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EU election candidates face a TikTok conundrum as bloc cracks down on app

A logo of a smartphone app TikTok is seen on a user post on a smartphone screen
A logo of a smartphone app TikTok is seen on a user post on a smartphone screen Copyright Kiichiro Sato/Copyright 2020 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Kiichiro Sato/Copyright 2020 The AP. All rights reserved
By Mared Gwyn Jones
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Hopefuls in June’s European elections are taking the leap to TikTok in a bid to influence young voters, despite the security and misinformation concerns plaguing the app.

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The Chinese-owned platform has some 142 million users in the EU, predominantly young Europeans, making it crucial campaigning territory for those seeking the youth vote.

But some candidates are intentionally spurning the platform, amid concerns the Chinese government could snoop on sensitive data and that disinformation could skew the vote.

Ursula von der Leyen, the centre-right European People Party’s lead candidate, will forgo TikTok in the run up to the vote, her campaign team confirmed last Friday, in a move designed to uphold her executive’s increasingly hawkish stance on the platform.

On Monday evening, von der Leyen - who is currently juggling the two roles of campaigning for votes while remaining the chief of the European Commission - also refused to rule out a potential blanket ban on TikTok in the EU if she remains at the executive's helm.

Asked during a debate of lead candidates in Maastricht whether she could follow the lead of the US - where President Biden has signed a bill that could see TikTok outlawed - von der Leyen said: “It is not excluded.”

“We know exactly the danger of TikTok,” she added.

Of the ten official lead candidates in the so-called Spitzenkandidaten process, only two - the Greens’ Terry Reintke and the Liberals’ Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmerman - are actively campaigning on TikTok.

But avoiding the video-sharing platform could come at an electoral cost as fringe parties, particularly on the far right, reap in followers and potential voters with personal and politically-charged content.

When policy clashes with politics

In late February, the president of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola published her first TikTok, exactly one year after her institution banned the app from employees’ work devices.

On her profile, Metsola can be seen preparing Belgian waffles, miming a Taylor Swift song and promoting Twistees, an iconic Maltese-branded snack.

Speaking in an interview with Euronews last week, Metsola justified her decision to go against the grain of her own rules: “There was a choice to be made - do we go onto the social media platform (...) or not.”

“Four countries will vote at the age of 16, one country will vote at the age of 17,” she added. “What I don’t want is for those young people to get their news potentially from propaganda or misinformation sources. So we said let’s get on there, let’s get our message through, and hopefully once those kids are scrolling through, they get something that says, ‘ooh, I like this, I’ll go vote.’”

Gabriele Bischoff, a German MEP from the left-leaning Socialists and Democrats who is running for re-election, also took the plunge for fear of letting far-right contenders occupy the space on TikTok.

“I was not doing it (using TikTok) for a long time, but then I saw how right-wing parties are using it and swamping social media,” she told Euronews, adding that she uses a separate device to post her videos to avoid potential surveillance or data snatching.

The Greens' MEP Tilly Metz, also on TikTok, agrees: "If we really want to also address the very young people, I think we cannot leave it again to the far right parties to be on TikTok while we say, with a kind of arrogance, no, I don't like TikTok," she told Euronews in an electoral debate earlier this month.

"It's not about dancing on the table," Metz added. "But it's really about how we address and how we reach out to young people, and how we give them also the possibility to react."

A Greens party spokesperson explained they wanted to use TikTok to engage with young voters, a demographic they believe "is often disconnected from party politics" and "vulnerable to misinformation and political radicalization."

The spokesperson also explained their content is produced and published from devices "whose purpose is solely TikTok usage and content production." 

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"Our lead candidates are not allowed to use TikTok on their personal phone to rule out any possibility of spying."

But others, like von der Leyen, are intentionally avoiding the platform in a clear sign of defiance against China, amid mounting allegations of Chinese interference in the European Parliament and as the bloc wields its new digital rulebook to keep TikTok in check.

Raphaël Glucksmann, who leads the French Socialist Party’s list, told French TV channel France 2 earlier this month he had renounced his 60,000-follower-strong TikTok in respect of his stance on China: "It's a question of consistency,” he said, “this social network is a pump (of money) to give to the service of the Chinese Communist Party.”

Meanwhile, some of his French rivals have adeptly mastered the art of TikTok to cement their popularity. Jordan Bardella, Marine le Pen's young protégé and lead candidate for the far-right Rassemblement National, has taken TikTok by storm.

@jordanbardella

Madame von der Leyen, vos politiques insensées plongent nos peuples dans la détresse, face à des urgences que l’on croyait d’un autre temps. Il n’est pas loin le moment où ils vous demanderont, avec la sévérité d’un juge devant le coupable : qu’avez-vous fait du rêve européen ?

♬ son original - Jordan Bardella

Bardella has an impressive 1.2M followers on the platform, making him by far the most followed Member of the European Parliament on the platform. His content ranges from public appearances ordering a 'croque monsieur' in his native France, to speeches denouncing von der Leyen's Commission before the European Parliament.

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Clock ticking on TikTok?

Despite the platform being a key tool in candidates and the European Parliament's own campaigning toolbox, Brussels is piling on the pressure on TikTok.

Earlier this month, TikTok was pressured into suspending a spinoff reward-to-watch version of its app in France and Spain, after von der Leyen’s Commission launched a formal investigation for fears of damage to minors’ mental health under the so-called Digital Services Act (DSA).

It is the second probe opened into TikTok under the DSA, the EU's new digital rulebook which could see platforms slapped with hefty fines or face temporary suspensions.

The platform has also been asked to step up its fight against misinformation in the run-up to June’s ballot.

In von der Leyen's native Germany, some MPs have also called for a tougher stance on TikTok, including a potential general ban, citing security concerns.

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The European Parliament's spokesperson service told Euronews in a statement that its presence on TikTok was intended to promote "reliable content related to the Parliament, its work and impact" and to "respond to content aimed at spreading disinformation" against 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. Pre-empting disinformation narratives (...) is of essence to increase societal resilience and even more important a few months before the European elections," the statement added.

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