a media ecosystem that is more fragmented and personalized than ever, it’s even more important to get our message across every channel and every platform possible.” Yet the platform rewards niche virality, not centralized comms output. You could scheme, top-down, the 5 pm nightly news when there were only three networks to go around; not so with an “interest graph” algorithm that serves up content irrespective of follower-count prominence.

None of this, by the way, bespeaks the merits of Biden as president, only as a performer, which is depressingly superficial given the world-historical stakes.

Alas, the sloppy self-performance that TikTok encourages remains biased toward Trump. Dark Brandon might have scripted the Super Bowl on behalf of Taylor and Travis, but looking unscripted in his social media stylings is unlikely to achieve the same winning ending.

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