2020 has been a year of change - mainly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has completely altered every aspect of our daily routines. With lockdowns in place that restrict social gatherings, many people have turned to online platforms as a substitute for social interaction. TikTok, in particular, has seen tremendous growth during this period - TikTok reportedly added more than 12 million unique U.S. visitors in March this year, with higher numbers for average time spent per visitor (8 hours) than Instagram (5 hours).
TikTok has become a hot topic in politics - particularly in the US, where the Presidential Elections are set to happen on 3rd November this year. TikTok is a China-based company and has been labelled as a national security threat by the Trump administration - who threatens to ban TikTok in the US if TikTok doesn’t sell its US assets to a US-based company. This comes in the midst of deteriorating US-China relations due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In this article, we’ll be looking at how TikTok went political and how it has changed the way we talk politics.
It’s important to understand why political content began appearing on TikTok. TikTok is widely accessible - anyone with internet access can use the app, which means that the content on TikTok has the potential to reach a large audience. In addition, content on TikTok tends to be perceived as more authentic than mainstream news coverage - videos on TikTok have a “homemade” quality that feels more direct and helps users to foster a parasocial relationship with content creators.
TikTok has various features that facilitate the creation and consumption of content on the platform. Lip-syncing, dancing and jump cuts are a staple on TikTok, and political commentators have used these features creatively to produce a variety of informative, educational and entertaining content.
Here are some of our favourites political TikTok videos for your viewing pleasure:
Once a user has engaged with enough political content on the platform, TikTok’s powerful algorithm, which recommends new videos based on the user’s interests, will start showing more related political content on the user’s “For You” page - which is constantly updated with new videos each time the user opens the app. Like other platforms, TikTok also makes use of hashtags, which helps creators to find their audience by when they use hashtags like #news and #politics.
Unfortunately, TikTok does have its drawbacks when it comes to political content. Videos on TikTok are much shorter - video recordings using the TikTok app are capped at 60 seconds, and videos can be recorded at up to 3x speed to enable faster delivery. This caters to Gen Z’s shorter attention span, but also creates the problem of overly summarised and sensationalised political videos on TikTok for the purposes of entertainment and going viral.
TikTok attracts users from all sides of the political spectrum but tends to attract a younger audience - 27% of TikTok users are between the ages of 13 and 17, while 42% are between 18 and 24 years old. According to a New York Times article, political expression on TikTok is “filtered through young people’s personal identities and experience”. With the ongoing #BlackLivesMatter protests in the US, many users have taken to social media platforms like TikTok to share their personal experiences with the police and calling for social change.
What differentiates TikTok from other platforms is its engaged user base. In June 2020, US President Donald Trump organised a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma which was free to register for. The rally reportedly received over a million ticket reservations for a venue that only held 19,200 seats, but fewer than 6,200 showed up for the actual rally. TikTok users claimed credit for the unexpectedly low turnout - when Trump announced the rally, it became a trend on TikTok for users to record themselves registering for seats without any intention of attending the rally. Even though these videos were gaining traction on TikTok, this trend flew under the radar of the rally organisers - creators avoided using hashtags and used cryptic messaging to rally others to join the trend.
Not everything on TikTok is one-sided, and perhaps the biggest thing that differentiates TikTok from the competition is its “duet” feature, which allows TikTok users to record themselves alongside existing TikTok video/audio. TikTok users like @thedemhypehouse and @conservativehypehouse frequently respond to breaking news and other TikTok videos. Check out this exchange between both creators, which was conducted over TikTok:
Here’s a video by user @whatchugotforme lip-syncing to a speech by President Trump:
In short, TikTok has built a community of young, politically-minded people that share videos of themselves. Users respond to each other and real-time events using the platform's creative features like lip-syncing and duets. Videos tend to be short, entertaining/informative - with the goal of gaining traction and going viral on the platform.
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