Experts, politicians, and creators are betting on TikTok playing a major role in the upcoming presidential election.
The coronavirus pandemic and worldwide Black Lives Matter protests, online and off, have inspired Gen Z to utilize the popular platform to spread social activism and election education at viral speeds. Historically, however, young people do not vote. So can the world’s fastest-growing app persuade first-time voters to go to the polls?
TikTok has become a hotbed for political discourse in recent weeks, and the creators who are able to acutely tap into political issues — while remaining entertaining and outspoken — have grown loyal audiences who express interest in the nation’s oldest civic duty.
Meeting Gen Z ‘where they are’
There aren’t many politicians on TikTok, but if you go looking, chances are you will quickly come across Minnesota State Sen. Matthew Little. He believes TikTok will be beneficial for this upcoming election in courting young voters, educating them on how to register to vote, hosting virtual events, and raising money.
“We’ve had people from all over the U.S. sign up to register for our campaign,” Little, 35, told Digital Trends. “People want to do whatever they can to help our local state senate race. We’ve received over 900 contributions through Venmo from TikTok — it was like $1 to $20, nothing big. We are still learning.”
Little has made it his campaign strategy to “meet people where they are.” and TikTok has proven to be an effective use of his time.
He and his team carve out a few hours each week to stay on top of trends and edit together video clips, like Little jumping out from behind a tree, or doing an MTV-style Cribs tour of the Capitol building, to post everyday. Thanks to this approach, Little has amassed nearly 145,000 followers from around the world.
“I wouldn’t be doing it if it didn’t have an impact,” he said. “I think [TikTok] is so ubiquitous for the upcoming election that I can’t fathom that voter turnout wouldn’t be changed.”
Sean Ahern, a 27-year-old lawyer living in Boston, joined TikTok at the beginning of the pandemic and dubbed his content “edutainment” — a mix of defining legal jargon and, of course, dancing.
In a recent video with nearly 25,000 views, Ahern breaks down mail-in voting while doing the 3 Musketeers viral dance challenge. Unlike other creators with big followings, Ahern doesn’t plan out his content. Instead, he takes requests from his viewers on what topics he should cover in his videos.
Lately, those requests have been election- and voting-related, but it’s not clear whether or not TikTok engagement can translate to the polls.
“Voting is not appealing to young people,” he said. “For younger people who are plugged in to tech, I think our voting system is so outdated and archaic, but if they updated it, I think they would vote.” But Ahern he still believes TikTok could “really have an impact.”
“If you are seeing election content every day, you are going to be less likely to be disengaged than past generations,” Ahern added.
Getting out the viral vote
Compared to previous tone-deaf “get out the vote”-style campaigns featuring A-list celebrities, content creators who post about politics are frequently in direct contact with their followers — fostering connections that can go way beyond just a simple follow.
Creator and University of Michigan student Lillith Ashworth has seen the impact political discourse on TikTok can have in real-life firsthand.
“TikTok definitely has the ability to play a major role in the next election,” Ashworth, 19, told Digital Trends. “Teenagers are just now becoming 18 and getting ready to vote, and Gen Z is already bringing awareness to issues like Black Lives Matter and having an impact on rallies like in Tulsa. It’s galvanizing the youth to vote.”
Ashworth gained a niche, but vocal, following after posting a TikTok parodying the Democratic candidates. Since then, Ashworth, who is an international politics major, has been creating more content revolving around political commentary and explainers, as well as sparking debates in the comments — something Ashworth hopes to see more of. This November will be the first time Ashworth is eligible to vote.
“I am definitely planning, as we get closer to the election cycle, to put out more voting content,” they said.
And Ashworth is not alone in that goal. South Dakota-based creator Aime Bita created a collective TikTok account with nearly a dozen other influencers of color in June called @pocpolitics. The goal of the account, she said, is to connect young TikTok users interested in a wide array of political leanings with campaigns, andto interview candidates running for office at the local level.
“When everyone else around you is talking about voting, you start to think, ‘I need to do it too,’” said Bita, 20. “During the primaries when everyone was talking about voting, I got some of my friends to go vote. I think TikTok has the power, because when adults are telling you to do something, it’s like whatever, but when your friends are telling you, you start to think, ‘Maybe I should.’”
That sentiment of peer-to-peer influence is the basis of the creator-focused “get out the vote” campaign led by IGNITE National, a nonpartisan organization aimed at encouraging young women to engage in politics. IGNITE found in its own research that first-time Gen Z voters do not vote in large due to practical issues — like not knowing how to register, or where to even cast a ballot.
“The reason young people don’t vote is not because they don’t care,” said Deja Fox, a consultant for IGNITE. “It is a habit built over time.”
IGNITE recently launched a chatbot, where first-time voters can text a number and get a personalized voting plan with social media reminders as the election draws closer. From the onset, the organization made nano- and micro-influencers (those with less than 10,000 followers), a critical part of its “IGNITE the Vote” campaign, because of their ability to genuinely engage their audiences.
“Social media is starting to reward activism and being socially conscious and I think content creators are picking up on that,” said Fox. “No matter the size of your following, you have the power to influence people to vote. Everyone has the ability to mobilize their networks, no matter how big or small they are.”