TikTok: The Future of Social Media Activism?

Amidst the craziness of the world right now, and lockdown 2.0 stretching ahead of us, social media is both our escape from our present and one of our most valuable tools for connection. Apps such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook can be seen as some of the most powerful ways to observe current events and most importantly, to share vital information. Within this, the popular choice to use newer apps such as TikTok as platforms for social media activism has been widely remarked on. Although not a new observation, the impact of TikTok’s evolution from an app largely focused upon entertainment, such as viral dance videos and comedy challenges, to a space used to politically educate and expand social engagement has greatly interested me, especially given the context of our increased reliance on the digital during current Covid19 times. 

Like many other social media apps, TikTok may be seen as a clear way to procrastinate and mindlessly scroll. Unlike apps such as Instagram and Twitter, TikTok’s circulation of short videos deliberately targets the viewer’s engagement through a personalised ‘For You’ page based on an algorithm of previously liked videos, giving it a somewhat ‘addictive’ quality. Yet, not to be underestimated, I have been surprised at the amount of new insight which can be gained from time spent watching these mere 20 to 30 second videos. Moreover, TikTok’s nature as an app targeted to appeal to younger audiences may make it a valuable tool, one that has been greatly adopted by Gen Z. Indeed, the attribution of an empty Trump rally back in June to TikTok users fakely reserving seats is evidential of how the app has been used with political motivations. In light of the ongoing pandemic, the circulation of videos from an American university student sharing his experience of isolation for Covid19 also increased awareness of the reality that many students are currently facing across the globe. Personally, my own viewing of TikTok videos showing student protests against fencing around Manchester University accommodation was my first point of knowledge for these events, even before hearing the national news the next morning. This act of ‘going viral’ on apps like TikTok is not only one of the key ways in which news is now distributed, but is the future of a more immediate kind of activism that appeals to the Gen Z community.

The move from many social media activists to establish their own platforms on TikTok is also evidence of the impact of this app on further awareness of key issues. Activists such as Gina Martin, who campaigned for and led the passing of a law which criminalised upskirting in the UK, is just one of many examples of activists who have migrated to TikTok to increase engagement. Over the past few months, TikTok, like other social media platforms, has also been key in distributing information for the Black Lives Matter movement, be that raising awareness, circulating petitions, or sharing details for upcoming protests. Indeed, a study conducted by Reach3 Insights states how 94% of TikTok users believed that it had helped create meaningful action for the BLM movement, and 77% said it had helped them expand their knowledge of wider social and political topics. Even the US election, a weighing presence on everyone’s minds during the past few weeks, also has ties to TikTok. In addition to the aforementioned implications for one of Trump’s rallies, the creation of TikTok campaigns such as ‘TikTok for Biden’ have been viewed as instrumental to encouraging younger audiences to exercise their right to vote. Early voting statistics found that more than 3 million early ballots cast belonged to the 18-29 age category, and 2 million of these votes were in ‘battleground’ states which would go on to have a key impact on the election’s outcome. While TikTok may not have single handedly triggered this, the proclamation from a CNN article that the app may be seen as the ‘latest political battlefield in the 2020 election’ is recognition of the app’s key influence in connecting individuals, and facilitating wider social and political engagement. 

Yet, while this piece has largely focused on the positive aspects of TikTok, it cannot be forgotten that TikTok, like other social media, is far from perfect. In May, many creators took part in a ‘Blackout’, changing their profile photos to images of ‘Power Fists’ in protest after TikTok’s community guidelines led to the concealment of many posts under hashtags related to BLM. In light of this, TikTok’s ability to share information and facilitate political awareness has been questioned. Furthermore, this temporary banning or ‘shadowbanning’ was also accused of being targeted towards LGBT+ creators after research undertaken by The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), further highlighting some of the key issues with circulation of information on TikTok; especially when a ‘shadow ban’ does not inform the creator that their content has been hidden. TikTok’s personal appeal by showing viewers videos like ones they have previously interacted with may also be seen as a downfall, limiting users and preventing them from interacting with new content and audiences. In addition, other issues with TikTok as a platform are also highly apparent. TikTok’s ability to display trending videos has been faulted through the claim that the app is a key perpetuator of ‘performance activism’, as many users may hop on the bandwagon of trending hashtags purely to increase their popularity and views, rather than to authentically campaign for a cause. 

In light of all of this, can TikTok really be considered the future of social media activism? Though TikTok’s recent promise to ‘crack down’ on hate speech highlights that the app and the space of social media itself has a long road of improvement ahead, I wonder whether TikTok more broadly can be seen as evidence of the power of popular media as a lens for activism. Neglecting TikTok as a platform in itself, perhaps Gen Z’s ability to turn an app viewed by nature as ‘unserious’ and purely ‘for entertainment’ suggests hope for the upcoming generation, one which uses social media to educate around social issues and campaign for social justice; as TikTok’s own slogan suggests, “trends start here”.