Rep. Jeff Jackson, Congress’ biggest TikTok star, sees the app as a tool for transparency

'There's a huge demand for being spoken to in a normal tone of voice'

Rep. Jeff Jackson, D-N.C., has become Congress' biggest TikTok star, using the app to talk to constituents. (The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Rep. Jeff Jackson, D-N.C., has become Congress' biggest TikTok star, using the app to talk to constituents. (The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Posted April 5, 2023 at 10:32am

If you’ve heard of Rep. Jeff Jackson and you’re not from North Carolina, there’s a good chance you’ve seen him on TikTok.

The freshman Democrat, who represents the state’s newly formed 14th District, has become a surprise social media star in recent months thanks to a series of videos in which he directly addresses the camera on topics including the Russia-Ukraine war, unmanned aerial vehicles and the controversy swirling around TikTok itself.

One video, on the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, has had more than 28 million views.

“I’m also on LinkedIn,” Jackson, 40, quipped during a recent interview in his Longworth office.

It’s true: Jackson posts regularly on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Substack. But he’s found his niche on TikTok. Jackson has amassed 1.6 million followers and collected more than 11 million likes in two years on the app, though he’s self-deprecating about his success.

“If you scroll down on my TikTok account, it gets really bad, really fast,” he said. “I had no idea how to use this platform for like a year and a half.”

Quality judgments aside, his content has struck a nerve during a polarizing time for TikTok.

[Lawmakers reject CEO’s assurance TikTok is autonomous from China]

Many users find his straightforward approach appealing. But others, including some in Congress, argue that members have no business on a Chinese-owned app that critics say could mine user data.

For his part, Jackson said the app should be banned if a sale can’t be negotiated. But he doesn’t plan to stop using it in the interim.

The Biden administration is considering whether to force ByteDance, TikTok’s Chinese parent company, to sell the social media app. The Chinese Commerce Ministry said last month that it opposes a forced sale.

“The appetite that people have for direct, transparent communication from elected officials is so much greater than is generally perceived,” Jackson said. “So much political communication is just designed to elicit outrage.

“I think people have come to define the entire category of political communication as either yelling at someone or getting yelled at. As it turns out, there’s a huge demand for being spoken to in a normal tone of voice.”

‘Beyond reckless’

Both Democrats and Republicans have supplied ample outrage in recent months over TikTok. According to the Associated Press, only around two dozen members — all of them Democrats — are on the app. Support for a ban is broad and bipartisan.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew was pelted with questions about the app during a late March hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Lawmakers asked about the app’s relationship to the Chinese Communist Party, its handling of American user data and the alleged harm caused by its algorithm, which some say worsens the mental health of teenagers, particularly adolescent girls.

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., called in late March for all members of Congress to stop using the app. His statement didn’t mention Jackson by name, but it linked to an article about his social media use in an accompanying press release.

“China is one of the biggest geopolitical threats America has ever faced,” Tillis’ statement said. “It’s beyond reckless for members of Congress to still be encouraging their constituents to use TikTok despite knowing the Chinese Communist Party is mining all their personal info. Protecting Americans from the CCP is more important than getting views.”

But Jackson said he used his presence on TikTok “to explain exactly why there is a national security risk and how we could address it.

“It was watched by millions,” he said. “That’s a lot more than any senator will accomplish by writing a press release.”

Jackson said he takes concerns about data privacy and TikTok’s algorithm seriously. He said he uses TikTok only from a secure device with no other apps installed. But he favors a more holistic approach to protecting user data across all social media platforms.

Other Democrats, like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman, both from New York, have taken similar positions. Ocasio-Cortez in March created an official TikTok account and posted her first video, opposing a ban on the grounds that it wouldn’t address the issue of other social media companies collecting “troves of deeply personal data.”

She suggested that data privacy laws enacted in the European Union, which limit what companies can collect without user consent, could be a model for the U.S.

Bowman, meanwhile, said a ban would set a dangerous precedent by undermining freedom of speech. He invited more than 20 social media creators to the Capitol in protest last month on the eve of the House Energy and Commerce hearing with Chew.

‘No trust without transparency’

Jackson isn’t out to defend TikTok so much as he advocates for a style that prizes direct communication and demystifies normally arcane parts of the job.

It’s an approach that’s evolved over nearly a decade in politics, beginning in 2014 when he joined the North Carolina Senate as a (self-described) young, broke 31-year-old.

By that time, he’d done a stint in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army Reserve, earned his law degree from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and worked as assistant district attorney in Gaston County, N.C.

He wasn’t particularly active online, but Facebook and Twitter quickly emerged as free ways to communicate with voters.

“I received early positive feedback from constituents about that. So I sort of just decided to make that part of my job,” Jackson said.

His social media strategy slowly expanded to include more platforms. He posted his notes from COVID-19 briefings with the state health department on Reddit, which he said is “like a distilled group of all the smartest and angriest people you went to high school with.”

He launched his official TikTok account in April 2021, a few months after entering the race to fill the Senate seat vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Richard M. Burr. (Jackson dropped out later that year, and Republican Ted Budd defeated Democrat Cheri Beasley for the seat.)

His early posts were a mix of wholesome family content — his children feature prominently — and feeble attempts at trends, interspersed with politics. Of late, he’s refined his technique and produced a string of short explainers that simplify complicated news stories or describe some of the quirks of Congress.

“It doesn’t have to be hard. It can be as simple as saying, ‘Here’s what I did yesterday. Here’s what I’m doing today.’ But I genuinely think there is no trust without transparency,” Jackson said.

“There’s an enormous lack of trust, and the way you respond to that isn’t by telling people that they’re wrong not to trust us. The way you respond to that is by genuinely seeking to earn trust, and that has to start with transparency.”