Inside the first TikTok election

tiktok symbol at no 10
tiktok symbol at no 10

Oliver Dowden vowed that Britain would not compromise when it came to protecting government secrets.

As he announced a ban on TikTok on government devices, the Deputy Prime Minister said that “security must always come first”.

Parliament’s Wi-Fi network blocked the Chinese-owned social media app a few days later.

That was 14 months ago.

Now, although security fears around TikTok have not disappeared, the political reality appears to have trumped them.

On Sunday, Rishi Sunak embraced the video sharing app, appearing in the Conservative party account’s first official TikTok to promote his policy of national service for every 18-year-old.

“Hi TikTok,” Rishi Sunak said, facing the camera head on. “Sorry to be breaking into your usual politics-free feed, but I’ve got a big announcement today and I’m told that a lot of you already have some views on it.”

Labour had beaten the Tories to the punch by 48 hours, posting its first campaign video on Friday.

And by Sunday night, Sir Keir Starmer’s party had fully embraced the medium, co-opting popular memes to attack Sunak’s national service policy.

One featured Lord Farquaad, the diminutive antagonist from Shrek, delivering the line: “Some of you may die, but it’s a sacrifice I am willing to make.”

Another showed a 1980s Cilla Black performing “Surprise, Surprise”, a recurring TikTok meme, above the caption: “POV [Point of view]: Rishi Sunak turning up on your 18th birthday to send you to war.”

Social media has been a vital part of winning elections for almost two decades. Barack Obama rode Facebook to finance his 2008 path to the White House, while Donald Trump’s tweets dominated the conversation eight years later.

But today, hogging the online limelight is more crucial than ever.

In 2012, 85pc of adults received their news from television and 53pc from radio, according to Ofcom. By last year, this had fallen to 70pc and 41pc.

Use of the internet for news has grown from 41pc to 68pc, and almost half of adults get their news from social media.

While Facebook is the dominant source of news, TikTok has exploded. In 2019, when Britain last held a general election, the app did not even register in surveys.

Last year, 10pc of people said they got their news from TikTok – more than Radio One.

One in 10 British teenagers say the app is the main way they get their news, and among 12-15 year-olds, it is Britain’s second-biggest source after the BBC.

The app’s finely-honed algorithm and bite-sized videos also keep users hooked.

Under-24s spend an hour a day on it. Because users can flick through hundreds of videos in a few minutes, the potential audience for a viral video is huge.

Labour’s Shrek meme, for instance, racked up two million views in 24 hours; Sunak’s national service video reached 1.3 million.

“TikTok is the best platform through which to reach young, especially progressive, voters. It’s as simple as that,” says Thomas Gift, an associate professor of political science at University College London.

That does not mean centre-right parties can ignore it.

TikTok was said to have played a significant role in last year’s elections in New Zealand, where the right-wing National party defeated the centre-left Labour incumbents.

The Nationals’ social media campaign was led by Sean Topham, a 33-year-old advertising guru who worked on Boris Johnson’s election victory.

While Topham pulled stunts on Twitter during the 2019 campaign, renaming the official Conservative Twitter account “Fact Check UK” to attack Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, he says TikTok is now the most important way to reach younger voters.

Speaking to the Business of Politics podcast in January, Topham said: “From a social media comms perspective, TikTok was the most important decision we made early on, about 12, 18 months before the election, that we needed to be on the platform.

“Chris Luxon [the Nationals’ candidate who went on to win the election] had come into the office and said to the digital team, ‘Wow, people are recognising me from TikTok.’

“Just because you’re a conservative party who’s unlikely to win younger voters doesn’t mean you should completely ignore them or take them out of the message.”

Unlike Facebook, where parties are expected to spend millions on targeted adverts, TikTok does not allow political advertising, putting more demand on social media gurus to earn their crust by going viral.

While Sunak is a TikTok newcomer, some Conservatives have embraced the service.

Grant Shapps, the Defence Secretary, has posted hundreds of videos on the app, promoting military visits and donations to Ukraine.

On the day TikTok was banned on government phones, his contribution was a clip from the Wolf of Wall Street film, of Leonardo di Caprio shouting “I’m not leaving” to rapturous applause. Mr Shapps said the ban was sensible and that he had never used the app on a government device.

Dehenna Davison, who was part of the Tories’ Red Wall intake in 2019 when she won the Bishop Auckland seat aged 28, is also a frequent TikTokker, tapping into the app’s core audience with posts about Taylor Swift and marathon training.

Even 10 Downing Street had an official account during Johnson’s leadership, although it has been dormant for almost two years.

TikTok itself has been building political connections and urging MPs to sign up.

Until recently it employed Theo Bertram, an adviser to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, as its European policy chief.

In March it told a parliamentary committee that having politicians on the service would limit the risk of bad actors spreading misinformation.

However, a more vocal wing of the party has campaigned against the app.

They include Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former party leader, who has compared it to Huawei, the telecoms equipment company that was banned in 2021, and Alicia Kearns, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

They point to TikTok’s ownership by ByteDance, whose Chinese headquarters means it is legally compelled to give up information requested by Beijing authorities, and concerns that the app could be used to spread pro-Chinese propaganda.

TikTok says it has never given information to the Chinese authorities and would not do so if asked.

But it has not been taken at its word. Last month the US Congress approved laws that would force TikTok’s Chinese owners to sell the app’s American operations or be banned.

But even in the US, TikTok’s political clout has been impossible to ignore

Joe Biden may have signed the ban into law, but his campaign joined the app two months earlier.

The European Union has not ruled out its own ban, but leading politicians including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have signed up (Scholz has at least promised he will not dance).

Kate Dommett, a professor of digital politics at the University of Sheffield, says both Labour and the Conservatives may struggle to have an impact with just six weeks of campaigning to make a difference.

“They now won’t have long to build up their audience,” she says, adding that the two parties appear to be competing for older voters anyway.

In the first days of the election campaign Labour and the Conservatives have accumulated 50,000 and 15,000 TikTok followers respectively.

But Nigel Farage, a two-year veteran of the app, has racked up almost 600,000.

National security risks aside, both main parties will hope the TikTok popularity contest is not indicative of wider voting patterns.