By Jenna Zucker
(Reuters) – The fallout from Canada’s ban on Chinese-owned TikTok on government-issued devices looks set to hurt the leaders of the country’s two main opposition parties, who have used the app more actively than the ruling Liberals to win over supporters.
The leaders of the two biggest opposition parties – Conservative party leader Pierre Poilievre and New Democratic party leader Jagmeet Singh – are among politicians who actively used TikTok to reach constituents.
But that strategy may be in jeopardy after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government on Monday announced a ban on TikTok on government-issued devices due to security risks, amid fears that user data could end up in Chinese government hands.
That prompted lawmakers from both the ruling Liberals and opposition Conservatives to go even further by suspending their accounts on TikTok. Liberal lawmakers were also told to remove the app from personal devices and suspend all related accounts, the party said.
The NDP’s Singh, whose party has an agreement that is expected to keep Trudeau’s minority government in power until 2025, also similarly deactivated his account on Tuesday.
Singh, who made TikTok videos of dance moves in his signature neon turbans in the 2021 election, has used TikTok to post videos of his political plans and his family, helping him accumulate more than 800,000 followers.
By contrast, the ruling Liberal Party had a more modest presence on TikTok – Trudeau, for example, did not have a public account on the app.
“Any limitation on social media is a problem for any opposition politician,” Nik Nanos of Nanos Research told Reuters, saying they do not have the incumbent advantage of being featured regularly on more traditional media outlets.
Singh’s office said it takes “all security concerns seriously and we will comply with any directives issued about banning TikTok from government devices to ensure that information is protected.”
Singh also told reporters that taking a pause to assess how to safely use the social media platform is “something that I feel very comfortable doing and I have no hesitation to do.”
AN OPPOSITION PROBLEM
There is no doubting the reach and appeal of apps like TikTok to target voters: Insider Intelligence projects 9 million Canadians will use the app this year and over 10 million will do so by 2025 – more than a quarter of Canada’s population.
But TikTok – owned by Chinese firm ByteDance – is facing a growing backlash from Western governments worried about whether China’s government could harvest user data or advance its interests. Beijing has repeatedly denied any such intentions.
The European Parliament became the latest EU body to ban the app from staff phones this week and on Wednesday a U.S. House panel approved a bill giving President Biden the power to ban the app altogether.
TikTok has also complained about the Canadian ban, saying it was issued “without citing any specific security concern or contacting us.”
Analysts like Nanos say anything that limits or undermines the role of social media as a platform could be a problem for politicians like the Conservatives’ Poilievre, who has shunned mainstream media in Ottawa.
Poilievre’s account, deactivated this week alongside that of his entire caucus, garnered around 200,000 followers.
Poilievre – who has styled himself as an anti-establishment figure – has relied on a strategy of directly reaching voters through social media platforms such as TikTok, where he frequently attacks opponents and makes parody videos.
“It’s always much more difficult for opposition politicians to insert themselves into the dialogue,” Nanos said.
($1 = 1.3626 Canadian dollars)
(Reporting by Jenna Zucker in Toronto; Additional reporting by Ismail Shakil in Ottawa; Editing by Denny Thomas and Deepa Babington)