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Updated Jun 11, 2024, 1:33pm EDT
politics

Biden has a TikTok problem. Superfan Harry Sisson wants to help.

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The News

Harry Sisson might be the biggest TikTok creator backing President Joe Biden with his whole chest. And, as he’ll tell you, it’s not the most receptive audience these days.

“I gotta be honest, it doesn’t feel good,” Sisson said of watching a contingent of young liberals turn against Biden. “It doesn’t feel good at all.”

The 21-year-old college student’s TikTok account, which has more than 890,000 followers, is a mix of snappy updates breaking down political news, dunking on former President Donald Trump, and defending Biden. He even got to meet the president last month. (“I hear a lot of great things about you,” Biden told the creator as the two shook hands.)

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Sisson isn’t the sole Biden defender left on the app, but his particular brand of sustained pro-Joe content is a rarity on the platform. TikTok was already considered relatively hostile territory before the president signed a bill that would force the app’s Chinese parent company ByteDance to sell it or face a national ban; TikTok officials said that since November, there’s been twice as much pro-Trump content as pro-Biden content on the platform.

“I think Biden and the administration needs fighters for him,” Sisson told Semafor in an interview. “There’s just so much misinformation and so much unjustified disdain toward him. He just doesn’t get the credit he deserves.”

The president was never known for having a passionate youth following, but he nonetheless won the voting bloc by more than 20 points in 2020. As younger left-leaning voters began to increasingly oppose Biden’s handling of Israel’s war on Hamas, some TikTok creators who rubbed elbows with the president months before became more critical of him. When the Biden campaign joined TikTok, the account was quickly inundated with comments denouncing “Genocide Joe.”

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But Sisson, who described his content to Semafor as “annoying for Republicans” with a laugh, still categorizes himself as firmly team Biden. That makes him a valuable resource for a campaign trying to reach the kind of disaffected young voters who congregate primarily online.

Sisson said his account gained momentum in October 2020 when he posted a video hitting back at criticism of a photo of Biden kissing his adult son Hunter on the cheek. “Does this look like an appropriate father/son interaction to you?” one tweet about the image read.

“I really don’t think you wanna go down the road of trying to paint Joe Biden as creepy, because have you seen Donald Trump?” Sisson asks in the TikTok. The video, which has nearly 15 million views, then cuts to several photos of Trump showing similar affection toward his adult daughters. (Reuters found that some of the photos were misleading or edited.)

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When that video took off, Sisson started taking the power of the platform more seriously. “I was thinking, wow, this could have a real impact on politics. Maybe this is where the future of advocacy lies,” he said.

The Sisson method is simple: He’s there when Biden needs a shot in the arm. When right-wing media latches onto a Biden gaffe, he boosts a clip of Trump stumbling over his words. When Trump was convicted on May 30 — a development on which Biden commented, but won’t dwell — Sisson cranked out dozens of videos about the verdict.

“There isn’t a man alive who loves Joe Biden as much as Harry Sisson,” TikTok creator V Spehar, who hosts “Under the Desk News” and has known Sisson for years, told Semafor. “A lot of people think he’s paid by the administration or he’s a shill — he’s not! He just fucking loves Joe Biden.”

Sisson said he’s done some paid work for groups including Planned Parenthood, but it’s not “all that often and not all that lucrative.” FEC filings show that liberal PACs Democracy Defense Action and MeidasTouch have paid him for “social media consulting” a handful of times.

One challenge for Sisson, and therefore Biden, is that TikTok is tilting more to the right, though conservatives still prefer other platforms. Sisson said he’s seen an influx of MAGA commenters on his posts since Trump joined the platform earlier this month — and that being a pro-Biden creator can feel like swimming against the tide. Trump’s campaign account quickly overtook the Biden campaign’s follower count, and the convicted former President has also vowed to never ban TikTok, despite the fact that his administration was the first to suggest doing just that in 2020.

Sisson is acutely aware that much of the platform disagrees with his unwavering support of Biden. Day-to-day, he said, it’s just “lunatics” in his comments. But he also said he’s been the target of bomb threats, swatting incidents, and “endless death threats.”

“It doesn’t bother me anymore,” he said. “If you’re taking time out of your day as a 40-year-old white guy to come comment on my page, then I suppose I’m doing something right. Or maybe you just don’t have that much going on.”

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Caroline’s view

Biden’s TikTok struggles illustrate a larger challenge he’s up against this November: The right is largely unified behind Trump, while the left is fraught with infighting. And the further left you go, the less acceptable it is to support Biden.

“The left has so many purity tests for the party,” Spehar said. “If you say something wrong at all, you can be canceled and persecuted by your own party.”

Talking about Biden didn’t always come with so much baggage. “Biden’s first two years were bangers, man,” Spehar said. “He was pumping out hit after hit after hit.”

But right now? It’s just “not cool to like Biden.” And the way some young people have turned away from the president worries even his most devoted fans.

The Biden campaign knows this is a space they need to play in, and the president has had his moments with TikTok influencers. His administration tried early on to leverage TikTok’s vast audience — roughly one third of young Americans regularly consume news on the platform — by bringing some of its stars into the fold. Biden’s White House, sometimes in collaboration with the DNC, has invited TikTok influencers to the Oval Office, the State of the Union address, and even exclusive briefings on the war in Ukraine. But the push to force TikTok to divest or be banned has raised tensions with some of those figures.

“There’s a core hypocrisy to the Biden administration supporting the TikTok ban while at the same time using TikTok for his campaign purposes,” Kahlil Greene, who is known on TikTok as the “Gen Z Historian,” told the Associated Press. Greene is a creator who has previously been invited to White House events, but said the invites stopped coming when he started criticizing the president more openly.

Sisson encourages his own followers to look at the bigger picture: “To see so many of my fellow young people out there being like, ‘You know what, I’m just gonna sit out,’ or ‘I’m gonna vote third party,’ is just crazy to me,” he said. “Women’s reproductive rights are probably more important than a ban that may or may not happen.”

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Room for Disagreement

The Biden campaign said it recognizes that the youth vote has been under increased scrutiny of late, but pointed to multiple polls that still find Biden leading Trump with the group by a significant margin, even as the race looks worse for Biden in others.

“President Biden is the only candidate fighting for young voters — their economic futures, the ability to make their own health care decisions, and to live free from the threat of gun violence are all at stake in this election,” Biden campaign spokesperson Seth Schuster said in a statement to Semafor that also touted a “robust youth engagement program” that included “trusted messengers across digital platforms.”

And while media coverage has highlighted young people’s anger toward Biden’s policies on the Israel-Gaza war, polling shows they’re much more concerned about issues such as gun violence, abortion, and the economy. One recent CBS News poll of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin found that “young voters who want Mr. Biden to tell Israel to stop its military actions in Gaza are still voting for him, at about the same rate as younger voters overall.”

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Notable

  • For Politico, Elena Schneider covers a new outside group trying to shore up the youth vote for Biden: Don’t PAC Down.
  • In The Washington Post, Drew Harwell details the “extraordinary deal” TikTok officials offered the US government in 2022 to head off a potential ban — including a kill switch the feds could pull if they felt the app remained a threat. The Biden administration turned it down.
  • In The Los Angeles Times, Noah Bierman digs into the latest anti-Biden “wildfire” among TikTok creators.
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