TikTok users have busted out dance moves, honed their comedy chops and showcased pranking skills in quirky 15-second videos set to music. Now, as the US presidential campaign continues to heat up with Wednesday's Democratic primary presidential debate, they're filling the oddly addictive app with political opinions, too.
In an October video, TikTok user @lillithashworth speaks into a stick of deodorant as if it were a microphone while critiquing Democratic presidential candidates, whose photos pop up behind her. "I don't know who took Uncle Joe out [of] the nursing home," she says, referring to former Vice President Joe Biden, "but they need to put him back." The video, posted after last month's debate, has more than 2 million views.
Lillith Ashworth, the 18-year-old University of Michigan student who made the video, was caught off guard by the reaction. "A lot of people don't agree with me," said Ashworth, who has 26,000 followers and supports Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. "I'm fine with that because I'd rather have a platform which is geared towards younger people talking about politics."
Known for goofy lip-sync and dance videos, TikTok has quietly become a hub for political messaging over the past several months. Videos supporting President Donald Trump or one of the Democratic contenders pop up regularly, sandwiched between costume change videos set to CG5's Absolutely Anything and dance-offs at Walmart to Lizzo's Water Me. So do broader social commentaries that bait liberals or slam conservatives. The bite-size political messages, which can run as long as a minute but are often much shorter, appear to be showing up more frequently as the impeachment inquiry and election developments overwhelm the news cycle.
Unlike Twitter or Facebook, where candidates often have official accounts, almost all the political videos on TikTok are created by users. Pro-Trump messages dominate, and videos bearing the #trump2020 hashtag have generated more than 257 million views, surpassing hashtags referring to Democratic presidential candidates, including Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. The Trump hashtag has also garnered more views than #politics, which has 160 million, or #elections with 13 million views.
Reaching young voters
The spike in political videos, many of which scream conflict, clashes with TikTok's self-stated mission to "inspire creativity and bring joy." TikTok, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, doesn't accept political ads and has been accused of censoring speech critical of the Chinese government. It denies the allegations. (The app, which is reportedly being investigated by the US government on national security grounds, has been used by terrorist groups to target teens.)
Some news outlets have found political misinformation on TikTok, which is growing at a fast pace and recently passed 1.5 billion downloads. A spokesperson said the company doesn't see a lot of inaccurate content posted and may remove an account or content that "harms, defrauds, or misleads other users." The company hasn't estimated how much political content is on the platform.
Unlike at other social networks, best practices for TikTok haven't been established. That means campaigns considering experiments in short video face a steep learning curve. Boiling complex issues into music-driven messages might prove tricky, experts say. Instead of doing it themselves, candidates might lean on influencers with large followings to post about their campaigns or a particular issue.
"It's a huge hill to climb and people aren't sure whether it's going to be worth it," said Kevin Singer, a senior account executive with Rally, an issue-driven communications firm.
The Trump, Warren, Sanders and Biden campaigns didn't respond to questions about TikTok.
It's unclear how many of TikTok's users are registered voters, but its fast pace and ease of use make it an attractive place for young people to talk politics and national issues. In 2020, one in 10 eligible voters will be between the ages 18 to 23, members of a group widely known as Gen Z, according to the Pew Research Center.
John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School's Institute of Politics, said political TikTok videos could be a "kickstarter" to more in-depth conversations. "As many different ways in which we can talk about the relevancy of politics, the better, as far as I'm concerned," said Volpe, who studies American youth and politics.
TikTok's audience is smaller than those of Facebook and Instagram, its photo-sharing service, but it's growing quickly. As of August, TikTok had 17.6 million US unique mobile visitors aged 18 and older, more than double a year earlier, according to an eMarketer report, citing data from Comscore.
Not all candidates have shunned TikTok. Andrew Yang has used the short videos to push his plans for a $1,000 a month universal basic income, phasing out the penny and providing health insurance for all Americans. The Yang campaign's TikTok presence, run from the @andrewyang_2020 account, is designed to appeal to the candidate's often youthful supporters.
In one video, a staffer wearing a campaign T-shirt and cap bearing Yang's MATH slogan -- the acronym stands for Make America Think Harder -- slowly turns as he holds a bumper sticker reading "Yang2020." A legend appearing in the video reads, "Andrew Yang Supporter. Only wears MATH attire. Uses Yang as a verb. Already knows what to spend 1k/month on. Hates pennies."
S.Y. Lee, Yang's national press secretary, said the videos are part of the campaign's attempt to reach possible voters wherever they are.
"We're constantly exploring ways to reach new audiences," Lee said in an email. "We're still looking at TikTok."
Yang's campaign also worked with The Washington Post, which has more than 200,000 TikTok followers. In a video, Yang dances to the song We Did It! from the animated TV series Dora The Explorer. The video, which has more than 2 million views, features text reading, "still polling at 3%."
Presidential candidate Julian Castro's campaign also has a TikTok account. The account, @teamjulian2020, has more than 470 followers and features videos of his staffer donning a T-shirt that reads "Adios Trump." Castro's campaign didn't respond to a request for comment
Still, Trump is TikTok's political champ. Videos about the president take all forms. One features a pumpkin-shaped cookie of the president, another displays a Trump doll with orange hair and still another depicts the commander-in-chief as an Oompa Loompa. In one, Trump is built out of Legos.
In another video, President Trump appears to sing Señorita by Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello to a carefully edited montage of snippets of his speeches. The song is an unlikely choice for Trump, given that Cabello, a Cuban-American singer, has spoken out against the president's immigration policies. "It felt like ooh la la la, yeah," Trump appears to croon in the video, which was posted by @dustinthedad and bears the legend "TRUMP2020." It's racked up 4 million views. (@dustinthedad didn't respond to a request for comment.)
Digital strategists say the popularity of Trump videos reflects TikTok's algorithm, which rewards content that generates strong reactions, as well as the simple reality that the 2020 election will be a referendum on the Trump presidency.
"Trump content does well on TikTok for the same reason that it does well on other social platforms," Laura Olin, a digital strategist who worked on Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign, said in an email. "His brand of reality-show outrageousness is a perfect fit for social media platforms."
Ashworth, the Michigan student, said her video on the Democratic candidates spread quickly, eventually getting picked up by conservative pages on Instagram. She also received a "little bit of harassment" from users upset when they found out she wasn't a conservative.
The teenager, who will vote for the first time in the 2020 election, has also posted TikTok videos about Republican presidential candidates, Sanders and former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, who dropped out of the race on Nov. 1.
As the 2020 election draws closer, she plans to share more of her political views on TikTok.
"When major events occur during the election cycle, I'll definitely post and I'll see how much I like doing that," Ashworth said. "Sites like TikTok are going to be where political conversations are going to be pushed towards."
This story published on Nov. 19 at 5 a.m. PT.
Updated, 5:01 a.m. PT on Nov. 20.