how tiktok has become a political tool

“I think banning TikTok is taking away a huge platform for young people to organize through; however, knowing our generation, it won’t hold us back."

Source: the New York Times

Throughout quarantine, TikTok has been a diversion for young people to escape the realities of staying at home. Dancing, singing, and comedy Vine-esque videos created a community for young people to express themselves. However, in recent months, the political community on TikTok has been thrust into the spotlight, especially through the documentation of Black Lives Matter protests. Trump has now vowed to ban the app in America, leaving the estimated 100 million American TikTok users questioning, how exactly did we get here?

As protests have ripped through the nation in the wake of rampant police brutality, specifically the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, young people have used TikTok as a tool of education and a source for information mainstream news sources haven’t been covering. Sadhana Mandala, a young activist and organizer has only been using TikTok since March but recognizes the importance of the app in the current political landscape. “The TikTok political community consists of mainly teenagers and young adults on both sides of the isle posting 60-second videos advocating or raising awareness for political issues. Some popular trends include sexual assault awareness, voting, abortion rights, and most prominently documenting Black Lives Matter protests and the blatant violence and abuse of power by police on peaceful protestors,” she says. “[D]uring the Black Lives Matter protests in Boston, the train stations were shut down leaving protestors trapped with no way of getting home. The news channels did not cover this topic [but] many young students posted this information on TikTok alerting all the other protestors on [a] safe way to avoid police violence.”

The TikTok community is predominantly young people, with MarketingCharts TikTok data finding that over 50% of users are between 18-34 years old. Young people are an important voting block who, unfortunately, continue to fail in casting a ballot. According to the United States Elections Project, voter turnout for those aged 18-29 in 2016 was only 43%. In the coming election, establishment Democrats are looking to young people to show up and cast a vote. According to Mandala, “mobilizing young people is the way to win elections because we don’t follow the rules set forth for us, but instead we find new, creative ways to push for an ideal and organize for a better future.” An important tool for education among young people is social media like TikTok. But Trump’s recent attacks on the app have called into question whether young people will have access to TikTok in the coming weeks.

In late June, young people on TikTok, ironically prompted by a 51-year-old grandmother from Iowa named Mary Jo Laupp, were encouraged to register for Trump’s Tulsa rally and not show up. Teenagers all across America, specifically K-pop stans, ordered tickets for the event. Trump boasted about his presumed rally attendance, tweeting that “Almost One Million people requested tickets for the Saturday Night Rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma!” 100,000 were expected to attend, overflowing outside of the arena, but only 19,000 showed, additionally bring up such rallies as controversial during COVID-19.

This debacle calls into question Trump’s motives for his war on TikTok. Over the past month, Trump has expressed interest in banning the app with an executive order. Many are wondering whether Trump is actually worried about Chinese surveillance or if he is only interested in a political win against China. Recently, during an interview, Trump praised the arrests of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, indicating that perhaps he’s not as worried about surveillance as he claims. We would be remiss to ignore the criticisms of TikTok as a tool of censorship and surveillance in China, but banning the app is not the only route for government action. In 2019, the US government acquired dating app Grindr from Beijing Kulun Tech after it was deemed a security risk, which suggests a possible option for TikTok.

The ownership of TikTok is still a fraught issue. Microsoft has expressed interest in buying the app, but if Bytedance doesn’t make a deal and TikTok is banned (as it was in India) young people will have to find another platform for their creative and political expression. Mandala isn’t worried. “I think banning TikTok is taking away a huge platform for young people to organize through; however, knowing our generation, it won’t hold us back. We will continue to organize for political change regardless of the power structures that try to silence our voice because the young people in this country are motivated and have a clear goal in mind: Removing Donald Trump from the White House and revolutionizing politics to advocate for social change. Banning TikTok is just another hurdle we will have to jump through in our fight for progressive change.”

Jocelin Dell is a 17 year-old writer who lives in Connecticut. Some of her favorite things are sushi, Little Women, rollerskating, angry girl music of the indie rock persuasion, going for long walks in the woods, her two dogs (Brady and Evie), and The Beatles. You can follow Jocelin on Instagram at @jocelindell.



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