As a spot the place thousands and thousands of younger Americans carry out and discover their identities in public, TikTook has change into a outstanding venue for ideological formation, political activism and trolling. It has homegrown pundits, and regardless of its mum or dad firm’s reluctance to being concerned with politics — the service doesn’t enable political advertisements — it has attracted curiosity from campaigns. It can also be an area the place individuals might be gathered and pressed into motion shortly.
TikTook was instrumental within the group of a mass false-registration drive forward of a Trump rally in Tulsa, Okla., the place many seats had been unfilled. It has amplified footage of police brutality in addition to scenes and commentary from Black Lives Matter protests all over the world, with movies created and shared on the platform regularly shifting past it. They carry TikTook’s distinctive and wide-ranging audiovisual vernacular: typically playfully disorienting, rigorously edited, arch and musical. It has been instructed by many, together with The New York Times, that TikTook teenagers will save the world.
The fact is extra difficult. A workforce of researchers has been analyzing political expression on TikTook since, effectively, earlier than it was TikTook. While nonusers of TikTook might imagine it’s bursting onto the political stage slightly abruptly, and that it has one thing like a collective political identification, the analysis provides a special image.
It depicts a various, diffuse and never practically united group of thousands and thousands of younger individuals discovering the capabilities and limits of a platform that’s, regardless of its many similarities with predecessors, a novel and unusual place.
In an e-mail change, Ioana Literat, an assistant professor of communication and media at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, an assistant professor of communication on the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, mentioned the traits of political expression on TikTook and why it looks like a novel phenomenon.
This interview has been edited.
The concept that TikTook is an engine for progressive younger politics is gaining some foreign money amongst individuals who don’t use the platform. What would possibly outsiders be shocked to search out on TikTook, when it comes to youth political expression? Is there something resembling consensus?
Ioana Literat: I’ve seen this tendency not too long ago, not solely on older social media like Twitter but additionally within the press. It performs into bigger debates about youth civic attitudes — and particularly youth civic attitudes on-line — which are inclined to verge between utopia and dystopia.
On the one hand, youth are hailed (or tokenized — suppose Greta Thunberg and the Parkland youth) as the way forward for democracy, for whom political expression comes straightforward. But alternatively, persons are anxious about how they don’t present up on the polls, or fall prey to misinformation, or don’t care about newspapers anymore. And all of those are true; it’s not an both/or form of state of affairs.
Neta Kligler-Vilenchik: Extreme views, starting from dystopian to utopian, are voiced not solely in regard to youth, but additionally in regard to any media phenomenon that’s vital and new. As early as Socrates’s concern that the written phrase would eradicate knowledge, each new know-how has been believed to both be our savior (the web will carry individuals all over the world into one world group!) or our doom (robots will make us all unemployed!).
To me, this continuity is sort of reassuring, as a result of it reveals us that our fears and hopes usually are not a lot across the traits of the particular new know-how, slightly they’re broad societal fears and hopes which are projected onto no matter know-how is new and never but understood. To most of its grownup commenters, TikTook is an enormous unknown.
Dr. Literat: In phrases of youth political expression, whereas there’s a dynamic and influential liberal activist group on TikTook, there’s really loads of conservative political expression, and pro-Trump voices definitely find an audience on the platform.
We found this to be true in our early research on Musical.ly, in the aftermath of the 2016 election, and it’s still true today on TikTok, as we’re gearing up for the 2020 election. On TikTok, you can find powerful political statements and activist organizing. You can find young people lip-syncing speeches by Trump or Obama (both earnestly and sarcastically). You can also find plenty of racist and sexist content, conspiracy theories and misinformation, and kids showing off their gun collections and posing with Confederate flags.
It’s hard to refer to what we see on the platform as consensus. Rather, we find that TikTok enables collective political expression for youth — that is, it allows them to deliberately connect to a like-minded audience by using shared symbolic resources.
Dr. Kligler-Vilenchik: Shared symbolic resources can be physical (MAGA hats), visual (the closed fist for the Black Lives Matter movement) or hashtags (#alllivesmatter). TikTok-specific elements like viral dances, popular soundtracks, etc. are also shared symbolic resources that help facilitate connections and foreground the collective aspects of youth political expression.
Are there novel ways in which political conflict unfolds on TikTok? It doesn’t seem to be especially well suited to the sorts of conflict we’re familiar with on some older platforms.
Dr. Literat: There’s relatively little crosscutting political talk (i.e. across partisan lines, with politically heterogeneous others). And when it does happen, it’s not very productive. It’s still a very polarized discussion of us v. them.
Something that’s pretty special about TikTok in terms of both political expression and political dialogue/conflict is that it’s all filtered through young people’s personal identities and experiences. Political dialogue on the platform is very personal, and youth will often state diverse social identities — e.g. Black, Mexican, L.G.B.T.Q., redneck, country — in direct relation to their political views.
Not to say that political talk on other social media platforms is not personal, but having done comparative analyses, we’re really struck by just how front-and-center youth identities are on TikTok.
Dr. Kligler-Vilenchik: If we return to the idea of collective political expression as the ability to speak to a like-minded audience through shared symbolic resources, we see that this enables at least the potential for a conversation across political views.
So, some users may choose to tag their video with #bluelivesmatter and speak to a certain audience. But they can also choose to tag their video with #blacklivesmatter, and that way reach a different audience, with a different view. Often this is done ironically, as a parody of others’ views (e.g., a video tagged #whitelivesmatter that goes on to explain the idea of white privilege), but it may also be a way to spark conversation between sides.
Lastly, if you’ve been able to check in, have you noticed anything surprising about youth expression on TikTok around BLM, racism and policing in the last few weeks?
Dr. Literat: The collective aspects of youth political expression — which materialize, for instance, in frequently used songs like Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” — are very salient in the context of BLM-related expression on TikTok.
Like hashtags, these songs function as connective threads among the videos. At the same time, there is such a wide variety in terms of style and ethos of expression, from anger to silliness to humor, from confessionals to original songs to footage of protests to memes to interviews or oral histories.
There’s also a sense of generational awareness and generational solidarity, which is connected to this concept of collective political expression. On footage of protests, you see a lot of comments like “Gen Z is changing the world,” “our generation is so powerful,” “I love our generation with all my heart” — which is really interesting because generations, and especially terms like Gen Z or Gen Alpha, are how outsiders (academics, commenters, brands, etc.) usually refer to youth.
It may be that youth are reclaiming these terms to assert their agency, or perhaps these larger societal discourses are seeping into youth discourse too.
Dr. Kligler-Vilenchik: Looking at what’s going on in the U.S. right now from outside (I’m in Israel), I’m struck by how these same hashtags are also used by people from outside the U.S. to support the Black Lives Matter movement and also connect it to localized instances of racism and anti-government protest.
In Israel, protests in solidarity with BLM were infused with the protest of Ethiopian-origin Israelis who suffer from racial discrimination and police brutality. This speaks to how TikTok enables young people to connect a personalized political message to a broader political moment.