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Uncovering the Challenges Facing Biden: Could TikTok Economics Provide Answers?

When looking at economic data, it may seem like young voters should be quite satisfied at the moment. The unemployment rate remains low, there are plentiful job opportunities, inequality has decreased, wage growth is outpacing inflation, and the economy has experienced rapid expansion this year.

However, a different perspective can be found on TikTok – one that aligns more with consumer confidence data and President Biden’s performance in political polls.

Several economy-related trends gaining traction on TikTok paint a bleak picture. Phrases such as “Silent Depression” have led to a series of viral videos that are critical of capitalism. Meanwhile, on Instagram, jokes about poor housing affordability have become a genre of their own.

Social media reflects and potentially fuels a deep-seated angst about the economy, which is evident in surveys of younger consumers and political polls. It suggests that despite the booming job market, people are focusing on longstanding issues like housing affordability when evaluating the economy.

The online economic conversation might provide insights into the stark disconnect between positive economic data and negative sentiments that has confounded political strategists and economists.

It’s unusual for consumer sentiment to be consistently low while joblessness remains consistently low. Despite rapid growth and a strong job market, voters give Mr. Biden poor ratings on economic matters. Young people, in particular, are feeling downcast. According to a recent poll by The New York Times and Siena College, 59 percent of voters under 30 rated the economy as “poor.”

Popular interest influences the content that resonates, especially on TikTok, where going viral is often the goal. These platforms are also important disseminators of information and sentiment.

According to Kyla Scanlon, a content creator who focuses on economic issues and shares carefully researched explainers across TikTok, Instagram, and X, many people get their information from TikTok. Even if individuals don’t, their friends do, creating an echo chamber effect.

Ms. Scanlon gained recognition in traditional news media for coining and popularizing the term “vibecession” to describe consumers’ negative feelings in 2022. However, she believes that 2023 has seen further deterioration.

Surveys indicate that Generation Z heavily relies on social media and messaging apps for news. The share of U.S. adults who regularly obtain news from TikTok has been steadily increasing. While Facebook remains a larger news source due to its user base, approximately 43 percent of TikTok users get news from the platform regularly, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center.

It’s challenging to determine whether negative news on social media contributes to pessimistic views about the economy or the Biden administration. Data and surveys struggle to accurately measure the specific impact of news delivery channels, particularly newer ones, on people’s perceptions, as Katerina Eva Matsa, director of news and information research at the Pew Research Center, pointed out.

The Biden re-election campaign acknowledges that TikTok has become a crucial information source for many young voters this election cycle, replacing platforms like X (formerly known as Twitter). The campaign is aware of the platform’s tendency to emphasize negative content. While some of these messages accurately reflect the messengers’ economic experiences, others border on misinformation that social media platforms should address.

Rob Flaherty, a deputy campaign manager for Mr. Biden, mentioned that the campaign is collaborating with TikTok content creators to promote a positive message about the economy.

Although a few political campaign posts supporting Mr. Biden’s jobs record have garnered thousands of likes, the “Silent Depression” posts have amassed hundreds of thousands, indicating the prevalence of negativity.

The content in these viral videos often compares economic conditions in 1930 with those in 2023, but these comparisons can be misleading and drawn from unreliable sources. However, the housing affordability trend highlighted in the videos is rooted in reality. Affording a property has become increasingly difficult for young people over time.

It’s not just housing affordability that is causing concern among young people, according to Freddie Smith, a 35-year-old real estate agent in Florida, who created a popular “Silent Depression” video. The costs of gas, groceries, cars, and rent have also become significant factors.

While inflation has decreased since its peak in 2022, prices are still notably higher than they were just a few years ago. Household incomes have also risen, but key costs remain noticeably higher. For example, groceries are far more expensive than they were in 2019, and gas prices have increased from around $2.60 to about $3.40 per gallon.

Despite higher prices, consumer expenditure data suggests that people under 25 and even 35 have been spending a roughly equivalent or smaller share of their annual budgets on groceries and gas compared to before the pandemic, on average. However, housing has indeed been consuming a larger portion of young consumers’ budgets than before the pandemic due to increased rents, home prices, and mortgage costs.

Betsey Stevenson, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Michigan, explained that people perceive things to be more challenging due to what economists call a “money illusion,” where individuals maintain a fixed understanding of the value of a dollar.

In addition to prices, discussions about student loans have gained prominence on TikTok (#studentloans has 1.3 billion views), and many of the posts express dissatisfaction.

Mr. Biden’s student-loan initiatives have been a source of volatility for millions of young Americans. While he proposed canceling as much as $20,000 in debt for certain borrowers, the Supreme Court struck down the initiative. Mr. Biden continued to push for more targeted efforts, including $127 billion in total loan forgiveness for millions of borrowers. However, his administration also ended a pandemic freeze on loan payments, affecting approximately 40 million borrowers.

The administration has made efforts to inject positive content into the social media discussion. Mr. Biden met with about 60 TikTok creators to explain his initial student loan forgiveness plan. The campaign team also provided videos of young people crying when they learned their loans had been forgiven to key creators for potential sharing.

The Biden campaign does not pay these creators or attempt to dictate their content, although it does aggressively advertise on digital platforms, as Mr. Flaherty emphasized.

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