From Our Phones to the Polls: How TikTok is Cultivating a New Era of Political Engagement

Before COVID-19, the end of summer would have signified packed back-to-school gatherings and campuses across the country bustling with their usual crowd. Now, students are tuned into their lectures behind their webcams, replacing classrooms and lecture halls with their own dorms and apartments. In exchange for face-to-face study groups, Hangout and Facetime have replaced visits to Starbucks and the library.

With social distancing guidelines, the Internet has become essential for learning, working, communicating, and a source for fast, accessible news updates. And now more than ever, people are getting involved in the political process through the one forum that is highly accessible, somewhat unregulated, and can reach millions of people in seconds: the Internet, and specifically, an app called TikTok. But where did it come from, and what exactly is it?

The Rise of TikTok

In 2017, ByteDance, a technology company operated out of Beijing, China launched the short-form video app called TikTok; the next year, the widely popular application became available to the US market. Since 2018, TikTok has grown exponentially, with over 2 billion downloads on the App Store and Google Play as of earlier this year. The platform serves  91.9 million monthly active users in the United States as of June 2020. In essence, TikTok is a short form video sharing platform, where users can film themselves in 15 to 60 second clips, typically accompanied by audio files or music, and share them with their network of followers to view, share, and duet with.

What makes TikTok so addictive and intriguing is the advanced machine-learning capabilities of the algorithms that the platform utilizes to select content based on user data, such as location and videos that they have interacted with, to provide a feed specifically tailored to each individual. Many users have found ways to employ these algorithms to work in their favor, liking and engaging with certain content to curate their feed to whichever “side” of TikTok they wish to be on, whether it’s the odd subgenres of “Alt TikTok” or the newer, politically oriented side.

As a result of the app’s heavy reliance on individual ideas and engagement, its users have begun utilizing it as a platform to express political views, fact-check candidates, and form ideological coalitions, thus making TikTok one of the most prominent new mediums for political participation. One 17–year-old user stated, “I feel like I am making an impact on the election even though I can’t vote.” Within these political coalitions, known as “hype houses,” users are encouraged to contribute information and personal views, some in the form of making fun of opposite party candidates, in addition fact-check candidates on both sides of the aisle. Two of the largest hype houses on TikTok are @thedemhypehouse, which has amassed over 140,000 followers, and @therepublicanhypehouse, which holds a staggering 850,000-plus follower base.

Some of these coalitions have gained such a significant amount of momentum, that they have expanded to additional platforms. The Republican Hype House (RHH) has created a website where other users can become affiliates, shop merch, and learn more about RHH and it’s affiliated hype houses for conservative women and men respectively, “The Republican Girls” and “The Republican Boys.” The Democrat Hype House has used their TikTok platform to disseminate information on various social issues, post online petitions, and link users to sites where they can register to vote. However, the politics of TikTok has taken on a life of its own through clashes of the technology company, ByteDance, with the United States government.

In the Interest of National Security: The Politics of TikTok

In June of this year, a social media campaign on the app made national headlines. The Trump Campaign had reported that about 1 million people had registered to attend a rally in Tulsa, controversial due to the blatant disregard of CDC recommendations on large gatherings and the fact that the rally was planned to be held on Juneteenth, amid Black Lives Matter protests. When the day came, the 19,000 seat occupancy arena stood mostly empty. Due to an underground trend on TikTok, thousands of users registered for free tickets for the rally, and then just never showed. Users deleted these videos after 24-48 hours to keep their plans from making it to the “mainstream internet.”

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted in response to the Trump Campaign, “Actually you just got ROCKED by teens on TikTok who flooded the Trump campaign w/ fake ticket reservations & tricked you into believing a million people wanted your white supremacist open mic enough to pack an arena during COVID.” This is one of the first demonstrations of TikTok’s power to mobilize people politically, and many believe the source of backlash against the app from the Chief Executive.

Aboard Air Force One in early August, President Trump stated, “As far as TikTok is concerned, we’re banning them from the United States.” On August 2, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cited national security risks that warranted action from the President against TikTok, associated with user data being transferred to the Chinese Communist Party. A spokesman from the consulting firm, Special Counsel, who conducted a review from July to October of 2019 on where TikTok sent their user data, concluded that there was no way TikTok had been sending data to China during that time period. One of TikTok’s heads of public policy, Theo Betram, stated “The suggestion that we are in any way under the thumb of the Chinese government is completely and utterly false.” On August 4, President Trump released an executive order that would ban the Chinese-based app on September 20, unless they sell all U.S.-based business to a U.S.-based company within 45 days.

Throughout the month of August, American companies such as Microsoft, Walmart, and Oracle all submitted bids to ByteDance to get their shot at owning the booming social media platform, but it remained unclear whether a front-runner would emerge, or if a deal could be achieved at all. On Friday, it was announced that TikTok and WeChat, two applications owned and operated by Chinese companies, would be pulled from the app store on Sunday, making it unable to download for potential users and software updates unavailable for current users.

However, in a shocking development Saturday evening, one day prior to the ban going into effect, TikTok announced that it would partner with Oracle Corp. and Walmart Inc. to become a new, U.S.-based company. Trump has stated that he agreed with the deal “in concept,” and has pushed back the deadline another week before the apps get pulled from U.S. stores due to the positive developments regarding the sale. Although the acquisition of the app has become more concrete, the parameters of the ban are still unclear, leaving TikTok to a questionable future.

The Road Ahead

The threat of TikTok being banned has already caused many users to turn to alternative social media platforms, such as Byte. However, 41% of Generation Z state that the Executive Order had no impact over their use of the app. This is a positive sign that the political commentators of TikTok are here to stay, but there are concerns over what the future of the app is in the hands of new owners. Some believe that bias may have played a role in the deal between ByteDance and Oracle; the company’s chief executive served on the president’s transition team following the 2016 election, and co-founder and chairman Larry Ellison hosted a fundraiser for Trump earlier this year.

Trump stated in August that Oracle was a “great company” that “could handle buying TikTok, but refused to comment on preference between Oracle and Microsoft as buyers. The situation of the sale has been unprecedented and unusual, as the president is demanding payment to the Treasury for the role that the U.S. government has played in orchestrating the deal.

The unexpected clash of the government with the popular social media app may have an impact on the November presidential election. Prior to November, an estimated 14 million young people will have turned 18 since 2016, being eligible to vote in a presidential election for the first time. New voters will be critical in deciding the outcome of the 2020 election, with voter turnout rates of adults age 18-29 reaching record highs in recent years; in 2018, this demographic experienced a 79% jump in overall voter turnout for the midterm elections.

In a national poll, individuals within this age category oppose the TikTok ban at a 52% rate. Ashleigh Hunniford, a 17 year-old creator on TikTok told the New York Times it “is an outlet for a lot of protest and activism and people talking about their political beliefs. Banning that would not carry well among people my age.” The youth of TikTok have already demonstrated their ability to organize en masse, but only time will tell if the digital activism of today can translate to the poll box in the future.

By: Jada Csonka

Published by Jada Csonka

Jada is a former Staff Writer, Associate Editor, and Managing Editor for LPR. She graduated from UofL in May 2020 with her BA in Political Science, and will graduate in December 2021 with her MA in Digital Politics. Jada is interested in LGBTQ+ issues, public policy, and the impact of social media.

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