TikTok, with its quirky dances, is sometimes thought of as a Gen Z platform. Yet if you use the app, you’ve probably come across videos from distinctly older political candidates.
Since 2020, the number of users on TikTok has increased by about 40%. And candidates have taken note. They post TikToks to reach younger audiences, make themselves seem likable and encourage people to vote.
“Political leaders, they have to adapt their style to essentially the platform that they’re going to,” said Joshua Scacco, professor of political communication at the University of South Florida. He likened the TikTok trend to then-President Bill Clinton’s appearance on MTV in 1994. “For Bill Clinton on MTV, it was a more personal style. TikTok takes that and amplifies it.”
But with a catch: TikTok doesn’t allow paid political advertising. “These types of bans and limitations on advertising might have the effect of limiting the spread and messaging of lesser-known candidates,” Scacco said.
Candidates like Kenneth Mejia, who’s running for Los Angeles city controller, a job he admits can sound a bit dry. “The city controller can audit, see spending or provide financial transparency,” Mejia added.
So Mejia took to TikTok. In one video, Mejia shakes his head in disgust at a pie chart of the current city budget. And then, he starts enthusiastically twerking in front of a screenshot of what he calls The People’s Budget.
He noticed that attaching a trendy audio track to his videos caused the algorithm to recommend it to more users. “We’d look at what we’re posting on Twitter or Instagram, and we ‘TikTokify’ it. That’s the word,” he said.
Still, candidates have to develop their own style and presentation in their TikToks. “Don’t hop on every single TikTok trend because that will violate the biggest ‘don’t,’ which is to be authentic,” said Shannon McGregor, a professor and researcher at the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Take U.S. Rep. Katie Porter of California. One of her TikToks went viral this month with a “Mean Girls” reference. Porter rolls down a window of her van, which has the words “Ballot Mobile” on the side. “Get in, loser. We’re going voting,” Porter shouts out her window.
McGregor said these kinds of witty, personal clips are the secret to successful TikTok videos. “They’re short, they’re funnier, they’re pithy, rather, and they’re less produced than we might see on things like Instagram or Facebook,” she added.
And, she said, the fact that young people on the platform are engaging with candidates and their messages means they’re more likely to engage with political and social issues too.
The Conversation has an article grading social media platforms on how they’ve dealt with election misinformation in the run-up to the midterms. While we’re on the topic of TikTok, an author in that Conversation piece gave the platform an “F” on overall readiness to tackle misinformation. The report also notes that TikTok has a growing problem with deepfake videos on its platform.
Digital watchdog organization Global Witness has research that outlines how, regardless of Facebook and TikTok’s policies on election mis- and disinformation, researchers were able to bypass them. For example, on Facebook, Global Witness researchers set up a dummy account and posted election ads that purposely listed an incorrect voting day.
Of the 10 English-language ads, two were approved, and out of the 10 Spanish-language ads, five were approved. They did the same on TikTok, and only one English ad and one Spanish ad were rejected.
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