“Trigger warning. I exist, I love Trump,” tells me a girl standing in front of an overtly fake image of the 2016 US election victory results with the grainy statement ‘try to impeach this’. The young girl is wearing a Trump sweatshirt while laughing and making cute funny faces, like in one of those old-days Snapchat videos with flower crowns.
Similarly to what has just recently happened in Great Britain, the approaching presidential elections in the US have produced a new flood of more or less truthful messages on TikTok, where it has become very common to encounter pro-Trump and alt-right posts. Political content on social media is already an established reality, constituting the most lucrative aspect of political communication.
Starting with Obama—the ‘first social-media President’—and moving on to Trump, the online communication of politics has experienced a nuanced evolution, finding in targeted messages its privileged weapon for consensus. While Trump himself still sticks to more traditional channels, TikTok has recently attracted a small number of politicians from across the world, who stiffly try to adapt and modulate their own agenda according to these new semantic codes, sharing videos of them drinking fruit juice (don’t ask), doing awkward little dances or shaking hands with law enforcement to music. They are not afraid of making a fool of themselves as long as the public reacts.
Although it may seem like a natural evolution within the life cycles of every new social platform, I believe this may represent a particular alarming phenomenon. TikTok is especially popular among teenagers—about 60 per cent of users are between 16 and 24 years old, but an important segment is even younger—a significant pool of emerging eligible voters who are still developing their political identity and are particularly reactive to visual and emotional messages. The decision to address this specific audience should not be considered fortuitous or naive, as it responds to a broader strategy carried on by the far-right for years, aimed at breeding a new generation of voters and militants.
As other major social platforms slowly initiated removing accounts promoting violence and hate speech, a considerable number of these users migrated to TikTok, bringing with them a highly defined and recognizable visual language that has found great success among the youngest users of the app. Most of the content referable to the alt-right is actually being produced by them. Often contextualised as jokes, the posts stand out for the aggressiveness of their message, generally xenophobic and reactionary.
Digital strategists say the popularity of Trump videos reflects the way TikTok’s algorithm works by rewarding content that generates strong reactions and great engagement. The popularity of specific content could then also respond to a need for visibility. The production and sharing of these posts occurs within a very heterogeneous but demographically consistent audience, who is generally starting to form its own opinion on complex and delicate issues.
Nevertheless, this kind of content is framed in a familiar and entertaining format—consuming political messages alongside cringe-worthy choreographies. The platform’s infrastructure actively promotes random collaboration among users by means of ‘duets’, creating a meme-chain in which each message can get endlessly reworked and distorted. As pointed by Joshua Citarella, “catchy aesthetics can transmit ideas that make you laugh first and radicalise later.” In the flow of hectic and erratic content, a message can get lost in a glimpse, as well as make inroads for increasingly targeted messages.
Over the last year, TikTok has become the go-to app for political activism for gen Z. The spike of political videos has been observed as an important part of the development of the platform, which has represented for a long time a safe space for many marginalised groups and subcultures. A new ecosystem in which they began building new linguistic and identity tools.
Going back to the analysis of Citarella, as digital cultural nichification produces highly polarised communities, most gen Zers are first exposed to right-wing propaganda as children, building over time a type of meme-literacy that lacks equally strong alternative references. Getting caught in this rabbit hole filled with MAGA hats, smiling girls-next-door telling women to go back to the kitchen and stock up on rifles, one may have the alarming impression that gen Z is progressively embracing conservative values.
In times of declining wealth, climate crisis and increasingly unsettling working and living conditions, irony then becomes a political strategy. Nevertheless, it is hard to distinguish how much awareness and conviction lies behind these posts, or if it just is an endless and shallow identity play.
The internet cannot be neutral and will never be—and this is part of its potential and power. In October, TikTok stated the decision to ban paid political ads on the platforms, in line with its mission to “inspire creativity and build joy.” However, censorship and de-platforming have been proved not to be effective long-term solutions to the spread of hate speech, misinformation and propaganda. The nature of the platform has some unexpressed potential that is not ours to develop or foster. Political content is organically being produced and shared by many different users, often in an original and positive way. Dear boomers, millennials or whatever, let’s go back to our Twitter rant and leave TikTok alone.
Over the past year and a half, TikTok has been rapidly taking over Southeast Asia, and has made impressive strides in the U.S. and Europe, situating itself as the next ‘it’ app in the social media landscape. Alas, the 15-second video app has been used as a vehicle of egregious hate speech, racist vitriol, and violent attacks, particularly in India.
An investigation by WIRED revealed that thousands across India have taken to TikTok to spread racist and violent messages against members of groups who are perceived to be lower than them on the caste system’s social ladder.
In one case, Venkataraman, a 28-year-old man in the state of Tamil Nadu, had posted a video in which he drunkenly yelled racial slurs against the Dalits—the group ranked lowest in India’s Hindu caste system. “Fight us if you are a real man, you Dalit dogs. You bastards are worthless in front of us. We’ll butcher you lowlifes,” Venkataraman was seen saying in the video, which he claimed he shot at the encouragement of his 18-year-old friend. As the video went viral, a wave of protests broke out in the area, and Dalit demanded that acion be taken against Venkataraman. The latter then placed the blame for video and the backlash on his friend, whom he then strangled to death.
Overall, tens of thousands of TikTok videos have reportedly promoted hate speech and contained casteist-inspired hashtags. Over a two-month period this summer, WIRED came across 500 TikTok videos that included caste-based hate, incitement for violence, and threats. In a growing number of cases, the rapid proliferation and ubiquity of such hate speech encourages people to take the fight off of the screen and commit acts of violence in real life. Thus far, 18 incidents of violence (ten of which resulted in deaths) were linked either directly or indirectly to TikTok in India.
Responding to the investigation, TikTok stated that, “The team had identified the videos cited before WIRED contacted us and were in the removal process, but we continuously work to improve our capabilities to do even better.” The company has also appointed a special grievance officer to India in August.
Yet, court documents procured by WIRED reveal that the company currently fails to curb the volume of hate speech spreading on its platform in India. Over a five-month period, between November 2018 and April 2019, TikTok removed 36,365 videos that breached its codes on hate speech and religion, and 12,309 videos that included dangerous behaviour and violence. And still the court documents reveal that only one out of ten of the overall videos reported (677,544) were eventually removed, and that those reported only account for 0.00006 percent of the total videos uploaded. While this data makes it difficult to measure the true impact of TikTok on the proliferation of hate speech in India, it indicates that the company simply fails to establish an effective screening mechanism to moderate content on its app.
“The problem with Tiktok is that they are not very open to advocacy or engaging with civil society. Not even to the standards of its American counterparts,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Equality Labs, a South Asian human rights group, adding that, “I think they’d rather pay the fines and don’t care.”
TikTok has also inspired the wrath of numerous lawmakers and judges in India, who have been vocal in their opposition to the app and its influence over the Indian population. At the request of the Indian Court system, which ruled that the app was disseminating “pornographic” and “inappropriate” content, Google and Apple removed TikTok from their app stores last April, and didn’t reinstate it until millions of additional videos were taken off the platform.
The power of social media platforms in exacerbating tensions and their role as potential vehicles of hate should not be taken lightly. It is true that TikTok is not the only company struggling to formulate a proper system to curb hate-speech and halt the spreading of misinformation, yet with its position as the most popular kid on the block, at least in Southeast Asia, comes an even greater responsibility to lead such efforts.
TikTok—get your act together.