All of the views expressed in this post belong to the author and not to Political Union as an organization.
TikTok is primarily known for dances, trendy songs, and humor. However, just like any other social media platform, it has its own subcultures, and one of those is politics. Some of the users who make up political TikTok devote their accounts to discussion of political topics, while others just talk about them occasionally. Between them, a political corner of TikTok is thriving. We tend to brush off political TikTok as a joke—and sure, young people talking politics on an app primarily used for dances doesn’t seem that serious. But the unique features of TikTok compared to other social media platforms make its effect on political discourse worth looking into. TikTok is very different from the internet politics many of us grew up on. Think back on your early days on the Internet, or wherever you might have first found a political community and learned about political issues. (For me, it was Tumblr in 2014. We don’t talk about it.) Young people on TikTok are experiencing those same things, getting exposed to political issues for possibly the very first time, on a completely different type of platform.
There are a number of features TikTok has that makes it a unique platform for political content. The nature of the feed itself serves as one example. While most social media platforms focus on a follower-generated feed, where you see content from the people you choose to follow, TikTok’s main focus is the For You Page: an algorithmically generated feed that shows users content from a variety of users, generally based on your interests, but not consisting of the users you follow. As such, TikTok has a more open structure than other platforms with more possibility for cross-partisan dialogue. If a user interacts with political content, their For You Page can show them content from across the political spectrum. Sure, a user’s feed will still be skewed towards their interests, and therefore perhaps their political leanings as well, but less so than on other social media sites where your feed consists of only people you chose to follow. In my own experience, although I only “like” political content that I agree with, I still continue to come across plenty of videos that I disagree with on my For You Page, which I see as a good thing. Additionally, this type of feed makes the political community easier to access both as a viewer and creator. Someone doesn’t have to be known as a political creator in order to post something political--they can just post one political video if they are so inclined, and it will find its way to a community of interested viewers. Similarly, someone who does not usually follow political creators can still find political content due to the open algorithmic feed.
Another feature unique to TikTok are duets and stitches. In a duet, a user can create a video response that plays side by side with an original video, and in a stitch, a user can make a video that tags onto the end of another user’s video, as a response. On other social media platforms, leaving a comment on a post is typically the most interactive level of communication. TikTok takes interactivity a step further by allowing video responses. These features allow content to be conversational, almost like a debate function. Two creators can debate back and forth, and outside perspectives can weigh in as well. Ideas can become far more fleshed out and nuanced throughout a video discussion between users compared to an argument that might occur in a comment section, which allows for much less time between somebody typing out their first thought and posting it. So, the conversational video format of TikTok allows for a thoughtful discussion between creators with different perspectives that is less likely to dissolve into personal attacks than a comment thread would. Furthermore, viewers can easily follow along with the discussion as it develops.
Along with these video response features comes the central idea of TikTok--it’s a face-forward platform. While Twitter and Facebook are more text-based, and Instagram is photo-based but often conveys political ideas through infographics, TikTok content almost exclusively centers user’s faces talking to their cameras. So, for better or for worse, people’s political ideas are attached to their faces, almost as if they are a host or news anchor. There's danger in peoples’ faces being attached to their content, as comment sections might become more about what a person looks like than the ideas they present. This format also sheds light on a clear difference between political content on TikTok and on other platforms--TikTok turns political posts into entertainment. Political ideas are packaged into a 60-second piece of content with a popular audio playing in the background. Different TikTok joke or audio trends can provide a framework through which a user explains a political concept, making these concepts accessible and easy to understand for those who aren’t as in the know. Politics as entertainment on TikTok has its benefits and its detriments: on one hand, it makes politics more understandable for a younger audience, but on the other, concepts may get oversimplified or over exaggerated for the sake of humor and brevity. All in all, the politics on TikTok tend to be accessible, but sometimes shallow. Ideally, TikTok could serve as an easy introduction to specific topics, and then users could follow up with their own research, but this likely isn’t the case for the average user. The distillation of political concepts into entertaining content is a double edged sword: accessible and fun, but also oversimplified and hyperbolic.
TikTok has created significant political communities which thrive when important political moments unfold. A New York Times article looked into activity on TikTok the week of the 2020 presidential election. In interviews, teens explained that they preferred to watch election results come in on TikTok so that they could process them collectively. Unlike watching results on the news, on TikTok users have a community of people their own age readily available to debrief with. For example, TikTok comment sections are a hub to process results collectively, and users can check in on what their favorite creators think of every new development. Political TikTokers communicated in group chats as the results unfolded, and political collectives, groups of popular political creators who join together under common beliefs, leverage their numbers to put on live events. For example, the Libertarian Hype House and TikTok for Biden (a group of almost 500 creators), live streamed throughout election night, updating users with results and providing reactions. Most of these influential political users weren’t even able to vote yet, but they had nonetheless fostered a community interested in staying updated on politics.
Political TikTok might not seem that consequential right now, but that’s because it’s not affecting most of us--it’s affecting those who are growing up on the platform. Twenty-seven percent of TikTok’s users are ages 13-17, compared to just 9.6% for Twitter. Due to the unique features of the app compared to its predecessors, it will be interesting to see how TikTok shapes the political beliefs and discourse of the next generation of social media users. The cross-partisan, open structure of the For You Page has the potential to make people more open to hearing different opinions, and through duets and stitches they’ll learn how to argue for their side as well as hear what the other side has to say. On the other hand, young users who grow up used to politics as entertainment might shy away from drier news sites that contain more facts, but less humor and face-to-face interaction. All in all, we shouldn’t ignore political TikTok just because it’s TikTok. The nature of the app itself makes this phenomenon worth observing.
Medina Serrano, Papakyriakopoulos. “Dancing to the Partisan Beat: A First Analysis of Political Communication on TikTok.” 12th ACM Conference on Web Science. ACM, 2020. 257–266. Web.
Sophie Gilbert is a sophomore at Northwestern studying Sociology and Integrated Marketing Communications. She serves as one of Political Union’s PR chairs.
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