How TikTok was dragged into US Politics

By Paddy Stephens

Many of America’s great political battles these days are not fought on the Senate floor nor the plains of Boston, but on a new centrepiece of democracy: TikTok. Last month, Dr Mehmet Oz and John Fetterman – the respective Republican and Democratic candidates for Pennsylvania’s Senate seat – traded blows on the platform. These rapidly and inexplicably degenerated, as online debates have a habit of doing, in this case into a series of esoteric retorts about American supermarkets and broccoli. Keen though we might be to reach for a stiff drink and try to forget the previous three sentences, they underline the undeniable and inescapable importance of TikTok in the US midterms.

There are about 80 milllion active monthly TikTok users in the US; roughly a quarter are below the voting age and around 30% are in their twenties. The app therefore offers a significant opportunity for those who can leverage it for political purposes, raising serious challenges for America’s democracy. My preferred and quasi-Luddite solution, ‘just delete the app and go do real things,’ is unfortunately just wishful thinking.

Tech platforms are worrying policymakers far from Capitol Hill, albeit for different reasons. Even Beijing is concerned. The fact that TikTok is not available in China, and that the local version both limits children’s use and actively promotes educational videos probably tells you all you need to know about what Beijing suspects having a slot machine in their pockets does to childrens’ brains.

Back in Washington, one of the crucial worries is about fake news, the seemingly perennial problem of social media. A Newsguard study last month found that almost one fifth of TikTok videos about key news events contained misinformation. In fairness to the platform, rivals such as Facebook and Twitter are not exactly paragons of veracity either.

In preparation for the US midterms and under fire for promoting misinformation in 2020 – you know, the one where an armed mob stormed the Capitol – TikTok has done two things. The first, a welcome far-cry from the usual whack-a-mole of misinformation, is create a ‘Midterms Election Centre’ which provides information in over 40 languages about how to register and vote, including for those in special categories such as deaf voters and overseas citizens.

Given all the challenges it raises for society, what is social media actually for?

The second has made more headlines. Ads with political content have been banned on the platform for years, but now it has turned off advertising features for accounts for politicians. Political accounts have been removed from eligibility for the ‘creator fund’ for those who make viral videos. Here’s the kicker: influencers have been told that anyone found producing paid-for political content will be removed from the platform.

The second point has stuck with me. TikTok probably just wants to avoid researchers claiming the platform led to certain candidates being elected: when the pendulum swings to their opponents, TikTok will be target no. 1. But the idea that social media, if that’s what TikTok is, should be free of political ads is an interesting one. One conception is Musk’s: if Twitter is the world’s ‘de facto town square’, we might assume that such ads should be allowed, as in a real one. Others might see social media more as a a place to meet friends and chat, much like a café; if there was a huge MAGA poster on the wall behind my friend’s head while we were gossiping, I would probably start satiating my caffeine dependency elsewhere. For me, this issue of political ads gets to the heart of the question: given all the challenges it raises for society, what is social media actually for?

In a statement last month, TikTok described itself as ‘first and foremost an entertainment platform’. It has long tried to frame itself as that, not a social network, and with some justification: much of TikTok’s success relates to its algorithm, which unlike that of most companies until, does not base its recommendations on a user’s circle of friends. That’s where the argument runs out of road. Because of the ease of creating content, compared to something like Netflix, anyone can make a video replying to something they didn’t like, starting a sort of conversation. I’m reliably informed that, like Facebook, it has its own set of student ‘confessions’ pages. Just because the format is solely video doesn’t mean it’s not a social network.

TikTok would love just to be a platform of silly dances and cute dog videos, harmless, fun, and far from the scylla and charybdis of American politics. But it can’t. When you make it easy for users to create content, some people will speak their mind on controversial issues. And secretly, I suspect this more cerebral content also helps the platform: it surely retains a lot of users who can justify their two-hour daily usage of the platform by the three educational videos they saw. That helps TikTok retain and grow users, but its very success and size mean that, in the minefield of American politics, it cannot tread as carefully as it may wish.

Image: Nordskov Media via Creative Commons

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