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Soège Lecocq 01.22.21

TikTok and Politics

Decodings

For Gen Zers, Tiktok has become the go-to online destination for tracking opinion, expressing political convictions and ideological formation. Previously used mainly for amusement, it now serves as a forum for political engagement where youth can air their views on the burning topics of the day.

In recent years, Tiktok has carved out a monumental place in the global subculture. It currently numbers over 800 million active users worldwide (Datareportal 2020) and is the most-downloaded app (2 billion downloads in 2020).

Tiktok is a huge favorite with Gen Zers – 41% of its users are between 16 and 24 years old (Globalwebindex) –  because they like the level of interactivity and find it easy to use. The platform has rapidly become a virtual forum for the expression of ideas and opinions. Earlier this year, its popularity boomed at a time when stay-at-home orders were issued to fight Covid-19. In the U.S., an intense political calendar also boosted its use for activism.

A new space for political activism

Governments, heads of state and prominent political figures communicate on Tiktok to take advantage of its popularity. In early July, the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, used his official account to congratulate students that had passed the baccalaureate exam. At the end of October, Jean-Luc Mélenchon posted a video on his account parodying the curfew imposed by the government on the city of Marseilles, with the hit French rap song Bande Organisée playing in the background.

It looks like just about everybody’s on Tiktok – whether it be the President of France, Israeli armed forces, neo-Nazis or the Islamic State –  for better or for worse.

Today, the app has become a go-to destination for a socially conscious generation eager to speak out on key issues in hopes of changing things.

After the death of George Floyd, many in the United States mobilized to fight inequality and police violence, a movement that quickly went global thanks to this young cohort. Tiktok was used as an amplifier for the expression of anti-hate and anti-racist sentiment. Celebrities with millions of followers – e.g. Charlie D’Amelio, Bryce Hall or the members of Hype House – stepped up to raise public awareness. Proof that Tiktok has become a vector for social engagement, the hashtag #blacklivesmatter has more than 22 billion views on the platform.

TikTok’s role during the U.S. electoral campaign

Members of the under-25 age group have lost faith in their political leaders’ ability to handle the multiple crises that society is facing today. Faced with the global pandemic, a double-dip recession, migrant issues and climate change, Generation Z turned its attention to the process of choosing their representatives.

In the run-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Tiktok became the platform of choice for young progressives and conservatives alike to express their political opinions, recruit new members for their political party or support their candidates. During this period, Tiktok accounts like TheRepublicanHypeHouse, ConservativeHypeHouse and TheDemocratHypeHouse became major sources of political information for young people.

Many American teens, including some not old enough to vote, developed their own political views and used the platform to form advocacy groups. “Your age should not stop you from getting involved – and trying to involve others – in what’s going on today, ” declared 16-year-old Julia Juarez, an officer of one such group.

In early October, a group of two hundred Gen Zers on TikTok created the account @TikTokForBiden to support Joe Biden’s candidacy and encourage voters to choose the Democratic ticket on November 3. Three weeks later, it had more than 800,000 followers.

Many Tiktok communities proclaimed their political affiliation via a prominent display of symbols (e.g. the “Gen Z for Biden” logo or the Republican elephant).

On the other hand, the platform can be a powerful weapon in preventing an adversary from gaining ground. For instance, a group of K-Pop fans allegedly helped substantially reduce attendance at Donald Trump’s rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma In June 2020. The numbers were much lower than expected, which was attributed to sabotage by “an army of [Tiktok] users” that encouraged like-minded individuals to sign up for free on the online rally registration platform, then fail to attend.

And then there is the case of 15-year-old Claudia Conway (1.5 million followers on Tiktok), who became the face of the platform’s politicization during the U.S. election campaign. She unexpectedly attracted media attention when, on her account, she revealed that her mother, a Trump advisor, had tested positive for Covid-19. Claudia also accused the government of downplaying the virus and expressed great dislike of President Trump on several occasions, becoming the darling of the Democrats and an enemy of the White House. Her tweets caused a furor further to which, her parents, Kellyanne and George Conway, both quit their respective jobs – the former at the White House and the latter at the anti-Trump Lincoln Project – to devote more time to their family (Kellyanne said it will be “less drama and more mama”).

These goings-on may help explain why President Trump issued an executive order to shut down Tiktok in the U.S., although the ban was subsequently averted. Some say the ban was imposed due to China’s espionage and supposed role in the Covid pandemic, while others think Tiktok is being blamed for its users’ alleged sabotage of the Trump campaign. The Trump campaign ran anti-Tiktok ads on his official Facebook and Instagram accounts. In September, Donald Trump Jr. joined Tiktok’s competitor Triller and his first post specifically targeted Tiktok.

Founded only four years ago, Tiktok is now regarded as the platform allowing an ordinary user to reach as large an audience as possible in the shortest amount of time. It has become emblematic of a trend in favor of horizontality, challenging established conventions and social structures.

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