“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.