Boris Johnson has just joined TikTok. Joe Biden should too.
There was a time, not too long ago, when politicians imbued with their ability to change the world would hit the road, give truncated speeches and kiss babies, etc.
It still happens, of course. But things are changing. And if British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is to be believed, the 21st century equivalent of convincing people with the power of rhetoric has been replaced by an altogether more prosaic alternative: creating a TikTok account.
Number 10 Downing Street – the UK’s equivalent of the White House – launched his profile on TikTok yesterday. The first video brought British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to the fore, with the tousled-haired leader promising not to inflict his (disturbing) dance moves on TikTok’s userbase.
“You won’t necessarily see me dancing on this site, but you’ll get all kinds of stuff about what we’re doing to meet our priorities, to achieve for you our agenda of unifying and leveling our country,” he said. he promised. , in a far from friendly monologue that stands out (in a bad way) from the rest of most people’s For You stream.
At first glance, Johnson joining TikTok seems patently absurd, as does the man himself. The United Kingdom shimmer The tabloid called the decision an “absolutely fatal mistake” and the supposedly pro-Johnson TV station GB News called the whole thing “honest”. User feedback, unsurprisingly, tended towards the nasty.
And the critics are right. “This is meant to be a place where we can deliver messages and behind-the-scenes information about what we’re doing,” Johnson said in his first video. “So, connect to number 10 TikTok.” This is absolutely the wrong way to approach the application.
Part of TikTok’s secret sauce is its interactivity and authenticity. Simply using the platform as another place to air talking points that promote the government’s agenda is a surefire way to ensure that Downing Street’s early viral success – more than two million people watched the first video – will not be maintained.
Judging by the second TikTok to emerge from 10 Downing Street, it likely will. It’s a slick, if barely comprehensible video touting a longer interview Johnson and his Treasury Secretary Rishi Sunak conducted — on YouTube, a social media faux pas any user knows be a no-no. (YouTube videos and TikToks are entirely different, and encouraging users to switch between them is considered a sea change.)
Steven Buckley, an associate lecturer at the University of the West of England who studies political communication, says he has little confidence in “this latest gimmick”. “If Number 10 thinks having a presence on TikTok will be a useful or important way to reach the public and let them know how their government serves them, they are hugely mistaken,” he says.
Number 10 Downing Street did not respond to a request for comment for this story, but a former Number 10 communications officer, who requested anonymity because their current job is unlikely to allow them to speak publicly, says that there is a halo benefit to being on TikTok. “It doesn’t hurt to be seen as using modern technology,” they say. “There will be a wider benefit for the brand to be seen to be doing this.”
If 10 Downing Street did TikTok right – engaging more genuinely with the standards of the platform and its users – it could actually be a huge win. The platform has over a billion users worldwide and 23 million in the UK, a third of the total population. And despite the stereotypes, not all of them are adolescent dancers. While 56% of TikTok users in the UK are aged between 16 and 24, that means 44% are not.
“Any sane communications person in any government who wants to get their message across has to use the channel that’s going to reach the people you want to get your message across to,” says the former staffer.
Politicians need to be on social media, Buckley agrees. “It’s no longer enough to just hear what people are saying on the doorstep,” he says. “Whether they want to admit it or not, politics has become more nationalized over the past decade and understanding what the whole public feels rather than just your local constituency is vitally important to anyone. [member of parliament] understand what policies they should be fighting for.
And social media, more and more, is ICT Tac. Of course, succeeding on the platform is much easier said than done.
The former anonymous communications staffer points out that there are risks to joining TikTok. “You have to make sure you’re credible,” they say. “When you go on these platforms and try new methods of communication, you risk falling in the face and becoming a laughingstock. It’s always the risk. But in principle, you should use the tools at your disposal to get the message across.
Some politicians have made good use of social media as a method of communicating their ideas to the electorate. One of the best examples? Donald Trump, whose use of Twitter helped propel him to the White House. (He seems likely to return to the platform now that Elon Musk is taking over.)
Congressmen Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar have proven to be adept users of Twitter, Instagram and Twitch. Even European technocrat Thierry Breton has managed to figure out how to make social media work (somehow); badly shot video of him bringing Musk to heel proved an unexpected success this week.
A few even manage to use TikTok well. Zarah Sultana is a 28-year-old British MP from the opposition Labor Party in Coventry South. She was awarded Youth MP of the Year in 2021, in part because of the way she communicates with the electorate via TikTok.
Sultana, like AOC and Omar, is tech-savvy and masters the means of communication required by social media. For example, she manages to explain why government policies are – in her opinion – harmful in a short and quick way that matches the wealth of content on the For You stream.
Even at the highest levels of government, it’s possible to learn how to use social media effectively (or maybe have your staff tell you how). Indonesian President Joko Widodo has nearly three million subscribers on YouTube and is followed by a film crew that captures behind-the-scenes moments, just as Johnson promised his presence on TikTok would provide. The accessibility offered by videos endeared Widodo to its voter base.
TikTok declined to respond Grab‘s questions about the UK government account, including whether he helped or advised on how to produce shareable content and whether he played a role in directing two million people to Johnson’s first video . However, the former government communications staffer says there could have been some input from the platform. They add that internal government approval would likely have required the submission of a document proposing the pros and cons of joining TikTok, signed by senior executives or the prime minister himself.
Given the downsides of doing the wrong TikTok – UK government account has been bombarded with negative comments about the cost of living and a recent scandal in which Johnson was fined by police for breaking his own rules lockdown – should Joe Biden step onto the platform?
“I don’t think it would necessarily hurt his brand if Biden was on TikTok,” Buckley says. “If anything, I would suggest it could be used to show off his fun and caring side if he decides to run for office in 2024. TikTok is better suited for campaigning than governance. Just as you campaign in poetry and govern in prose, the finer details of politics don’t translate well on a platform like TikTok.
And given the social media savvy of Biden’s likely Republican opponent, he’s definitely the one giving TikTok a try. As long as he is inspired by his British counterpart and promises not to dance.