TikTok and democracy

One day, TikTok might go the way of Vine, and face a tragic death, living on only through links that occasionally crop up online that turn out to be dead. Until that day comes, TikTok is a force to be reckoned with- how many social media platforms can you name that have been called a threat to American national security? Thankfully, President Biden has put the ban on ice for the time being, but we could have been facing the loss of one of the only things that made 2020 bearable.   

While the core appeal of TikTok may lie in the humour and entertainment of the app, TikTok can’t be underestimated as a political force. Jackie Weaver’s rise to fame, for example, highlights the immense power of TikTok is popularising otherwise quite niche political topics that would not have been given any level of attention normally. Two weeks ago, no one knew where Handforth was, now suddenly everyone is an expert on the dealings of local councils. All because a clip of a council meeting got shared around TikTok, amongst other social media sites. However, this is all, in the long run, harmless fun with a likely minimal impact on national political as a whole. This isn’t the case for all of TikTok’s political work. 

A more famous and more impact lay exploit of TikTok happened last year in the lead up to the election. Then-President Donald Trump was holding a rally in Oklahoma, a strong red state, for 19,000 people. Expectations were high. Then, disaster struck the Trump campaign; TikTok had learnt of the rally. Thus began a campaign of young Democrat TikTok users booking tickets, often under fake names and addresses, just to sell out the venue so that it would be empty when Trump arrived. While it may sound like a little joke that wouldn’t be taken to seriously, it did actually work. On 6900 tickets were scanned on the door, meaning that the remaining 12,000 people all failed to show up. We can’t actually see each person’s reasoning for not attending, so perhaps all 12,000 of those people were genuine Trump supporters who all had car trouble on the same day, but it seems more likely that TikTok succeeded in mobilising the youth where Facebook failed with Area 51. 

This level of unchecked power can certainly be a force for evil, with arguments being made that it is a threat to democracy. According to Trump, TikTok is a danger to democracy because, due to being a Chinese citizen, the owner of TikTok may be required to spy on US citizens to feed back data to the Chinese government. It is unclear what the Chinese government could get from TikTok that they couldn’t have just bought from Facebook which is just as guilty of spying on its users, however, Facebook has not been threatened with extinction from the US government.  

However, TikTok does have the potential to be somewhat healthy for democracy. The most obvious use of TikTok in aiding democracy would be as an educational tool. What better way to get the kids to learn about politics than in an easily digestible format and with the teachers being their own age? Admittedly, it is easily open to the spread of misinformation, but so are all other major news outlets. Around half of all kids see misinformation online daily, and that’s through news sites, social media, ads, anything at all that can be found on the internet. TikTok is no different to anything else online. Another trait of TikTok is its ability to enthuse people about in issue- if TikTok has made people care about Handforth Council, then surely the sky is the limit. 

It’s clear that the issue of TikTok isn’t a black and white issue. Just like any social media platform, anyone has access and can say what they want, from any point on the political spectrum. Therefore, perhaps we need to stop looking at TikTok itself as good or bad and just look at it as the tool that it can be, just as we would look at Twitter or Facebook. Regardless of whether you think TikTok is a threat, its here to stay, so we should be making the most of it. 

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