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Newsweek Op Ed: TikTok is Body-Shaming the U.S. Economy Ahead of the 2024 Election

By Arick Wierson and Bradley Honan | December 8, 2023 | Original Article

Make no mistake about it: 2024 will be America’s first “TikTok election.”

And in case you’re wondering—that’s a very bad thing.

TikTok is body-shaming the U.S. economy, driving down consumer confidence with a skewed narrative that could have far-reaching political impacts in 2024 and beyond. Like the young, fit woman with a healthy BMI who ends up watching too many videos of rail-thin super models only to eventually begin to see herself as overweight, TikTok is enabling “vibes” of economic gloom and doom to take hold, even when the data says otherwise. And it’s having a real impact on the way many Americans view President Joe Biden‘s job performance.

It’s this TikTok economic body-shaming that explains how Biden, despite chalking up an enviable spate of economic achievements, including record low unemployment, real wage growth, and GDP expansion—feats all accomplished despite an environment of rising interests rates—is trailing former President Donald Trump, the Republican frontrunner, in poll after poll.

Although Biden inherited a rocky post-COVID economy that was teetering on the brink of a recession, Biden has been able to guide it to terra firma; but as Sam Sutton posited in a recent piece for POLITICO, “a so-called soft landing might not mean a lick to voters.”

But what is it about the dynamics of this economy that has voters blaming an administration that has done just about everything it was supposed to and then some?

In a word: vibes, fueled in large part by a data-be-damned public rage machine otherwise known as TikTok.

Next year’s presidential elections will have a lot less to do with the mainstream media’s fixation on red states versus blue states, or MAGA versus democracy, and a lot more to do with the socialized pop punditry from TikTokers, who almost no one over 40 years old has ever heard of.

Take Woods Owned, whose curated posts of everyday Americans railing against inflation regularly get millions of views, or Blair Allison, a TikToker whose recent dash cam soliloquy on how no one can afford life’s basic necessities has garnered nearly 2 million views. TikTok is a near endless repository of clips like these served up on a daily basis to millions of Americans using an algorithm designed by its Chinese founder.

What the platform does exceedingly well is to bottle individual frustrations and then normalize them, socializing TikTok creators’ suffering and misfortune across the expanse of its entire digital landscape. Like the droplets used in Chinese water torture, after enough exposure to videos of people lamenting the state of the Biden economy, almost everyone is bound to feel just a little bit worse about their own situation, even if they are doing quite a bit better in reality.

Recent studies by the Pew Research Center found that news consumption across social media sites is either stagnant or declining—except on TikTok, where more and more Americans are turning to get their political news. Roughly a third of U.S. adults under the age of 30 now rely on the platform to keep abreast of current events. It’s upending traditional constituencies, and has put young voters who have historically veered to the left in their voting habits now up for grabs.

That a new platform like TikTok would eventually emerge and disrupt the current vectors of political media is nothing new. Every couple of election cycles, a new media phenomenon takes hold that ends up playing an influential role on the body politic. From Franklin D. Roosevelt’s pioneering radio “fireside chats,” to John F. Kennedy’s iconic television debate performance in 1960, to Barack Obama‘s use of social media for communication and fundraising, new disruptive technologies have consistently played a pivotal role in ushering in a new era of American politics. Now, as we stand on the precipice of another critical electoral cycle, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the 2024 election will become known as the nation’s first “TikTok election.”

But unlike these previous waves of technology, TikTok wields much more relative power because, rather than being an instrument of the news media, the major political parties, or even the candidates themselves, this new tool is firmly in the hands of voters—the vox populi. A glass half-full view might herald this innovation as a modern riff on the early American colonial experiments with direct democracy. But a more likely outcome is a free-for-all, where data and facts are trampled by the stampede of socialized emotions, fueled by an algorithm that sits on servers halfway across the world.

In either case, if you want to understand the 2024 elections and why Biden is lagging in the polls, start spending some more time on TikTok.

Arick Wierson is a six-time Emmy Award-winning television producer and served as a senior media and political adviser to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He advises corporate clients on communications strategies in the United States, Africa, and Latin America.

Bradley Honan is the president and CEO of Honan Strategy Group a polling and political consulting group. He is co-president of the American Association of Political Consultants’ New York City chapter.