This Tuesday, The Washington Post’s TikTok account, @washingtonpost, uploaded a video to the platform reminding users that the first presidential debate of the 2020 election season would be aired in a matter of hours. Captioned “There’s a #PresidentialDebate tonight!,” the video featured journalist Dave Jorgensen, representing The Washington Post, debating his business casual clad doppelgänger, who represents the “Traditional Media,” debating if Generation Z is aware of the upcoming debate. The video is simple, clever and relies on the slightly absurdist, awkward humor that has since become the platform’s signature as Jorgensen whips around to face the camera angled at the back of his head and smirks into the lens in sync with a cheesy reality TV show sound effect. I saw this video on my “For you” page, the stream of videos curated to each individual user’s tastes that behaves as the application’s home page, and I messaged it to my friend Emily, who replied that she had already seen it. We’re part of the 2.4 million people who have seen that video and the roughly 585,300 who have interacted with that video by liking it.
This is only one of the most timely anecdotes of TikTok spreading political awareness. In June, many on the social media platform mobilized users to antagonize the Trump campaign by registering for seats at his rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma but opting to stay home instead. Those reporting on the empty seats at the rally and deserted overflow space in the parking lot spoke of “TikTok teens” and their “prank” on the Trump administration. I can’t deny the accuracy of those labels, but the language used understates the power of TikTok to galvanize users and digitally engage them in movements. The public and the national media refuse to recognize the social media platform as an effective facilitator of social change, because of the app’s user demographic and design that is used to maximize the accessibility of video-making and posting.
TikTok’s user demographic is overwhelmingly dominated by young people, most of whom fit into the rough label of Generation Z, with 41 percent of users aged between 16 and 24. The application falls under the umbrella of “social media,” but it is distinct from other popular social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, which are used almost solely to maintain interpersonal connections online. TikTok is more interested in the creation of unique content, which is reflected in the high level of user engagement that is not only interacting with the videos they encounter (liking, commenting, sharing, etc.), but also creating videos. More than half of all TikTok users have created and posted their own videos, contributing to the constant stream of fresh and diverse content flooding the application since its launch in 2017.
The youthfulness of TikTok content creators and their fans, paired with the ease with which content created and spread, would give the impression that the platform is at best, a trending time-waster. At worst, it’s the newest way to brainwash American youth into developing minute attention spans and dependencies on being spoon-fed media by some shifty corporate overlord. Those who favor either of those reductionist views of TikTok often point to rise of Charli D’Amelio, an influencer who has amassed over 90 million followers after posting choreographed dancing videos. She’s arguably the most famous TikTok user to date, acting as a microcosm for the trivial nature of the platform. D’Amelio has partnered with Dunkin Donuts, a multibillion-dollar franchise, so that the public can order her signature iced coffee drink by name. Many pearl-clutchers react to D’Amelio’s fame and foray outside of the “For you” page with mystified disbelief, shaking their heads and saying that they “can’t believe what the world has come to.” They’re missing the point.
It doesn’t matter if your reaction is one of disgust, incredulity or admiration, because TikTok has still allowed one dancer to become internationally famous and embraced by a company whose enterprise value is beyond the threshold of our comprehension. It would be foolish to underestimate the power this app has to influence the national political dynamic as well. It’s true that TikTok is made by and for young adults, but that doesn’t mean it’s restricted to hormones and high school drama. On the contrary, young people are the most active age group when it comes to participating in social justice movements on social media. The Pew Research Center found that in June 2020, 44 percent of users aged 18 to 29 on social media encouraged others to take action on social issues and 54 percent of users in the same age group searched social media for information about rallies and protests. The Tulsa rally wasn’t some juvenile prank, The Washington Post’s video about the debate wasn’t some desperate grasp to appear relevant to young people. Let’s call them what they are: the new wave of political activism and discourse. TikTok allows users to get involved in movements from the comfort of their homes and the familiar glow of their phone screens, and it would be a mistake to overlook that.
Madelaine Hastings is a sophomore majoring in cross-cultural communications.