European lawmakers cling to TikTok for Gen Z votes
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It may come with security risks but, for European Parliamentarians, TikTok is just too good a political tool to abandon.
Staff at the European Parliament were ordered to delete the video-sharing application from any work devices by March 20, after an edict last month from the Parliament’s President Roberta Metsola cited cybersecurity risks about the Chinese-owned platform. The chamber also “strongly recommended” that members of the European Parliament and their political advisers give up the app.
But with European Parliament elections scheduled for late spring 2024, the chamber’s political groups and many of its members are opting to stay on TikTok to win over the hearts and minds of the platform’s user base of young voters. TikTok says around 125 million Europeans actively use the app every month on average.
“It’s always important in my parliamentary work to communicate beyond those who are already convinced,” said Leïla Chaibi, a French far-left lawmaker who has 3,500 TikTok followers and has previously used the tool to broadcast videos from Strasbourg explaining how the EU Parliament works.
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Malte Gallée, a 29-year-old German Greens lawmaker with over 36,000 followers on TikTok, said, “There are so many young people there but also more and more older people joining there. For me as a politician of course it’s important to be where the people that I represent are, and to know what they’re talking about.“
Finding Gen Z
Parliament took its decision to ban the app from staffers‘ phones in late February, in the wake of similar moves by the European Commission, Council of the EU and the bloc’s diplomatic service.
A letter from the Parliament’s top IT official, obtained by POLITICO, said the institution took the decision after seeing similar bans by the likes of the U.S. federal government and the European Commission and to prevent “possible threats” against the Parliament and its lawmakers.
For the chamber, it was a remarkable U-turn. Just a few months earlier its top lawmakers in the institution’s Bureau, including President Metsola and 14 vice presidents, approved the launch of an official Parliament account on TikTok, according to a “TikTok strategy” document from the Parliament’s communications directorate-general dated November 18 and seen by POLITICO.
“Members and political groups are increasingly opening TikTok accounts,” stated the document, pointing out that teenagers then aged 16 will be eligible to vote in 2024. “The main purpose of opening a TikTok channel for the European Parliament is to connect directly with the young generation and first time voters in the European elections in 2024, especially among Generation Z,” it said.
Another supposed benefit of launching an official TikTok account would be countering disinformation about the war in Ukraine, the document stated.
Most awkwardly, the only sizeable TikTok account claiming to represent the European Parliament is actually a fake one that Parliament has asked TikTok to remove.
Dummy phones and workarounds
Among those who stand to lose out from the new TikTok policy are the European Parliament’s political groupings. Some of these groups have sizeable reach on the Chinese-owned app.
The largest group, the center-right European People’s Party, has 51,000 followers on TikTok. Spokesperson Pedro López previously dismissed the Parliament’s move to stop using TikTok as “absurd,” vowing the EPP’s account will stay up and active. López wrote to POLITICO that “we will use dedicated computers … only for TikTok and not connected to any EP or EPP network.”
That’s the same strategy that all other political groups with a TikTok account — The Left, Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and Liberal Renew groups — said they will use in order to skirt the TikTok ban on work devices like phones, computers or tablets, according to spokespeople. Around 30 Renew Europe lawmakers are active on the platform, according to the group’s spokesperson.
Beyond the groups, it’s the individual members of parliament — especially those popular on the app — that are pushing back on efforts to restrict its use.
Clare Daly, an Irish independent member who sits with the Left group, is one of the most popular MEPs on the platform with over 370,000 subscribed to watch clips of her plenary speeches. Daly has gained some 80,000 extra followers in just the few weeks since Parliament’s ban was announced.
Daly in an email railed against Parliament’s new policy: “This decision is not guided by a serious threat assessment. It is security theatre, more about appeasing a climate of geopolitical sinophobia in EU politics than it is about protecting sensitive information or mitigating cybersecurity threats,” she said.
According to Moritz Körner, an MEP from the centrist Renew Europe group, cybersecurity should be a priority. “Politicians should think about cybersecurity and espionage first and before thinking about their elections to the European Parliament,” he told POLITICO, adding that he doesn’t have a TikTok account.
Others are finding workarounds to have it both ways.
“We will use a dummy phone and not our work phones anymore. That [dummy] phone will only be used for producing videos,” said an assistant to German Social-democrat member Delara Burkhardt, who has close to 2,000 followers. The assistant credited the platform with driving a friendlier, less abrasive political debate than other platforms like Twitter: “On TikTok the culture is nicer, we get more questions.“