Amidst months of social unrest, one social media app has enraptured Gen Zers’ time and creativity and has allowed it to grow to nearly 100 million monthly active users in a relatively short life. The app, TikTok, distinguishes itself from other social media platforms in that it offers brief, often comedic videos to viewers and navigable, slick editing tools to creators. It also has the power to introduce younger audiences to serious political topics with friendlier and more accessible content. With 18 to 24-year-olds comprising 25.8% of its users, TikTok is engaging Gen Z at a much higher rate compared to Facebook with only 7%, Instagram with 14.5% or Twitter with 14%.
While ongoing drama between the United States and China has put TikTok in the spotlight as President Trump threatened to ban the app over privacy concerns, what hasn’t gained traction is how the app can be used by its most engaged demographic to help their peers understand and engage within the civic sphere.
As a student Ambassador at Towson University for the Andrew Goodman Vote Everywhere Program, I’ve worked for the past few years to engage and educate my peers across campus about the importance of political engagements through hosting voter registration drives, creating and distributing voter guides, hosting a conference centered around voter turnout and even advocating for student voting rights to state legislators. With COVID-19’s effects on our state’s upcoming general election, my team has had to adapt to new methods of outreach to continue our organizing efforts since we’ve lost access to traditional face-to-face interactions. TikTok provides the perfect avenue for our evolved strategy, as it allows us to create fun, informative and personalized content that has the potential to reach out even beyond the bounds of our campus.
TikTok’s organizing potential was demonstrated most prominently in the lead up to a rally for President Trump in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Teenagers and young adults organized on the app to RSVP, with no intention of attending, to bolster the predicted attendance numbers, much to the surprise of individuals who monitored turnout. The numbers that actually showed up were far from the estimated millions expected. While this event captured the attention of national news networks, there have been numerous forms of protest organized on the app, including an app-wide Blackout demonstration in support of Black content creators and the Black Lives Matter movement, in which millions of users on the app refrained from posting and changed their profile pictures to the Black Power fist in solidarity.
Creators on the app, as well as numerous influencers, have used TikTok for a variety of functions:
To share different perspectives: https://vm.tiktok.com/wM7FBU/
To educate their peers: https://vm.tiktok.com/wM83rW/
To organize protests: https://vm.tiktok.com/wMApuo/
And even to offer up their own political opinions: https://vm.tiktok.com/wMQ3BL/
My team at Towson University has plans to create content tailored towards improving turnout, providing credible news sources, and plenty more!
Using TikTok as an avenue to introduce younger audiences to politics and voting encourages healthy political engagement as we approach the upcoming presidential election. It’s important for the younger voting bloc — now the largest voting bloc in our country — to be more visible and better represented within our democracy. That’s the first step toward electing candidates and developing policies that address the issues that uniquely affect us, such as gun violence in schools, climate change and student debt.
The younger generation’s ability to organize and conduct mass outreach and mobilization through social media demonstrates that we are a force to be reckoned with, and the leaders of our country are starting to recognize that. The power wielded by our group has the potential to create significant change within our society. This point in our life serves as a crossroads that will determine the trajectory of our country — and is exactly the reason that we need to get out and demand that our voices be heard. We are the future, and it’s time for us to act like it.
Sophie Bertrand is a 2020 graduate of Towson University and an Andrew Goodman Foundation's Vote Everywhere ambassador.