Politics and TikTok


On this social platform for young people, content that speaks of global warming, bullying, body shaming and international politics are increasingly popular.

TikTok was the fastest growing social network in 2019. While Instagram tries to renew itself by ceasing to count the likes and Facebook is deserted en masse by sixteen year olds embarrassed at the idea of meeting their parents who post about their evenings, TikTok, the initially music-based social network where to share frivolous ballets or lip sync, using an amount of irresistible effects, begins to show the possibilities of being used in a different way.

By now the most talked-about Chinese application, it is the new playground of digital spin doctors: some have already ventured into the platform, others simply observe what is happening. The reason is obvious: with its videos of just a few seconds, in which kids sing, dance and invent new languages and memes, the app has surpassed 800 million users active monthly , standing as an unprecedented rival of Zuckerberg’s social networks. Tomorrow’s voters like it, but also those who can already express their preference at the ballot box. It doesn’t matter, therefore, if the Chinese of ByteDance – the parent company of TikTok – were among the first in the sector to ban political advertisements . They do everything to reduce the visibility of the inherent contents to current affairs or protest debate, hoping that they will be submerged by the flow of nice choreographies or sketches: two things are going out of their control. 

When Twitter began to be used also by politicians, the first criticism that was made sounded more or less like this: it is not possible to do politics in 140 characters. Ten years later, Donald Trump, Twitter’s compulsive user, sits in the White House and with his use of social media he is marking International politics. This fact is best kept in mind when talking about politics on TikTok. TikTok is another tool that goes in the direction of reducing the distance between the politician and his potential voter. In this case, a political content is not relaunched, but a subject. It is a work on the personal brand that responds to the leader’s needs to be popular. Popularity that can then turn into electoral consensus. In the past, authority, prestige and skills were the elements on which political communication focused. With the network the norm has changed and today we need to say “I am like you”, “I do what you do”. However, the uncertainty remains of how this type of communication can be perceived by those young people the politicians try to reach. It is not enough to make people talk about you to exist, you must also know how to use these tools in a dignified way. Personally I find it a disrespectful invasion of the field. It seems like wanting to preside over yet another successful social network, but without having a clear idea of how to use it. TikTok is entertainment while politics by definition is a “serious” thing, not the poor show they have been presenting us lately.

Nevertheless, politicians are not the only ones wanting to share their voice on this platform. Kids are starting to want to debate the environment, rights and even elections with this new language. The representatives of the ‘Fridays for Future’ generation, with all those images of the globe drawn on them and the green combat stripes on their cheeks, under heavy backpacks as they head to protest, have thought of different ways of using all those soundtracks and effects. But recently, TikTok has been getting more and more political. The striking case was that of the American teenager Feroza Aziz who, in the midst of a fake makeup tutorial, came out like this: “And now you can use your mobile phone to inform you about what the Chinese are doing to the minority of Uyghur Muslims, closing them in concentration camps and forced detention.” Nobody, however, would have expected that a dangerous pitfall for Beijing would be hidden behind that 17 year old. Feroza was banned from the social network, who then readmitted her and apologized, claiming that her profile had been obscured for reasons other than her last post. A small, but very important political gesture by a young girl who challenged the obscurantism of Beijing, enhancing the positive side of social networks. 

Feroza was a unique case, but not an isolated one. Another is that of Alex Jackson, a British teenager who in a video (recently deleted) “fired” with his fingers the reasons for voting Boris Johnson: “He only says lies, choose Labor”, he concluded in the days preceding the vote on December 12th. In the United States, climate-related videos have started to shoot. Using the effects on the faces that were once the preserve of specific apps, such as Banuba (i.e. wrinkles, rainbow hair, fire or ice coming out of the mouth, make-up, rasta) and the editing, several TikTokers would show themselves aging quickly, while the years passed down to the year 3000, and their mouths would spit out latex gloves or pieces of plastic, with distressing musical backgrounds. 

In addition to using TikTok for global warming campaigns, or to launch a student strike, young Americans are using the platform to talk about historical injustices: for example, a ballet on a rap base by Lil Keed that stages different stages of European colonization in Africa has been liked half a million times. Another vein was that of the shootings in American schools: a user, without having planned the post, uploaded a video in which he danced happily and was shopping online in preparation to go back to school, buying bulletproof clothes on the notes of the song “Bulletproof”. Instead, “Paper Planes” by M.I.A., was the soundtrack to a video in which an American and an English student had different reactions to the gunshots that are heard during the song. 

Why do teenagers like this platform so much? I venture for three reasons. First, because unlike other social media it is “clean”: it is not yet invaded by advertising or fake news nor dominated by influencers. It allows for pleasant navigation and a rather strong sense of community. Second, because it has the most intuitive (and advanced) video-audio editing system in the world. Third, because by its nature it hosts timeless videos (not related to actuality) and without language barriers (not related to words). What distinguishes it from Instagram? According to many experts, the disappearance of “anxiety to appear cool”. Unlike Instagram, by its nature TikTok forces you to undress any superstructure and appear in a positively embarrassing way (“cringe” is the most used adjective in America): while dancing, while singing out of tune, while making unusual faces. It keeps you entertained while shooting and editing your video, and tries to keep you from being judged once you place it on the platform. The mission is evident, to feel free to express oneself by exploiting creativity freed from the rules of any kind. And its users know it well!

As things are moving quickly, it may be that young people also soon abandon TikTok by swarming on another social, or it may be that this social should be kept an eye on as a new way of communicating to young people and above all to understand them.

TikTok is characterized by a visual language that favors very simple, direct, clear messages. The key is entertainment. But it is not said that you cannot tell a story with 15 seconds of video. UNICEF and the European Union have recently done so to raise awareness on the issue of children’s rights, by opening an account and creating a specific #therealchallenge challenge. The Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have campaigned for the climate (#ForClimate), while the World Economic Forum has an account in which it deals with crucial issues for the future of the world. Yet, in the hands of a politician TikTok can become dangerous. Easy to turn into a speck thinking to entertain an audience of children (as shown by the Salvini case, the only politician with Julián Castro to try).

So politics in TikTok format? It works if you have affinity with the medium, and if you know how to use your gestures intelligently, which on this platform are the real vehicle of messages. It does not work, if you want to be “youthful” at all costs: young people, the real ones, notice it and reject the attitude. I am curious to see above all if and how the institutions will use it, from the European Union to the presidency of the “People’s” Republic, and the big news outlets.

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