President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign has finally set up shop on TikTok.
Despite controversy in Congress over the app, TikTok is an indispensable tool for presidential candidates to reach young voters, experts say.
“I wasn’t surprised at all to see that the campaign launched a TikTok account, because it would genuinely have been such a waste to go through this cycle, and a lost opportunity, to not be on that platform,” said Annie Wu Henry, a digital communications strategist who has managed social media for several political campaigns.
“I inevitably assumed it was going to happen, it was just a matter of time when,” she told TechCrunch. “Did I think that would be in the middle of the Super Bowl? No.”
In the middle of the big game, the new account posted its first TikTok, which features Biden himself joking about an unfounded right-wing conspiracy theory that he rigged the NFL (… because Taylor Swift, who endorsed Biden in 2020, is dating the Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce, and the camera operators show her in the crowd a lot).
“Deviously plotting to rig the season so the Chiefs would make the Super Bowl, or are the Chiefs just being a good football team?” an off-screen staffer asks Biden in his TikTok debut.
“I’d get in trouble if I told you,” Biden replies, and an image of the “Dark Brandon” meme appears on screen.
The TikTok simultaneously pokes fun at multiple right-wing conspiracy theories. Aside from the joke about rigging the Super Bowl, Biden’s campaign has leaned hard on the Dark Brandon meme, which is an outgrowth of Donald Trump supporters’ “Dark MAGA” trend. The idea of “Dark MAGA” originates from the widely debunked conspiracy theory that Biden stole the 2020 election from Trump – they imagine an angry, unhinged Trump seeking revenge as he runs for president again in 2024. Visually, the vaporwave-style memes depict Trump with glowing red eyes, and sometimes, they show Trump Tower as a dark black fortress.
Dark Brandon borrows from that aesthetic and combines it with another in-joke among Trump supporters: the chant “Let’s Go Brandon.” That meme originated when a broadcaster mistook chants of “F— Joe Biden” to be “Let’s Go Brandon,” and now, Trump supporters use the phrase as shorthand to express their disgust for the current president. Trump’s followers have also used the incident to fuel their baseless claims about government control of the media, alleging that the NBC broadcaster deliberately misconstrued the chant to conceal criticism of Biden.
The pay-off of the Dark Brandon meme – which depicts Biden with glowing red eyes, fighting to fix the economy or something – requires so much background knowledge that it’s surprising the Biden campaign has leaned so hard into it. But in some ways, it seems to be working. When Biden announced his reelection campaign in April, his team started selling official Dark Brandon merch, which accounted for 54% of total store revenue as of August.
Though Dark Brandon stems from memes that disparage the president, Biden’s communications team seems to be reappropriating the aesthetic to depict the president in a better light.
“When we see Joe Biden fighting on behalf of the American people – really, really fighting, not just standing up for them – that’s the most energetic and the most representative version of Joe Biden,” said Marianna Pecora, communications director of gen-Z advocacy group Voters of Tomorrow. “I think that the Dark Brandon persona kind of embodies that.”
Memes can be a useful tool for connecting with voters online, but when timed poorly, the effort to be trendy can backfire. Biden’s campaign posted yet another Dark Brandon meme on X after the Chiefs won the Super Bowl, saying that the game played out “just like we drew it up.” But Biden’s staff posted the meme around the same time that the Israeli military raided the city of Rafah, where over a million Palestinian people fled under Israeli orders. Young voters in particular have been critical of Biden’s ongoing support of the Israeli military, which fueled more anger about the bad timing of the meme.
“The campaign and the administration operate separately, so I can say with just about full certainty that [the timing] was an unhappy coincidence,” Pecora told TechCrunch.
But some voters may not be willing to give politicians this benefit of the doubt.
“I do think that we can and should infuse relevant, trendy and fun moments into how we are communicating, especially on digital platforms,” Henry told TechCrunch. “But while we’re doing that, we need to continue to be strategic and intentional and mindful, even if it’s a meme.”