The TikTok Election: How the newest social media platform is getting political

As of April 2020, TikTok has been downloaded 165 million times in the US, which is considerably more than the 138 million Americans who turned up to vote in the 2016 Presidential election. Of course, that number of people aren’t regular users, (that’s thought to be around 60 million monthly users), but it is still a significant amount of eyeballs glued to an app that has huge potential for political influence this year, especially among its young users. With the lockdown leaving many bored citizens with a lot more free time, hours have been poured into TikTok to fill their days and get creative juices flowing. Indeed, the average time spent on the app among US users during March was at a massive 858 minutes (14+ hours), owing to the addictiveness of the platform. So what’s the impact of this huge user surge and new found enthusiasm for a fresh, entertaining platform, you say? Well, in terms of the upcoming Presidential race, it could be quite big.

TikTok Influence

It wasn’t that long ago that Facebook came under fire for its policies on the promotion of misinformation and fake news on their platform leading to suspicions of Russian interference to help elect Trump. Fortunately, in an effort to avoid this, TikTok have slapped down any opportunity for the promotion of political content through paid advertising on the platform, as they do not believe such content “fits the TikTok platform experience.” Their VP of Global Business Solutions said: “We will not allow paid ads that promote or oppose a candidate, current leader, political party or group or issue at the federal, state or local level — including election-related ads, advocacy ads or issue ads.”
TikTok highlight their position underneath any political hashtag.
They have positioned themselves as an apolitical force of fun and joy as opposed to wading into the murky depths of political discussion. But that doesn’t mean its users won’t get involved. A browse through hashtags show videos with the hashtag “#Trump2020” have been viewed 2.8 billion times, “#Trump” 1.9 billion times and “#DonaldTrump” 1.2 billion times, while the biggest explicitly Trump related account has amassed over 266,000 followers. Another account posting conservative content is @conservativehypehouse with over half a million followers where pro-Trump videos are the order of the day, with a wide range of contributions from young conservatives. I also came across @LiberytheMustang whose bio describes her as the “CEO of Patriotism” and whose videos show her speaking directly to the camera about being pro-life, how socialism is the destroyer of nations, and her vehement support of the Second Amendment. Many of these videos have hundreds of thousands of views, and the accounts are likely to churn out more and more viral videos like this in the coming months. Indeed, the way the TikTok algorithm works means that interactions with certain videos will lead the app to show you more of this type of video in an effort to keep your engagement to its maximum potential. In the case of political content like this, many young viewers will fall into the ultimate viral echo chamber of political TikTok, or what Vice calls an “algorithmic hell”.

Ticking Time Bomb

We may soon realise as this election campaign develops how this latest social media platform, which officially asserts its distance from any political discussion, will actually have a lasting and perhaps significant impact on people’s ideological views. Much like Facebook and Twitter, this is another site that hasn’t been created for nuanced political discussion – it’s a platform made to promote the cycle of consumption and engagement with content. Political views or opinions therefore aren’t connected to links to detailed articles explaining or verifying an opinion, but rather feeds that opinion to the user who will then consume, engage and move on. Social media posts aren’t subject to editors or fact checkers, but are inherently emotional, often combative, and can incite conflict and friction. Character limits – in the case of Twitter – and the one minute time limit on TikTok videos, require the need to deliver difficult ideas in condensed forms and don’t always allow for considered explanation or added context. Professor Brian L Ott explained in his article on the dangers of digital politics, that sites like Facebook don’t serve the political discussion very well: “First, they overwhelmingly expose us to information we already agree with, leading to confirmation bias. Second, much of the information they spread is unreliable (and even propagandistic). Third, social media are designed to elicit emotional rather than rational responses from us.” That description could also very easily be matched with TikTok’s emerging political role. Like all successful social media platforms, it is great at keeping you on the app and mindlessly scrolling. This mindless scrolling can perhaps slowly teach you something new, introduce you to new ideas, open your mind up to new ways of thinking about topics and even engage young people in the political process. That can of course be great, but it’s also important to remember how the platform and algorithm works, because it will inevitably lead many into an unconscious filter bubble of very specific views in this polarised political landscape, and even a powerful tool for exploitation.