Republican contender Nikki Haley slammed her rival Vivek Ramaswamy over his presence on TikTok—the hugely popular Chinese video-sharing app that has attracted criticism for its potential as an espionage tool for Beijing—during the second GOP presidential primary debate on Sept. 27 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.
Mr. Ramaswamy is the only 2024 candidate so far to have joined the platform, days after he called it a tool helping Beijing to push “digital fentanyl” to Americans. The 38-year-old entrepreneur credited YouTube influencer and boxer Jake Paul for changing his mind, arguing that the platform is critical in reaching out to young people.
Confronted by a moderator about whether a commander-in-chief should be “so easily persuaded by an influencer,” Mr. Ramaswamy told the audience that he had a “radical idea for the Republican Party.”
“We need to win elections. And part of how we win elections is reaching the next generation of young Americans where they are,” he said. “We're only going to ever get to declaring independence from China, which I favor if we actually win. So while the Democrats are running rampant reaching the next generation 3 to 1, there's exactly one person in the Republican Party which talks a big game about reaching young people, and that's me.”
Mr. Ramaswamy's response ignited a wave of disapproval from the debate stage.
“This is infuriating because TikTok is one of the most dangerous social media apps that we could have. ... Honestly, every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say,” Ms. Haley told him, bringing chuckles from the crowd.
“Because I can’t believe—they hear you got a TikTok situation, what they're doing is these 150 million people are on TikTok, that means they can get your contacts, they can get your financial information, they can get your emails, they can get your text messages, China knows exactly what they're doing.
“We can’t trust you.”
Lawmakers across the political spectrum have raised concerns about the viral app possibly handing U.S. user data to Chinese authorities. The app itself is also highly addictive because of its algorithm that offers customized content based on user behavior.
Mr. Ramaswamy, without addressing the security concerns, said he wants to bar anyone younger than 16 from using “addictive social media.”
“This isn't Republican or Democrat, but if you're 16 years old or under you should not be using an addictive social media product, period,” he said. “This is something that we can both agree on, and we can revive both the mental health of this country while stopping the fentanyl epidemic.”
His deputy communications director, Stefan Mychajliw, later said that Mr. Ramaswamy’s position on TikTok was “very simple.”
“Vivek Ramaswamy has to reach the youth vote,” he told The Epoch Times after the debate. “These are the rules of the game: Vivek Ramaswamy does not make them; we need to reach the youth vote.”
Chris Grant, senior adviser to Mr. Ramaswamy’s campaign, echoed those points. He didn’t clarify whether Mr. Ramaswamy uses TikTok on his personal cellphone given the security concerns.
“He's been very clear, you're not going to win these elections by isolating a critical piece of communication that talks to voters at this party,” Mr. Grant told The Epoch Times.
“Look, they hammered him on it today. He's decided, and rightfully so, that that's the way to talk to younger voters, and that's what he's doing.”
He said he doesn't consider Ms. Haley a threat to Mr. Ramaswamy's campaign.
“We don't spend a lot of time thinking about Nikki Haley,” Mr. Grant said. "Nikki Haley clearly spends a lot of time thinking and getting angry about Vivek Ramaswamy.”
Despite the overwhelming negative perception of TikTok during the Sept. 27 debate, the app made its appearance in other ways. TV advertisements displaying the words "TikTok Sparks Good" ran multiple times on Fox Business during the debate, telling viewers about users' success stories made possible by TikTok.