EU elections: Battleground TikTok

Amid rising security concerns, EU institutions have banned the popular app from work devices and internal WiFi. But for many MEPs, TikTok remains a crucial tool for reaching young voters.
An April 2024 image from the TikTok account of Jordan Bardella, president of France's National Rally and the party's lead candidate for the European elections.

By Sarah Schug

Sarah is a staff writer for The Parliament with a focus on art, culture, and human rights.

07 Jun 2024

Leïla Chaibi is nestled into a window seat on a train to France, getting ready for a local town hall meeting. As she applies make-up to her face, she lets her tens of thousands of TikTok followers in on a trick to using black eyeliner. “The method is to put it on the outer half; otherwise it gives you somewhat of a sad look,” she says.  

In another video, the French MEP for the Left group runs through the corridors of the European Parliament, riffing about a last-minute meeting with her colleagues to decide how to vote in an upcoming plenary session, while discussing the side effects of her pregnancy: “We’re not sure if on certain points we should abstain…I wanted to put my loafers [on] but my feet were too swollen.” 

Chaibi has been active on the social media application TikTok, which has more than one billion users worldwide and 142 million users in the European Union, for over a year. With her candid, self-deprecating approach and videos that offer glimpses into the life of an MEP, she has attracted 189,100 followers and amassed 6.9 million views. 

@leila.chaibi

Être enceinte à la tribune du parlementeuropeen, ça a aussi ses avantages.. 😁 #pourtoi #humour #politique

♬ Comedy Scenes - Comical, stupid, silly, loose, comical, farce(1295330) - Ponetto

Most other European lawmakers have stayed away from the app since February when, following in the footsteps of the European Commission and the European Council, the EP decided to ban the app from staffers’ work phones over security concerns about the Chinese-owned platform.     

Raphaël Glucksmann, the lead candidate of the French Socialists for the EP, deleted his account despite having attracted tens of thousands of followers, while Commission President Ursula von der Leyen reportedly doesn’t use the app and wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a future full-on ban during a recent debate.  

Chaibi, however, has decided to stay on TikTok. “We have to go where people are, and that is on social media. We cannot afford to wait,” she says, highlighting TikTok’s importance in appealing to younger voters. 

 “There is the risk that one out of two young people will not vote. They’re the ones the farthest removed from the EU.” She describes reaching those voters as her “priority in a democratic context. This is a high-stakes political issue, and managing to communicate with them outweighs data leak risks, Chaibi says. 

TikTok’s powerful reach seems difficult to give up even for those who have advocated against use of the ByteDance-owned app. In April, President Joe Biden signed a bill that will ban the app nationwide unless it finds a US buyer. Yet just two months earlier, the president had created a TikTok account on the occasion of the Super Bowl.

The European Parliament launched its institutional account exactly 100 days before the European elections: “We know that you are on this app, and the European Parliament is elected by you and represents your interests,” a young woman says into the camera, smiling. 

@europeanparliament

Wrong place, wrong person, wrong substance. Do not believe every sensationalist post you see online. Always check before engaging.

♬ original sound - europeanparliament

Asked about its decision to join the app despite the ban for staffers, the European Parliament press service says it aims to promote reliable content related to the work and impact of the EP, as well as to be able to respond to disinformation about the institution. Millions of young citizens, many of the possible first voters, use this platform to get information about those topics they are interested in, a spokesperson said in an email sent to The Parliament. “Parliament's institutional presence can be achieved without using EP's infrastructure.” 

Chaibi explains how. Staffers, she says, do not violate the ban if they post to TikTok from a private phone free of work-related apps that supports 4G, since the ban prohibits the Chinese app being accessed from the Parliament’s WiFi 

“The mood in the Parliament was ‘this is crazy,” an EP staffer familiar with the matter tells The Parliament. “Many think it's about geopolitical considerations rather than an actual security matter. You can watch illegal streams and expose your phone to all sorts of viruses. They've never cared about the security of our phones before.” 

A leaflet distributed to staff seen by The Parliament shows that the EP even offers internal TikTok training, allowing staffers to benefit from “15-minute one-to-one sessions” and “tailor-made advice. 

In the run-up to the elections, some centrist politicians have grown worried about ceding battleground to the far right by steering clear of the app, given rightwing lawmakers have enthusiastically embraced TikTok 

Jordan Bardella – the 28-year-old leader of France’s National Rally and the party’s lead candidate for the EP elections – has become a political superstar partly due to his engagement on the app, where he has 1.3 million followers. The European Parliament, meanwhile, has 31,200.  

The lead candidate for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), Maximilian Krah, has similarly embraced TikTok – though his account was restricted by the platform earlier this year. The party, though, is the most popular among Germans aged 14 to 29according to the annual “Youth in Germany” study for 2024.  

Reaching young voters seems especially pertinent in view of the legal voting age in some European countries – 16 in Germany, Malta, Austria and Belgium, and 17 in Greece. “Through being present on TikTok, we can offer an alternative to the extreme right,” says Chaibi.  

But the messaging has to be done right, according to the MEP, who says that traditional political communication doesn’t work on TikTok.It’s the opposite of what we usually do. There’s a lot of improvisation,” she says.  

As paid political advertising is not allowed on TikTok – as opposed to on Meta Platforms’ Facebook – creativity is key to reaching users. It’s why instead of posting excerpts of her plenary speeches, Chaibi’s videos show what happens in the corridors of the European Parliament 

It’s an institution that seems very cold and distant. By showing people daily life behind the scenes in an authentic and humorous way, we open the doors to those who are not necessarily interested in the EU,” she says.

According to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s 2023 annual digital news report, the app is now not only the fastest-growing social network; it is  also used by 20 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds to consume news content.  

While it would be unwise to underestimate TikTok’s impact, its impact on election results is less clear cut, says Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, an associate professor in European Studies and Strategic Communication at Lund University in Sweden 

“A positive performance on social media does not correlate with high performance in voting,” she tells The Parliament. According to Dutceac Segesten, casting one’s vote takes more effort and commitment.  

And although she thinks that social media has a deeper influence on the formation of the political identities of young people than on that of older generations of voters, she underlines that social networks are just one part of a larger information ecosystem.  

“Social media, AI or any other technology cannot make or break an election.”  

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