TikTok’s ‘sight bites’ capture the zeitgeist

Clocking videos: The average user spends 52 minutes a day watching clips on TikTok. © TikTok

Should we take TikTok politics seriously? One of the most successful apps in the world was developed for teenagers messing around. Now, it is being adopted by political campaigners.

“Here ya go,” says the video. On the right, a girl dances in her room; on the left, a boy stands in a big hat. “For all the Trump supporters I have a question to ask,” the girl’s text begins. “What has Trump SPECIFICALLY done to get the economy to be this good?”

Soon, the boy’s answers start to appear: “Lowering corporate taxes to 21%”; “Deregulating the stock market.” In 15 seconds, it is over.

This is just one among the dozens of political clips popping up on TikTok every day. With America’s presidential elections drawing nearer, the majority are in support of a particular candidate: Donald Trump for the Republicans, Bernie Sanders – or occasionally, Joe Biden – for the Democrats.

But some even manage to fit in duetting (a debate between two people with different views), even though it is over in the blink of an eye and you may have to play it several times to get the point.

With 500 million subscribers, TikTok is a social-media phenomenon. At the start, it was the most frivolous of all platforms: teenagers filming their friends falling over to their favourite song, or someone dressed as a large bird pushing custard pies into people’s faces. So, how did it suddenly become serious?

Experts point to today’s divisive politics. Britain saw a slew of Brexit-related posts before December’s general election. In the US, President Trump’s extreme policies motivated many teenagers to get involved. “I feel like I am making an impact on the election even though I can’t vote,” said a 17-year-old Sanders supporter called Izzy.

TikTokkers call their equivalent of political parties “hype houses”, after a house in Los Angeles which a group of young social-media experts use as a base. Their leanings are usually clear from their handles: @therepublicanhypehouse is one; @liberalhypehouse another.

Sterling Cade Lewis, a 19-year-old with almost 100,000 followers, describes TikTok as “cable news for young people”. Benjamin Williams, also 19, sees it as the ideal way of communicating. “A lot of political stuff is on Facebook and Twitter, but Gen Z isn’t really into that stuff,” he says. “With TikTok, you can put politics into comedy and have someone their age talking like they’re a friend.”

Should we take TikTok politics seriously?

Mini manifestos

Some say anything which gets people interested in politics is good for democracy and, with millions using TikTok, it must be taken seriously as part of the zeitgeist. Comedy is a great way of grabbing attention, and these posts show how cleverly a quick-fire message can be conveyed. They are a natural extension of the sound bites used by professional politicians: you might call them “sight bites”.

Others argue that it is silly and even dangerous to present serious subjects in this way. To understand them properly, you need to explore them in detail and hold a proper debate. An arena with no room for nuance is an ideal place to spread misinformation: sound bites allow politicians to express their views without being made to justify them properly. The same is true of TikTok.

You Decide

  1. What is the best TikTok clip you have ever seen?
  2. Should the voting age be lowered?

Activities

  1. Make your own TikTok video about a political subject you feel strongly about.
  2. Choose a subject for your class to debate. Take it in turns to give a speech lasting no more than 15 seconds. Then hold a vote on who has been most persuasive.

Some People Say...

“Politics are too serious a matter to be left to the politicians.”

Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970), French soldier and politician

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Social media has become increasingly important in political campaigning, replacing the traditional strategy of knocking on voters’ doors and advertising in newspapers and on billboards. President Trump is famous for being the first US president to announce his policies on Twitter. In the last UK general election, the main parties spent more than £1.3 million on Facebook and Instagram advertisements.
What do we not know?
How far the coronavirus epidemic will reinforce this. There is a strong possibility that many campaign rallies will be cancelled and candidates will rely on social media to put their messages across instead. Parliamentary debates may be cancelled because politicians dispersing across the country are seen as potential spreaders of the disease.

Word Watch

Corporate taxes
Taxes on companies.
Deregulating
Removing rules from.
Bernie Sanders
One of the leading contenders to be the Democratic Party’s candidate for US president.
Joe Biden
Sanders’s main rival.
Gen Z
Short for Generation Z, meaning people born in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Zeitgeist
A German word meaning “spirit of the age”.
Sound bites
A short clip from a longer recording.
Nuance
A subtle difference in or shade of meaning, expression, or sound.

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