Governors Keep TikTok Accounts Active Even as States Ban It
While more than half of states have banned TikTok on state-owned devices and networks, some governors still use the platform — and some unofficial accounts use their names and photos. Is it a cybersecurity risk?
The short-form video application allows governors to reach a broad audience, as the company reports that nearly half of the U.S. uses the platform owned by ByteDance, headquartered in Beijing.
The Department of Homeland Security has warned Americans about the risks of using TikTok due to China’s information-sharing laws that may require the company to provide the government with requested data.
The Department of Defense echoed national security concerns at a house subcommittee meeting in April. John F. Plumb, assistant secretary of defense for space policy and principal cyber adviser to the secretary of defense, stated that the scale and scope of the platform are problematic due to China’s ability to direct misinformation from it and collect data from it. Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Intelligence Committee in December that the Chinese government could use TikTok to control software on millions of devices and drive narratives to divide Americans on issues.
TikTok representatives refute the cybersecurity claims. In a phone interview with Government Technology, a spokesperson for the company “categorically denies” sharing U.S. user data with the Chinese government or Chinese Communist Party, adding that the accusations of cyber risks are “unfounded and politically charged.”
The controversy and increasing statewide bans raise questions about whether TikTok can be used safely as a public information tool, prompting a Government Technology review on how prominent U.S. officials use the application.
Nine state governors maintain verified personal, election or official governor’s office TikTok accounts. However, the activity of the accounts varies widely — some continue to deliver regular video content, while others have been stagnant on the platform since the end of the 2022 election season.
MICHIGAN GOV. GRETCHEN WHITMER
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is currently the most active content producer on the platform. She’s posted hundreds of videos and maintained a consistent, nearly daily upload schedule even as Michigan banned the application on state-owned devices. Gov. Whitmer’s videos range from public statements about gun violence and policy updates to casual content that features trending audio and memes.
According to a report from MLive, Gov. Whitmer received an exemption to the state ban.
“We have it on one device that has no access to anything else because so many people get their information that way,” said Gov. Whitmer in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on Feb. 12. “Whether we like it or not, that is a tool for disseminating important information, and that’s how we use it, but we’re always evaluating because we want to make sure that we are protecting data in Michigan and that’s why we’re always evaluating, but at this point the way we use it is secure.”
CALIFORNIA GOV. GAVIN NEWSOM
California Gov. Gavin Newsom has attracted the biggest audience on TikTok, actively publishing new video content on both a personal account and an official account with nearly 450,000 followers combined. His personal account has a larger following and features policy content and clips of his family participating in viral TikTok trends.
As of April, California has no statewide TikTok ban on government devices. Still, some smaller government agencies have restricted the app. The Orange County Board of Supervisors voted to ban TikTok from all county government-issued devices and equipment in March. In January, Sens. Brian Jones, R-San Diego County, and Bill Dodd, D-Napa, co-authored Senate Bill 74 to prohibit social media platforms controlled by a “country of concern” on state-owned or state-issued devices. The bill has a committee hearing date set for April 25.
Newsom’s office did not respond to Government Technology's request for comment about whether his office takes security measures while using TikTok.
PENNSYLVANIA GOV. JOSH SHAPIRO
Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro maintains two TikTok accounts. The larger one features campaign content posted during Pennsylvania’s 2022 midterm election. A second account’s more recent videos feature his policy opinions integrating viral TikTok trends and audio clips from videos shot in what appears to be the state office.
The Pennsylvania Senate unanimously approved legislation to ban TikTok from state-owned networks and devices. The bill was referred to the House of Representatives on March 8.
CAN GOVERNORS USE TIKTOK SECURELY?
Dr. Richard Harknett, co-director of the Ohio Cyber Range Institute, said even TikTok used on devices not connected to government networks can pose a risk.
“The separate phone is still collecting behavioral data on the user,” Harknett said. “The manner in which the algorithm learns, it draws on your use of the application, what videos you’re posting, what you’re liking and who you are following. It’s sending the flow of behavioral information back into servers that are under the Chinese national security act. The Chinese Communist Party can ask for that data.”
Even if an account is inactive, he said the existence of a governor’s account can send a powerful message to citizens.
“If this is presenting a national security problem from an information gathering and information shaping standpoint, then the way governors need to be looking at this is not as an individual security issue for them, but a role modeling thing,” Harknett said. “If we’re going to tell our population that we got to get off of this platform, or we’ve got to be more attentive to this, then we can’t be on that platform.
ARE INACTIVE GOVERNOR ACCOUNTS RISKY?
Most of the verified accounts that exist under governors’ names have not produced any recent content. A majority of video uploads halted after the 2022 elections.
Maine Gov. Janet Mills posted just eight videos on her account in the months leading up to her 2022 re-election. Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey’s campaign website links to an unverified TikTok account with a video last posted in August 2022, months before she won the governor’s race in her state. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis last posted to his account the day after the 2022 Colorado gubernatorial election. A verified account for Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker appeared in the summer before the 2022 Illinois gubernatorial election, but has not been updated since election day. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers has a campaign account, last updated on election day.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, who can’t run for re-election in 2023 due to term limits, is on the platform. Still, he hasn’t posted any new content since uploading a video of himself receiving a COVID-19 booster shot in September 2022.
It’s not clear whether the TikTok app still exists on any of the state officials’ phones, but Dr. Harknett suggests all government officials should be aware that even a dormant app can present security risks.
“It’s never good practice to have an app on your phone that you don’t use,” Harknett said. “The apps themselves are always being updated with regard to their own security protocols. So if you’re not actually updating the app and using it, then you potentially are exposing yourself to whatever vulnerabilities the app itself has.”
FAKE GOVERNOR ACCOUNTS ON TIKTOK
While some governors don’t have an official presence on TikTok, their names and likeness still appear on the platform through several unverified accounts.
An unverified account under the TikTok handle govtimwalzmn exists on the platform that features Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’ official photo and a bio that reads: “Mn governor 2018-.” The account has attracted nearly 3,000 followers and more than 80,000 likes. One video features footage inside an unnamed decrepit school, with the caption, “Pov you go to school in Wisconson.”
TikTok allows users to report impersonation accounts through an online reporting system. Walz’ office did not respond to Government Technology's request for comment about whether the office was aware of the account or has attempted to remove it.
Other accounts contain parody content, such as one created under Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves’ name featuring content criticizing his policies and decisions as governor. According to TikTok’s terms of service, the platform does allow parody content that “will evoke an existing copyrighted work while being noticeably different from it and should constitute an expression of humor or mockery.”
TIKTOK’S NEW GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL ACCOUNT POLICY
In a change made in the fall of 2022, TikTok started internally distinguishing accounts run by national, state and local officials as government, politician and political party accounts. TikTok doesn’t disclose how many of these accounts exist.
The platform also announced it would change how government, politicians and political parties can use TikTok, including requiring political entities to add a verified badge to their profiles as of September 2022.
“We don’t proactively encourage politicians or political parties to join TikTok, but we welcome those that have chosen to and want to ensure our community knows the source is authentic when watching that content,” wrote TikTok President of Global Business Solutions Blake Chandlee in a blog post. “Verification lets our community know an account is authentic and belongs to the user it represents, which is a way to build trust between high-profile creators and their community.”
Government agencies can request TikTok remove or restrict content that violates the platform’s community guidelines, terms of service or applicable law. TikTok most recently released data collected from January to June 2022, and reported the platform received 2,713 requests from global government agencies to remove content and, on average, removed or restricted 65 percent of the content reported by government agencies.