TikTok: Gen Z and the art of political expression

10 June 2020

Written by: Phoebe Doyle

As the most downloaded app of 2019, 41 percent of TikTok users are teenagers. How are young people using the video-sharing app to express their political views?

ABC journalist Andrew Probyn probably never expected he would be a viral TikTok sensation, or become a household name for many Australian teens.  Sparked by a COVID-19 press conference, the ‘Andrew, you don’t run the press conference’ meme features Prime Minister Scott Morrison telling Probyn that he has had his turn at asking the questions. 

“Andrew, I’m sorry, Andrew, I know, but you don’t run the press conference, okay,” the Prime Minister said during the press conference. “So, I’m going to go to other questions of members of the group. Katherine hasn’t had a question. I’m happy to return to you, but let’s just keep things civil.”

Teens pounced on this funny moment in a critical press conference, taking to video-sharing app TikTok to create remixes and short videos of the interaction between Probyn and Morrison.

This example shows that young people are not only interested in politics, and how they use social media apps like TikTok as a way to express their views and as a platform for political conversation.

Formerly known as Musical.ly, TikTok is an app that allows users to create and share short videos up to a minute long. Drawing from a database of sounds and filters, content creators often film themselves lip-syncing or dancing to popular trends.

TikTok first came to Dr Milovan Savic’s attention back in 2016, when he was conducting an ethnographic study of families with preteen children and how they negotiate the use of social media.

“At that time, most preteens in my sample were all over Musical.ly while their parents paid very little attention to it … making TikTok an adult-free online space. Very attractive to young people as you can imagine,” Dr Savic told upstart.

A lot of the content posted on TikTok is considered to be ‘goofy’, with silly dances and lip-sync videos making up the majority of posts. But Dr Savic believes that social media like TikTok is a key outlet for self-expression for young people, and in these funny videos underlies a form of political expression.

“They do it there in a more subtle way – for example, they might use lip-syncing over political speech; or they can make say make-up tutorial video while narrating political message over it, or just by using certain hashtags. It’s not easy to pinpoint one particular or dominant way of political expression,” he said.

Some TikTok users are not afraid to dig into the archives to get their message across as well, with Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech re-trending as political content creators lip-sync over the famous monologue. Despite being 8-years-old, the speech still brings up important issues surrounding sexism and feminism.

 It is the particular features of TikTok that is the basis of its appeal for its target demographic.

“TikTok, in a way, presents a mash of Snapchat, YouTube and Instagram – all very popular among youth anyway. Mixing all these features, while making it extremely simple to use – a recipe for success,” Dr Savic said.

Having over 800 million active users worldwide, the video-sharing app is quickly becoming one of the most used social media apps in the world, with around 40 percent of its users aged between 16 and 24. Because of its younger demographic, TikTok has become a breeding ground for political conversations, whether they are satirical like in the case of Probyn and the press conference, or a little more solemn like Gillard’s misogyny speech.

But what does it mean to the app now that actual politicians are jumping aboard and taking the light-hearted feel of political conversation to another level?

Vice President of Global Business Solutions and TikTok, Blake Chandlee, released a statement in October 2019 banning political advertising, suggesting the app shouldn’t be a place for politics.

“We’re intent on always staying true to why users uniquely love the TikTok platform itself: for the app’s light-hearted and irreverent feeling that makes it such a fun place to spend time,” Chandlee said.

“To that end, we will not allow paid ads that promote or oppose a candidate, current leader, political party or group, or issue at the federal, state, or local level – including election-related ads, advocacy ads, or issue ads.”

Taylor Herbertson, a 21-year-old TikTok creator from Sydney, believes politics is definitely discussed on the app without being over the top.

“I don’t think [TikTok is] inherently political, but like any social media, it definitely can be. The algorithm and non-chronological nature of the app makes it easier to make political content without being a solely political account,” she told upstart.

Herbertson feels that the content politicians post is very important in capturing this young demographic, and believes that while it may not fit with a politicians ‘brand’, they would need to be posting ‘goofy’ content in order to keep with the tone of the app and its target audience. 

“I think that people on TikTok are happy to joke and complain and talk about politics but not in the serious, debate natured way that some other platforms, for example Twitter, might be used.”

This is a view that is also shared by Dr Savic.

“Swamping [TikTok with] political content, especially in a more traditional understanding what political content is, I am afraid it can have the opposite effect – for example, do you see many young people on Twitter?”

However, this hasn’t stopped politicians like Daniel Andrews from creating an account.

“Politicians tend to see young people as ‘future voters’, hence probably if they want to engage with them the best is to be where young people are. However, this can probably backfire too depending on the ways how that engagement would be done,” he said.

Taking a socio-constructivist approach to social media in general, Dr Savic believes the users shape how different platforms are used.

“If young people want to convey a certain message, they will find a way – and it will most likely be through the tools they have at hand – it might be TikTok or some other medium.”

 


Article: Phoebe Doyle is a second-year Media and Communications student (Journalism) at La Trobe University. You can follow her on Twitter @phoebedoyle_

Photo: Tikok App Iphone by antonbe  available HERE and used under a Creative Commons Attribution. The image has not been modified