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TikTok x Politics: Change, Misinformation and Creation

Trends and Insight 77 Add to collection

Laura Costello and Fiona O’Grady explore the collision of TikTok with political worlds

TikTok x Politics: Change, Misinformation and Creation

“An astonishing amount of people are learning about the invasion of Ukraine through digital creators who have begun to cover it. We take that really seriously, and are working to make sure those creators have the ability to have their q's answered.” Rob Flaherty, Director of Digital Strategy at The White House via Twitter

The power of TikTok in a socio-political context can’t be ignored. ‘Behind the scenes’ and explainer style content on TikTok is changing how war is reported and interpreted by the masses. Millions of people are turning to TikTok as a key source to get real time insight into what’s happening in Ukraine. The White House recently hosted a briefing for TikTok content creators on the war in Ukraine to help them make more sense of the crisis and communicate more effectively. They were told about strategic goals and asked senior staff about Ukrainian aid distribution and working with NATO.  We’re exploring the collision of TikTok with political worlds, with themes of misinformation, creativity and youth creators at the fore.

 

NON STOP UPDATES, MISINFORMATION & TIMES OF CHANGE 

“Those who have an audience can ideally set the tone for how others decide to assess and amplify what they see online…”  Jules Terpak, Gen Z content creator 

In the Ukraine context we’ve seen invading troops, grief, life from a bomb shelter, and even dangerous propoganda spread through the app. It’s a source of visual explainers and ‘always on’ updates. For example, US TikToker Aaron Parnas has been providing news updates via his channel. He’s hosted TikTok live streams discussing the events to over 800k people. Since the initial invasion he’s posted daily videos breaking down the news throughout the day. 

However, it’s no surprise that TikTok’s growing political content is raising concerns. Among Russian youth, TikTok echo chambers are being highlighted as a risk. This is a special risk on TikTok due to its unique algorithm:

“Do you ever wonder why the videos users see throughout their feeds are always geared towards their likings, even when they do not follow any particular creators? Or why one’s “For You” page is filled with content that aligns exactly with one’s political affiliations, even if they do not regularly follow politics? The answer is the Tiktok algorithm, which works in accordance with several metrics to gauge users’ opinions and effectively transform their feeds into political echo chambers.” Harvard Politics

An investigation found that TikTok influencers were being paid to spread pro-Russian narratives at the beginning of the invasion. Organised via a Telegram channel, campaigns have been created by telling creators which audio, emojis and text to use in videos calling on Russians to ‘unite at this time of conflict’. This highlights how quickly misinformation can spread on (seemingly democratized) channels like this and how important it is for people to be cautious around bite-sized and highly politicized digital content.

 

CONTROLLING DIGITAL MEDIA IN WARTIME 

"I feel it's like my mission to show people how it looks in real life. That it's real life, and I'm here." Valeria Shashenok (TikToker/Photographer) via CNN

TikTok has reacted with a promise to focus and prioritize the safety of their community by bringing more context on the platform. This includes trialing adding labels to state controlled accounts and adding digital literacy tips to the discover page. 

However, the impact of a new Russian fake news law is a big blow for those living in the region. The implications of this mean TikTok is suspending live streaming and new content, while Meta services like Instagram have also been banned (having been branded an extremist organisation by Russia). These popular platforms have been important methods of communications between Russian people with friends and family around the world, creating an even bigger disconnect with what is happening around the world and in Russia.

The implications of this is creating a “a splinternet” according to Tracking.exposed, an EU non-profit. The risk of this, according to their recent report, implies that “by making foreign content unavailable in Russia, TikTok is isolating Russian users from the rest of the world, leaving them exposed to only pro-war Russian propaganda.”

 

CIVIL DISCOURSE & GEN Z 

Outside of the Ukrainian and Russian contexts, there are lots of young content creators using the app to express and advance political viewpoints or activist/education tools. Take the example of Indonesian youth using the app to protest against amendments to labor laws. Other groups like EcoTok for example, bring creators together who make videos about similar themes (in this case climate). The group's goal is ‘to empower the younger generations to do something about it by teaching them about science, activism, and ways to make changes in their own life.’ There’s also Gen Z for Change - a  coalition of 500+ creators and activists ‘fighting for progressive change to promote civil discourse and political action among our generation.’ Gen Z for change spoke about the White House Ukraine briefing (and subsequent SNL jabs) saying “....we have a collective following of over half a billion people, reaching more Americans every day than CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News combined. Our reach is undeniable… We will be leading the efforts in inspiring our generation to vote, unionize, and organize everywhere and in large numbers…” In just one year, Gen-Z for Change reportedly took down the Tezas pro-life Whistleblower website, generated over 45k signatures against Florida’s Don’t Say Gay Bill and captured 150k signatures in 48 hours to help an Afghan family get humanitarian parole.

 

BRAND TAKEOUTS

While it’s still a fun and engaging space, it’s time to think beyond the dance routines and give serious consideration to TikTok in planning as more and more people get their news from the platform. 

A risk with TikTok’s algorithm is that once a piece has started to gain views and traction, it can escalate quickly and doesn’t allow for time to question sources or authenticity. This content can exist within echo chambers, with groups of people who consume the same kind of content creating a false narrative that their content feeds while accounts “profit” from the views and seem more real (as seen with on Instagram too). Be critical of the source of content and viral trends. Is it being posted for views or is it genuine news?

However, no matter what you’re doing on TikTok, doing it authentically and embracing the platform’s community and creativity is key to success. Speaking about Lucozade’s recent TikTok campaign, Zoe Trimble, Head of Marketing, Lucozade Suntory Beverage & Food, UK & Ireland noted the importance of understanding TikTok culture and tapping into its network of creators to achieve success on the platform:  “By rooting the idea in TikTok culture and working in partnership with iconic TikTok stars - this fame-driving TikTok campaign demonstrates how powerful it is when youth insights combine with new social media formats and Creators to land a new brand in culture.”


By Laura Costello, strategy director, Purpose & Planet and Fiona O’Grady, content strategy director at THINKHOUSE

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THINKHOUSE, Tue, 22 Mar 2022 14:12:44 GMT