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The TikTok Ultimatum Is Here. What Does It Mean?

This might be the end of TikTok. President Joe Biden signed a bill this week which allows the US government to ban the platform if TikTok doesn’t divest from its China-based owner, ByteDance, within a year. Today on the show, we’re going to talk about what happens to TikTok now and how this new law affects the politicians and influencers who use the app.

Leah Feiger is @LeahFeiger. Makena Kelly is @kellymakena. Tori Elliott is @Telliotter. Write to us at [email protected]. Our show is produced by produced by Jake Harper. Jake Lummus is our studio engineer and Amar Lal mixed this episode. Jordan Bell is the Executive Producer of Audio Development and Chris Bannon is Global Head of Audio at Condé Nast.

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Note: This is an automated transcript, which may contain errors.

Leah Feiger: Welcome to WIRED Politics Lab, a show about how tech is changing politics. I’m Leah Feiger, the senior politics editor at WIRED.

Leah Feiger: On Passover, might I add? I was editing you in the middle of my matzo ball soup.

Makena Kelly: I’m so sorry.

Leah Feiger: And then Biden passed it very, very quickly.

Makena Kelly: Yeah. So last night, as soon as the Senate passed the bill, Biden put out a statement saying that he was going to sign it immediately once it hits his desk Wednesday morning, and by noon of Wednesday, he had signed it into law.

Leah Feiger: Wow. So do we know why Congress and Biden sped up this divestment?

Vittoria Elliott: We’re not really sure. So there was a New York Times article that dropped almost immediately after Biden signed the law that really details the way these backroom deals had been made to really keep it quiet from TikTok’s lobbying, and it seemed like there was a lot of collaboration and discussion between legislators, the National Security Apparatus and the Justice Department. But we still don’t really know what their primary concern is.

There have obviously been issues with TikTok in the past. There’s been concerns about it spying on journalists who were reporting on it. There was really big concern about American user data being stored in China and being possibly accessible to the Chinese government, because China has a national security law that requires businesses, individuals and organizations to cooperate on matters of national security. So there was a lot of concern that American user data could be accessed there, but TikTok said, “OK, fine. We’ll work with an American partner to make sure that doesn’t happen.” Now, all of their data is with Oracle, which is an American company, and we know that there’s been continued concerns about this. WIRED had a great story a couple of weeks ago from Louise Matsakis about a former TikTok employee who had raised some of these concerns to Congress around American user data, but we don’t actually really know what the driving force behind this has been but we did hear a lot of language around national security

Leah Feiger: Sure. And TikTok has been on high alert from all of this. What have they been doing to fight the regulation?

Makena Kelly: Yeah, so as expected, TikTok sent us a statement yesterday saying that they were going to challenge this in court, saying that this law was unconstitutional and the First Amendment would prohibit this legislation from getting passed.

Leah Feiger: And what exactly did they say?

Makena Kelly: So at the top of the statement, they said, “This unconstitutional law is a TikTok ban and we will challenge it in court. We believe that the facts in the law are clearly on our side and we will ultimately prevail.” And then of course, towards the end of it, they start talking for their users, saying that 170 million Americans use the app and it’s small businesses, it’s creators who rely on it, and by passing this sort of law, TikTok is saying that it’s basically censoring American users’ free expression.

Leah Feiger: Does a First Amendment challenge hold any water?

Vittoria Elliott: So a great question. Legal experts that Makena and I spoke to say that there’s actually a pretty good chance that TikTok could have a really substantial First Amendment claim here, and there’s not a ton of case law that helps with this because they’re banning an app, which one legal scholar described as like banning conduct. It’s not really banning speech, but because it takes out all these people’s speech, it’s hard not to say that you’re banning speech. And a really interesting thing, there have been two other instances that might serve as blueprints. One is when the Trump administration tried to ban WeChat.

Leah Feiger: Right. This was in 2020.

Vittoria Elliott: Yes. WeChat is a Chinese social media app. It’s a chat app, and it’s often the way that immigrants in the US are able, the only way they can talk to people back home. And similarly, when Montana, the state of Montana tried to ban TikTok last year, TikTok took them to court and TikTok said, “This is a First Amendment violation.” The implementation of the TikTok ban in Montana was blocked by a federal judge but the case didn’t fully run its course because now we’re dealing with this on a federal level, but in both cases, both the companies—WeChat and TikTok—and their users, a group of users sued and said, “Our speech is being censored.” And so if there are actually TikTok users who want to come together and sue, that could actually be a really good First Amendment challenge, and I think it’s really hard for the government to say they’re not censoring speech at this point.

Makena Kelly: Something that the experts told us yesterday was basically that banning the app, this divestiture language, was going too far. The government could find some other solution, whether that’s data privacy legislation or doing something a bit more targeted that would make all this easier without having to censor the app.

Vittoria Elliott: Totally. The Chinese government can still go to a data broker and buy my credit card data or buy my search history. It doesn’t need to rely on TikTok.

Leah Feiger: That’s a really important point, and obviously, this is a massively successful company that we’re talking about. I’m sure that they’re pouring money into this right now and money into efforts to prevent this law from being enacted.

Makena Kelly: Yeah, sure. So just this first quarter of this year, ByteDance and TikTok spent about $7 million on lobbying Congress. Let’s compare that back to Q1 of last year and they only spent about $1 million. Q1 of 2023, we didn’t even have the Restrict Act. We didn’t even have a lot of those things that amped up the pressure on a TikTok ban compared to what we have now, which is a law that has been signed.

Leah Feiger: And you’ve reported on this, but TikTok is already lobbying its own customers.

Makena Kelly: Yes. So just today, the CEO of TikTok, Shou Chew, he did a video that they posted through their channel asking all of their users to make videos describing how TikTok has changed their lives.

Leah Feiger: And this follows TikTok sending those push notifications calling on their users to call their reps to oppose the bill.

Makena Kelly: They’re clearly investing more resources than they were even a year ago.

Vittoria Elliott: Yeah, and I think that even applies to staffing as well. So while we’ve seen Meta and all these other Big Tech platforms start to roll back on trust and safety, the people that make sure the platform’s safe, that really police it, and trust and safety is oftentimes the stuff that regulators really look at. Trust and safety encompasses people who deal with child sexual abuse or hate speech or whatever. So while we’ve seen these other platforms roll back those teams, TikTok has been continuing to invest. They’ve been continuing to hire into those roles, and that is a very clear indication that they are like, “We recognize that we’re under scrutiny and we really need to have this buttoned up.” And so while all these other platforms have decided that they’re going to let Jesus take the wheel on some of this, TikTok has been hiring a lot and has continued to, and I think that that’s another way in which they’re anticipating the regulatory hit they were about to take.

Leah Feiger: Let’s talk about Biden. What has he said in response to all of this?

Makena Kelly: Basically, nothing.

Leah Feiger: Seriously?

Makena Kelly: Right. So after the Senate passed this bill this week, Biden put out a statement in which he was talking about all the foreign aid that was included. I think it was about 95 billion included for foreign aid. And within that statement, which was very long by the way, he doesn’t even mention TikTok.

Leah Feiger: Wow.

Makena Kelly: And then going into Wednesday, we’re expecting some kind of signing ceremonies, some kind of thing to happen around this bill. Biden signs it and then he comes and gives a speech where he addresses all the same stuff he said in the statement and doesn’t mention TikTok.

Leah Feiger: I think we’re going to have to save this for our segment after the break, but we’re going to have to talk about Biden’s relationship with TikTok. He needs the app for his campaign.

Makena Kelly: Yeah, and it’s no secret why the campaign and the administration don’t want the words TikTok and ban coming out of Biden’s mouth.

Leah Feiger: What about Trump? What’s he been saying?

Vittoria Elliott: Well, it’s interesting because he was the one who issued an executive order way back in the summer of 2020 initially saying this app is a national security threat and we need to get rid of it.

Makena Kelly: And now?

Vittoria Elliott: Well—

Makena Kelly: Now, he’s pro TikTok.

Leah Feiger: Oh, good.

Makena Kelly: Some of the Truth Social posts that he’s been making have basically been saying that Biden wants to ban TikTok because he’s really close with Facebook and the Zuckerbergs, and all of that having to do with the election.

Leah Feiger: Incredible. OK, so this is kind of a mess. What exactly happens next?

Vittoria Elliott: Right now, somebody from the US would need to buy TikTok, and there’s been some people who floated the idea. Former Trump secretary, Steve Mnuchin, said he would be interested.

Leah Feiger: Lovely.

Vittoria Elliott: But the real issue here is this. TikTok, its secret sauce is the algorithm. It’s the thing that can make something go viral even though you’re a small creator. It is the thing that figures out your interest and gives you the quirky topics and niche stuff that you’re—

Leah Feiger: It’s the Charli D’Amelio effect.

Vittoria Elliott: Yeah, exactly, and that is really where TikTok’s money is. And in response to that 2020 executive order when Trump was talking about banning TikTok, the Chinese government put the content recommendation algorithm on their export control list, meaning that they consider it a special sort of thing that if it gets sold to somebody else, requires the approval of the Chinese government, and the Chinese government has already indicated that they wouldn’t approve that kind of sale. So it means that even if someone were to buy TikTok, they’re probably not going to get that shiny special algorithm with it.

Leah Feiger: So we may not even have a sale at all.

Vittoria Elliott: We may not, and then we have a ban, or you could sell the brand that is TikTok, but it would kind of be like a human body with the spine ripped out of it.

Leah Feiger: That is disgusting, but helpful. But a helpful framework for me. OK, let’s play a game for a second. Who would buy it? You said Mnuchin, but whatever. Who else? Who are we thinking?

Vittoria Elliott: Well, in 2020, again, going back to the Trump executive order, Microsoft and Oracle both threw their names in.

Leah Feiger: Right, right, right. OK. So maybe an Oracle purchase.

Makena Kelly: I personally think maybe a worker-owned TikTok would be good.

Leah Feiger: Oh, is that what you’re in support of, Makena?

Makena Kelly: Yeah, that’s what I’m in support of.

Leah Feiger: All right. I hear that, I hear that.

Makena Kelly: Fists up in the studio.

Leah Feiger: We’ve heard some fun social media execs batting around this before. TikTok is so successful. I would bet you guys anything that Elon Musk at least tweets about it in the next week or two.

Makena Kelly: And then there’ll be a whole new news cycle about something that is just obviously not going to happen.

Leah Feiger: And I trust, baby.

Vittoria Elliott: But if it does happen, what bank will give him money after seeing what he did to Twitter?

Leah Feiger: If he tweets about it, though, in the next week or a half, Tori, you’re going to have to buy me lunch.

Vittoria Elliott: I don’t understand why this is my responsibility. I can commit to a coffee.

Leah Feiger: Done. All right, let’s leave it there. When we come back, we’ll get into all of the political influencers working with presidential campaigns on TikTok.


Leah Feiger: Welcome back to WIRED Politics Lab. Around the same time that the Senate passed the TikTok ban/divestment bill on Tuesday night, Team Biden posted a TikTok. Makena, Tori, did you see this?

Vittoria Elliott: Wild.

Makena Kelly: Yeah, we did.

Leah Feiger: Describe it to me.

Speaker: You stood strong with us and we’ll stand strong with you, sir.

Makena Kelly: It was just a clip from some workers meeting in March, but at the same time, it had these cute little halo emojis, angel emojis.

Leah Feiger: It was very curated. His TikTok team knows what they’re doing.

Makena Kelly: And very oblivious to what was happening on the Senate floor.

Leah Feiger: How is this possible? I mean, Biden just signed this bill. Help me understand the context here.

Vittoria Elliott: I think one of the big things is the bill was nested in a big foreign aid bill, and so a lot of the headline news is around the fact that we’re giving 60 billion to Ukraine, that aid is going to Israel and to Taiwan, and those are all big focuses of Biden’s platform. He’s been campaigning for months.

Leah Feiger: Absolutely.

Vittoria Elliott: To get this Ukraine aid bill through, and so I think realistically, that is A, the focus of the administration, and B, the thing that they would prefer to have all of us focused on, which is, hey, this is a very ineffective Congress. It’s actually been a really unproductive Congress for this term, and this is a big win on a real big campaign promise.

Makena Kelly: And notably, Biden’s statement last night that came out right after the vote did not even mention TikTok at all.

Leah Feiger: That tracks with the fact that he then posted a TikTok, or his campaign then posted a TikTok. What were the comments on the TikTok video?

Makena Kelly: The Biden campaign might’ve been oblivious to what was going on on the Senate floor, but their followers on TikTok were not.

Leah Feiger: Amazing.

Makena Kelly: If you go through all of the comments, it’s like, “Keep TikTok, prayer emoji. Keep TikTok, Joey.” It’s literally all that with some random, “Vote Biden,” or, “Trump will save America,” or whatever stuff like that, but it’s primarily like, “#KeepTikTok.”

Leah Feiger: And the campaign launched their TikTok in February amid all of this. This has been happening for the last couple of months. Conversations about the bill, about the ban, about the divestment have been happening for the last couple of months. What’s going on there?

Makena Kelly: So when I talked to Rob Flaherty on the Biden campaign, he explained that we are in a new phase. People are starting to pay attention to what’s happening on social media, they’re starting to pay attention to what’s happening on the news and really considering who it is that they want to vote for, and so TikTok is a massive platform. And with what we’ve seen with the fragmentation of media since 2020 where people are getting their news and information from all kinds of platforms, different kinds of people are getting their news from different platforms, that the For You page on TikTok is a very valuable asset that they want control of. So I think that was the main reason why they launched the TikTok account. They want to have pro-Biden sentiment on there, especially after October 7th and all of the support for Gaza and Palestine that’s come after it.

Leah Feiger: Right. That makes sense to me, but it does feel very strange to have that happening while this vote is going on. And the Biden campaign, RFK Junior’s campaign, the Trump campaign, they’ve all been working with influencers on TikTok, on a variety of social media platforms. Who are these people? Can you guys talk me through this?

Vittoria Elliott: Makena’s obviously been following all of them really closely. She actually has been to a fundraiser where some of these people were brought in.

Leah Feiger: The fateful fundraiser.

Makena Kelly: Oh my gosh, I think we’ve talked about it on the podcast before.

Leah Feiger: We have.

Makena Kelly: A lot of these influencers, they’re big on TikTok, they’re big on Instagram. Some of them aren’t really big at all and I think they’re trying to find more niche audiences, trying to target local counties and things like that. But the majority of them are these huge creators like Harry Sisson, who is a junior at NYU, I believe, and he does a bunch of pro-Biden content.

Speaker: Vote for President Biden. The choice is so clear. Let’s go with Biden. Easy.

Makena Kelly: Keith Edwards, who is a Democratic strategist, is also creating content on TikTok, and he’s gotten really big as well. And folks like Under the Desk News, they have been doing pro-Biden and news content forever.

Leah Feiger: This is a lot, and Biden has been celebrating them.

Makena Kelly: Yeah. They’re basically following him around. Just recently, we wrote about how there was a briefing for these creators ahead of the State of the Union, so they were told everything that Biden was going to say so they could make content about it during the State of the Union, or ahead of it, to reach people.

Leah Feiger: And obviously, Biden’s not the only one doing this. Talk to me about Trump’s influencers or that whole relationship, and also RFK Jr.

Makena Kelly: Oh my gosh, Trump’s influencer thing is wild. Back in 2016, 2020, Trump really didn’t need to be proactive about his influencer outreach. These people just globbed onto him for clout regardless. The DC Drainos of the world, all these people, Jack Bassobiak—

Leah Feiger: Libs of TikTok.

Makena Kelly: Libs of TikTok, all these people would just do it because they knew that that would get them some kind of acclaim or whatever. I’m not trying to read their minds, but obviously there was a financial means to all of that.

Leah Feiger: Absolutely.

Makena Kelly: But it seems like this year, he’s being a lot more proactive.

Leah Feiger: Interesting. Why is that?

Makena Kelly: It’s because a lot of the same people aren’t as excited for him. I think he’s struggling, again, with this fragmentation of media. Fox News isn’t celebrating him as much as they used to, all of these media outlets aren’t celebrating him as much as they used to, and so he’s trying to find more people and I think he thinks the youth vote is a bit more attainable this year. And so a big example. Last week, Trump’s team told me that they’re seriously considering going to Jake Paul’s Mike Tyson fight this summer, and yeah, that’s a lot of Jake Paul content to his 60 million followers across TikTok.

Leah Feiger: So many followers.

Makena Kelly: So many. And then on top of that, Trump would definitely be highlighted in the Netflix stream, and if you know, Netflix has so many subs, it’s the biggest platform for streaming. I think it’s like 260 million subscribers.

Leah Feiger: Wow, that’s a lot. And RFK Jr., we’ve talked before a bit about his fitness influencers and just the way that he’s using the internet for his campaign in a really unique way. Who’s he working with?

Makena Kelly: Who isn’t he working with? That’s the big thing we’ve seen. We talked about it before, the environmental influencers, the fitness influencers, and of course, Link Lauren, a TikTok influencer with about half a million subscribers.

Leah Feiger: Love to talk about this. Let’s talk about Link Lauren.

Makena Kelly: So a couple of years ago, Link Lauren was creating music, songs that actually went relatively viral on TikTok.

Leah Feiger: Mazel to you, Link.

Makena Kelly: But over the last few years, he got involved with doing Royal commentary. He was then being on Sky News and commenting about Meghan Markle and everything going on.

Leah Feiger: Sure, but then he became an RFK influencer?

Makena Kelly: He became a political news influencer shortly after. I think that evolution from Royals News to US political news happened, and so we saw him making TikToks with Marianne Williamson, he was making TikToks with RFK Jr. He of course found a way to the Dean Phillips campaign.

Leah Feiger: Why not?

Makena Kelly: Created content with them during the New Hampshire primary, and of course, Vivek Ramaswamy, we’ve talked about Vivek. During the Iowa Caucus when I was following him around, he would do his big campaign events somewhere, he’d hop in the car, he’d have an influencer in the car with him and he’d do an interview. Or he’d be in the car talking to OANN and other outlets like that and then he’d hop out and do another event, so he was very, very focused on media. So Link Lauren has been involved with all these people, and then a couple of weeks ago, he joined the RFK Jr. campaign.

Leah Feiger: Why not? Also, might I add, noted vaccine conspiracist, RFK Jr.

Makena Kelly: Yes. And so he was hired on as a senior advisor to the campaign. It’s really not entirely clear what he was doing.

Leah Feiger: Very strange.

Makena Kelly: The Washington Post said that he had a lot to do with RFK Jr.’s TikTok content, but he was doing this content way, way, way before Link was even ever involved. So I don’t really know exactly what Link did, but I know that he was trying to schedule media hits for Nicole Shanahan, the VP Pick and things like that. And then a couple of days ago, while we were actually planning this podcast, he said that he was dropping. He thought really hard and he’s dropping out of the RFK Jr. campaign.

Leah Feiger: Something that’s so interesting to me in all of this is you’ve just named a lot of people, some of whom have been involved in politics and media for a very long time, but a lot of these influencers have almost no relationship to politics, and yet they seem to have become pretty indispensable to these campaigns. How did we get here? How did we get to this point?

Makena Kelly: Sure. So I think one thing to take note of is that we saw this in 2020. Even media outlets get excited about the campaign because they know people are going to cover it and they know people are going to want to get a lot of information. I think that’s happening the same way with these creators who are creating political content. TikTok’s for You Page is so instrumental in how they’re reaching these audiences. They know people want this content. They know they’re going to like it. They know they’re going to comment, especially comment, because these political things get people activated, it gets them engaged, it gets them riled up. They’ll comment if they have something to say, and then with all of that engagement, they’re on more people’s for you pages and more people’s for you pages, and then they just kind of blow up.

Leah Feiger: That’s so interesting. And I guess, Tori, you’ve done so much reporting on all of these social media platforms. Place TikTok for me compared to everyone else right now.

Vittoria Elliott: So I think 2016 was definitely the Facebook election where the ads and the organic content of Facebook was really, really powerful. And then 2020 was an aberration because there was COVID. Everyone was at home. A lot of people had lost their jobs or were unable to work in the way that they had before, and there was hunger for content. You had companies like Netflix that couldn’t film new content, and that’s where TikTok became really, really powerful. And it was a way to reach people who maybe would’ve all been gathered in another place, physically or digitally, and also, you had a lot of people who they weren’t working so they started creating content, and I think 2020 became the year where TikTok became a real potent platform for politics. And I think we’ve really just seen what we’re seeing now, is the inevitable outcome of that shift.

Makena Kelly: So when I think about the hunger for content during COVID, I just want to remind people, that was when Quibi launched.

Vittoria Elliott: Oh my gosh, Quibi.

Makena Kelly: Quibi shut down in October 2020.

Vittoria Elliott: RIP Quibi, what a platform. I barely remember you.

Leah Feiger: And I guess this is all happening. Twitter is now X and dying every day. Meta is not that friendly with political content anymore and it’s become more hostile than ever, right?

Vittoria Elliott: Well, it’s interesting. Twitter never really used to accept political ads, but now they are accepting political ads. They are hungry for cash because lots of advertisers have fled X. Whether or not they’re going to find the most valuable voting audience on X is another question. And Facebook, or Meta, will still accept political ads, but especially with organic content, they’ve deprioritized organic content around news and politics because after 2018 with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, they were getting hit again and again and again for having this kind of content, and their own internal data they say indicates that people didn’t really like it. It made them mad, it made them unhappy, so Meta has said, “All right, political content, current events news, deprioritized in the algorithm.” So in terms of trying to reach new audiences organically, the way that Meta has now weighted its algorithm makes breaking out of that much harder, whereas TikTok, you have the secret sauce of the algorithm that can really allow anyone who isn’t even already someone with a ton of followers to have a piece of content or a couple pieces of content that really go viral.

Makena Kelly: To talk about how much this has changed too, I think it’s important to note that I was looking at the trackers on every major presidential candidate’s website, and the only one with an X tracker for X ads was RFK Jr.

Vittoria Elliott: Interesting.

Makena Kelly: And who is still on X right now? A lot of crypto people, a lot of those folks. And what did RFK Jr. say this week? He wants to put the entire US budget on the blockchain.

Vittoria Elliott: Can’t wait. Can’t wait for a teenager in Vietnam to hack and steal all of our money.

Leah Feiger: Oh no. Well, journalism is incredibly lucrative so we have lots to give them, without a doubt. So all of this kind of feels like a perfect soup to just make TikTok rise above the rest when it comes to providing this platform for political influencers.

Vittoria Elliott: Totally, and the other thing is TikTok doesn’t accept political ads, so if you’re a campaign, you can’t buy space on TikTok. So that means that if you want a space on TikTok, you need to get it organically, and that’s where influencers become extraordinarily important.

Leah Feiger: I want to remove us from the United States context for a little bit. Obviously, Biden, Trump, RFK Jr., they’ve been using influencers, but other countries have been using political influencers for years, right, Tori?

Vittoria Elliott: Yeah. Actually, Biden’s strategy with this made me immediately think, “This is very Rodrigo Duterte of him.” Rodrigo Duterte was the former president of the Philippines, often actually compared to President Trump, but he really, even in 2016, was inviting influencers to special events, was really engaging with online influencers, inviting them to briefings at Malacañang, the Presidential Palace, and even hiring some of them onto his staff. Influencers in elections outside the US have long been really, really, really potent forces and there was actually a really great report that came out this week from the Tech Global Institute, and they found that in Indonesia, there was a ton of use of influencers in their elections earlier this year, specifically smaller influencers who could reach more localized communities, especially in a country where maybe not everyone speaks the same language or where a local language maybe different than the language of government.

The Philippines has really pioneered this sort of strategy. In 2022, it was really well known that campaigns would find people in local regions and build them up as influencers on TikTok for one of the campaigns. They would funnel likes and views and stuff towards them to push the content up in the algorithm, and this was all done under the table because, as we said, TikTok doesn’t accept political ads, so there’s no way of tracking this money that’s going to these influencers. And now in India, which just started its elections last week—they’re going to run through the beginning of June—the BJP, which is the current ruling party of Narendra Modi and a Hindu nationalist party, has a ton of money that they are funneling towards political influencers, and again, they don’t have to track this.

Leah Feiger: Fascinating. To bring it back to RFK Junior for a moment, you were pouring through some financial filings last week and Link Lauren wasn’t actually paid, was he?

Makena Kelly: I didn’t see anything, and that’s the thing. Maybe we’ll get an amendment or an update, but as of right now, yeah, I haven’t seen any payments made.

Vittoria Elliott: Well, one of the things that I think is interesting too is, as people in media, the idea of doing work for exposure is a real cringe and gag for us.

Leah Feiger: Absolute full body shivers.

Vittoria Elliott: But a thing that was really interesting in this Tech Global Institute report was they found that influencers gained an average of 50 to 70 percent increase in engagement across platforms if they started posting with a politician or about politics. And so if you’re thinking like an influencer, yeah, a campaign lasts for a couple of months, maybe a year if you’re in the US and we’re in our season of perpetual campaigning, but that sets you up for 2, 3, 4 more years of being able to build an audience big enough to get brand deals that have nothing to do with politics. And so sometimes influencers can be really politically aligned, but honestly, posting about politics, posting with politicians, it’s just good business.

Makena Kelly: The clout economy.

Leah Feiger: The clout economy. Well, there are so many elections around the world this year. 2024 is the year of the global election. How will what’s happening with TikTok explicitly impact the United States or Impact 2024?

Makena Kelly: So first we need to look at Biden. He has already signed this bill, it’s becoming law, and he’s already getting a lot of pushback from his supporters, a lot of young people on TikTok. A couple of weeks ago, we saw Representative Jeff Jackson from North Carolina, he voted for this divestment bill, and he has millions of followers on TikTok. He has been known for being so transparent about everything that happens in Congress, and he just did this 180 to a lot of his followers and he had to do this YouTube-style, awful apology video.

Speaker: I apologize. I did not handle this situation well from top to bottom. And that is why I have been completely roasted on this app over the last 48 hours, and I get it.

Leah Feiger: Humiliating.

Makena Kelly: It’s absolutely humiliating, and then he stopped posting as much after that as well.

Leah Feiger: Oh, he got chased off the app.

Makena Kelly: Yeah. So when it comes to the political dynamics of all of this, I think Biden will have to deal with that, and then also on top of that, like Tori was mentioning before, these creators are going to have to branch out. TikTok cannot be their only platform this year.

Vittoria Elliott: Totally, and I think especially if Biden wants to continue to engage with the audience that continues to exist on TikTok for the remainder of the year, I think it’s going to be a harder sell to influencers because, again, it’s only good business if you know that supporting a politician or posting about politics is setting you up for being able to get brand deals or other types of partnerships in the years to come, but what brand or advertiser is going to want to be putting their product on a platform that might not exist anymore?

Makena Kelly: It might not exist on Inauguration Day.

Vittoria Elliott: Yeah.

Leah Feiger: Yeah, the timing of it. You were telling me this earlier this morning.

Makena Kelly: Yeah.

Leah Feiger: What’s the exact timing here?

Makena Kelly: This is all Cristiano Lima, The Washington Post. I saw that he did the math and the deadline falls on the day before Inauguration Day.

Leah Feiger: Ooh, we have so much to look forward to.

If you’re a political influencer as TikTok is possibly getting banned, reach out to us. I want to hear from you. [email protected]. We’ll be right back with Conspiracy of the Week.


Leah Feiger: Welcome back to WIRED Politics Lab. I’m Leah Feiger and this is Conspiracy of the Week, the part of the show where Tori and Makena are going to bring me their favorite conspiracies they’ve come across this week and I’m going to pick a winner. All right guys, what stood out to you? What’s your favorite conspiracy theory?

Vittoria Elliott: Well, I decided to go on the TikTok vein.

Leah Feiger: Fantastic.

Vittoria Elliott: And honestly, my favorite conspiracy, this is parroted by a lot of people on TikTok, is that Congress wants to ban TikTok because it is being used to speak out against the human rights abuses happening in Palestine. And that is something that even people in Congress have not helped by getting up and being like, “It’s brainwashing our children.” But the reality is from everything we’re seeing in the reporting, it seems like it’s much more around the national security, great power threat of a Chinese company supposedly being able to collect data on American users, but I think we’ll probably see this assumption continue to circulate on the app for as long as we are allowed to access it.

Leah Feiger: Sure, sure. All right. Makena, what have you got?

Makena Kelly: This makes mine feel so dumb. So OK, I have a tendency to stay up way too late and surf Reddit.

Leah Feiger: This, I know, because you Slack me at these hours.

Makena Kelly: I’m surfing Reddit, I’m going on r/Conspiracy. I’m going to the other related subreddits, and I recently ended up on r/AlienBodies.

Leah Feiger: Oh my God. Incredible. Yes, go. I’m so sorry in advance, Tori, I’m so confident that Makena’s won. I don’t even have to know more. It’s—

Vittoria Elliott: Fine. I’m used to losing this game, honestly.

Leah Feiger: OK, Makena. Tell us about alien bodies.

Makena Kelly: So last fall, some ufologists dug up what looks like Alien mummies.

Leah Feiger: What’s a ufologist?

Makena Kelly: UFO-ologist.

Leah Feiger: Oh, UFO-ologist.

Makena Kelly: Incredible. OK. And have brought it to hearings in the Mexican Senate. They’ve had to deal with it, and researchers have had an opportunity to look at the evidence in both Mexico and in the United States and they’ve basically determined that these aren’t alien mummies. Scientists are basically calling them little dolls made out of a variety of different bones and stuff, and the Mexican government has had to address it. It’s a wild thing.

This happened last fall and so the reason why this is relevant to me now is because I keep stumbling on this subreddit, r/AlienBodies, and there are people who have gone from r/Aliens, r/UFOs, r/Conspiracies, and they’ve come to this subreddit to basically analyze everything about these little mummies.

Leah Feiger: Amazing.

Makena Kelly: And make all of these weird assumptions. And these people are like pseudo-scientists and acting like they’re legitimate researchers, and it’s very, very fun for me to watch.

Leah Feiger: Incredible. And what’s their take right now? Is it that these were aliens and the Mexican government is covering it up?

Makena Kelly: Yes.

Leah Feiger: Amazing. I am so sorry to say, Tori, I think that Makena’s wins this week.

Vittoria Elliott: That’s very fair. That’s very fair.

Makena Kelly: I also didn’t play by the rules, I think.

Leah Feiger: No, no, no. There are no rules.

Vittoria Elliott: There are no rules in Conspiracy Week.

Leah Feiger: I gave myself this constraint. It was me. I’m the problem.

OK, that’s it for this episode of Politics Lab. I’m Leah Feiger, senior editor at WIRED. Thank you so much, Tori and Makena, for joining us.

Makena Kelly: Of course. Thank you so much.

Leah Feiger: Thanks for listening to WIRED Politics Lab. If you like what you heard today, make sure to follow the show and rate it on your podcast app of choice. We also have a weekly newsletter which Makena writes. The link to the newsletter and the WIRED reporting we mentioned today are in the show notes. If you’d like to get in touch with us with any questions, comments, or show suggestions, please write to [email protected]. We’re also working on an episode about WIRED’s Guide to election disinformation, and we want to hear from you. Send us all your questions about disinformation via email. That’s [email protected].

WIRED Politics Lab is produced by Jake Harper. Jake Lummuss is our studio engineer. Amar Lal makes this episode. Jordan Bell is our executive producer, and Chris Bannon is global head of audio at Condé Nest, and I’m your host, Leah Feiger. We’ll be back in your feeds with a new episode next week. Thanks for listening.