The heads of state, governments and foreign ministers and ministries in 58 countries have an official presence on TikTok and quite a few are still active on TikTok despite a creeping public sector ban of the Chinese-owned platform in a growing number of Western capitals. The leaders of France, Ireland and Israel are still active on the popular social media platform which is also widely used for governmental communications in South America where almost all leaders have a channel on the platform.
Creeping Public Sector Ban
TikTok has been banned from government devices in Canada, the US, the UK, the European Union and a-growing list of European countries. The Czech government promptly deleted its TikTok channel @strakovka which had a respectable 14’800 followers and accumulated 69’600 likes on its 17 videos. Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs announced on Twitter that he had deleted his profile @EdgarsRinkevics which had 680 followers. “For security reasons, I have deleted my Tiktok account, @arlietas [the Foreign Ministry] prohibits the use of this application on smart devices that have ministry emails installed” he tweeted.
In Europe the app is slowly disappearing from government phones: the EU Commission deleted its account shortly after banning TikTok from the devices of its 32,000 permanent and contract employees. The TikTok channel of the @EuropeanCommission had never been active and had less than 50 followers.
Despite the ban, the @10DowningStreet channel set up under former Prime Minister Boris Johnson in May 2022 is still available and now boasts more than 280,000 followers. However Downing Street hasn’t been active since the end of July 2022 and the last video is a short clip with Larry, the Downing Street cat predicting an England win against Germany in the final of the Women’s Euro in 2022. Neither Liz Truss, nor Rishi Sunak have ever used the official TikTok account, and it is unclear whether it is still hosted on a governmental device and when and whether it will be deleted.
On the other hand, the TikTok account of theSecretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, Grant Shapps is active on the platform. In a reaction to the TikTok ban he posted a clip from the film The Wolf on Wall Street in which Leonard Di Caprio’s character claims: “You know, I am not leaving… I am not leaving.” Grant Shapps wrote in the caption: “I’ve never used TikTok on government devices and can hereby confirm I will NOT be leaving TikTok anytime soon!”
TikTok for Government Communications
In Paris and Dublin, where TikTok is part and parcel of both governments’ social media toolkit leaders are somewhat reluctant to impose a TikTok ban. The French government tweeted a statement from State Secretary for Europe, Laurence Boone that: “The crucial point in the #TikTok case is that European data must remain in Europe. The Irish and French data watchdogs are currently conducting an inquiry to ensure the platform is fully compliant with this rule.” In France TikTok was banned from work phones of civil servants along with other “recreational apps” such as Candy Crush and Netflix.
However, French President Emmanuel Macron continues to engage with his 3.9 million followers on the platform. The French government maintains an official account @GouvernementFR and a bespoke @Republique_gouv channel to fight delinquency and radicalisation. The Minister of the Economy, Bruno Le Maire and the Ministry of Education both have active channels on the platform. An outright TikTok ban would simply deprive the government of a powerful channel to reach a younger audience.
Irish President Michael Higgins was the first world leader to set up a TikTok channel on 29 July 2019. The @PresidentIRL channel is still active and recently shared a 10-minute excerpt from his St. Patrick Day’s address. In Dublin, where TikTok has its EU headquarters, the government @MerrionStreet, the Tánaiste (Foreign Minister) @MichealMartinTD and the Department of Further and Higher Education all have an active presence on the platform. The government’s most recent video is showing Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar celebrating the Hindu festival of Holi. In his most recent video Foreign Minister Micheal Martin’s is reading an excerpt from the Gruffalo to encourage viewers to “squeeze in a read”.
TikTok is widely popular among Latin American leaders and most presidents and governments have an official channel on the platform. El Salvador’s president Nayib Bukele has become the most followed world leader on TikTok. With his 5.5 million followers he is reaching a large Spanish speaking audience far beyond the 6.3 million population of his country. Showcasing his #GuerraContraPandillas (#FightAgainstGangs), his team has started to subtitle his videos in English for a global audience.
Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is in second place with 4.3 million followers and French President Emmanuel Macron is in third place of the most followed leaders on the platform. Four other Latin American presidents make the Top 10 list, namely Colombia’s Gustavo Petro, Ecuador’s Guillermo Lasso, Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and Chile’s Gabriel Boric.
Bong Bong Marcos the President of the Philippines is the only Asian leader and Italy’s Giorgia Meloni is the only woman in the Top 10 TikTok ranking. The Italian Prime Minister used TikTok effectively during her election campaign sharing videos and snippets from her campaign trail and she has 1.1 million followers after only a year on the platform.
As of March 26, 2023, 40 heads of state and government had an active presence on the platform. However, there’s hardly any interaction between world leaders on TikTok which is mainly used to reach a national audience.
Only eight foreign ministries (Belarus, Colombia, Cuba, Israel, Mexico, Russia, Somalia, and Thailand) and six foreign ministers (Colombia, Ireland, Mexico, Panama, North Macedonia, and Togo) maintain TikTok channels, and few are active on the platform. The Israeli Foreign Ministry has made the best use of TikTok with three separate channels in Arabic, English, and Spanish totalling 609,000 followers and garnering 4.8 million likes.
The Foreign Ministry has set up a dedicated team who produce videos about Israeli culture, customs, and cuisine, promoting Israel to foreign audiences. No other government has used TikTok to build bridges across borders and cultural divides as Israel has done. No other social media platform is as suited for two-way communications as TikTok. Beyond the comments and likes users can remix, reply and even duet – a TikTok video reply – helping spread the original content to their followers and beyond.
A full ban of TikTok would be counterproductive since governments would no longer be able to reach their key national audiences. If the public sector ban is purely for security concerns, governments and leaders would be well advised to use ‘burner phones’ for their social media activities, phones which are not connected to their internal networks or email servers. As there has been no indication that the Chinese government has ever used TikTok to spy on its international users, it seems the partial ban of TikTok is mainly driven by geopolitical considerations. TikTok is not only one of the most popular apps, but also the only major app which is not Made in the USA, which seems to be the main reason for a likely ban in the US. However, it will be difficult and even impossible for governments with a strong TikTok audience to endorse a ban of the app. As Sara Morrison put it in Vox: Is TikTok too big to ban?