How TikTok became a political playground

By Lucy Robinson

Not a day goes by where TikTok isn’t in the news. From its dance crazes to its influence on the music industry, there’s always a reason why it’s being talked about. 

However, more recently, scrutiny has taken a more negative turn. Following India’s decision to ban TikTok, Trump has followed suit and has threatened to ban the app. With concerns over how its Chinese creators are using data and security information, Trump is the latest in a series of high-profile figures to declare war on the app. 

Despite TikTok strenuously denying these allegations, apprehensions are only growing.

Trump declaring war

Known for his reactive behaviour, it is probable that some of Trump’s dismay at TikTok is a result of content creators using the app to challenge him politically. Indeed, back in June, Trump appeared at his first live rally in months in Tulsa. Despite Brad Parscale, his campaign manager, bragging about how the rally would be a sell-out, attendance was pitiful, to say the least. In fact, only 6200 people filled the 19,000 capacity venue.

Quickly after news of this broke, attention turned to TikTok users who, in the days leading up to the rally, had started creating videos that encouraged others to register for the event. According to this allegation, the coordination of TikTok users allowed no-showers to dominate the ticket purchasing process, preventing legitimate attendees from securing tickets to the event.

How much influence these TikTok users had on the lack of attendees at Trump’s rally is disputed, however. Trump’s team negated the reports, stating that “we had legitimate 300k signups of Republicans who voted in the last four elections,” with the low turnout being due to a “fear of violent protests”. 

Either way, the coverage showed one thing: the magnitude of TikTok’s political influence. 

Admittedly, it was never meant to be this way. TikTok was never intended to be a political app. With its algorithm and discouragement towards chronology on the FYP, the app’s interface is firmly anti-news sharing. 

Inevitably, like everything else, the app entered political territory. For as long as an app remains independent of political authority, it was always going to be used as a pillar of democracy and vocalisation. And that’s exactly why Trump is fearful. He cannot stop what happened in Tulsa happening again, just as he cannot moderate what content is being shared on the platform.

Turning politics into pop culture

Besides users hijacking Trump rallies, young people have used the app in other ways to demonstrate their political engagement. Building on the fan culture that has emerged within politics throughout the last few years – think of the Milifandom and the Corbynites – TikTok has been swamped by users replicating the fan-celebrity dynamic but with a political motive instead. 

Manipulating the virality inherent to the app, users are able to exploit different hashtags, video formats and audio clips as a means of propagating a political stance. For instance, following Dominic Cummings’ infamous trip to Durham, #cumgate was flooded with videos of users pretending to test their eyesight. Though not explicitly anti-government, these comedy skits carried a tone of mockery. They may not be serious, but such content only evidences how TikTok is being used to question those in power.

In addition to these lighthearted clips of social awareness, TikTok has seen the emergence of political Hype Houses. Named after the collaboration house inhabited by some of the most famous TikTokers, these political Hype Houses enable groups of creators to collectively produce content with mass appeal. 

Not restricted by physical location, these emerging groups have allowed young people from all walks of life to find community in their political beliefs. From the American Republican Hype House to the UK Labour Hype House, you name a political party and chances are there is a group for it. 

Even for those uncertain about their own political agenda, there are bipartisan houses to accommodate their needs. With thousands, and sometimes hundreds of thousands, of followers, these pages yield an extreme amount of influence.

The perpetuation of misinformation

As the politicisation of TikTok continues to gain speed, ensuring the legitimacy of content produced is a worry for political scientists.

Back in December, following the impeachment of Donald Trump, a video went viral that stated that the US Constitution allowed an impeached president to run for office for two additional terms. Though this message is untrue, it didn’t stop users passing the idea around. 

‘Fake news’ like this can be easily tracked down on Twitter and Facebook, but TikTok poses greater difficulty because its videos are harder to regulate. Where text can be sorted through and analysed, imagery lends itself less readily to be examined. As a result, TikTok persists to be a platform largely in opposition to the government’s agenda.

Gen Z as a force for social change

In spite of the political differences demonstrated on TikTok, one thing is clear: Gen Z are united in their fight for change. Whether they support left- or right-wing causes, there is a sense of solidarity in their expression of political interest.

This is no surprise, given that It has long been reported that Gen Z is socially aware and eager for social change. However, it is during recent months that we have really seen what they are capable of. From BLM protests to Fridays For Future strikes, the younger generation are ones to make their voices heard. 

Central to this expression is technology – media and technology has become the fifth pillar of democracy. Despite criticisms revolving around the obsession with technology, this generation has grown up in its world, and are using it to their strengths. 

For instance, in Deutsche Telekom’s latest campaign, #WhatWeDoNext, the narrative illustrates how young people are using social media to instigate positive social change. As the political landscape continues to grow in accordance with the rise and development of social media, the desire for social change and vocalisation will remain central to this ground. 

Despite the objections of those in authority, TikTok is an arena of democracy that will seek to alter the political discourse from all sides.

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