It might not be the first thing you think of when someone mentions TikTok, but political content is actually booming on this app. Especially during times of important political events, such as elections, it is not unusual to find videos related to politics on your ‘for-you page’. From “Shake your ass for Joe Biden” to Dutch people revealing which parties they would never vote for during parliamentary elections. All supported by catchy tunes. But what is this content actually changing for this TikTok generation? Will finding their way into our political landscapes actually be different for them?
Where is the Content Coming From?
If politics is so well represented on TikTok, you might wonder, who is providing this type of content? Well, political content reaches our TikTok screens in many ways.
First of all, there are loads of individual TikTok users creating videos that are related to politics. They might reveal their political opinions, make explainers about certain topics or parties, and often make jokes regarding political situations. Sometimes the jokes are also combined with real political knowledge or explainers.
But individual users are not the only ones providing political TikToks anymore. Some political parties have now created their own TikTok account. On this account, they usually try to make funny or relatable content that makes their party looks attractive. Sometimes combined with insightful information about their opinion on political issues, other times just showing off something funny about their party leader.
Lastly, there are also a lot of politicians making content on their private accounts. Explaining political issues from a personal point of view and proclaiming their parties solutions to current problems.
Does This Content Matter?
Even though TikTok has a big reputation in dance videos, the most-watched content is actually entertainment. So to score well on TikTok, your videos must be entertaining in some way. Even though there are many ways to do this, some of the most used and helpful tactics are making videos that are relatable or funny.
Adding these elements to political messages can actually make a difference for younger generations. Politics is still often seen as something abstract, something people don’t want anything to do with. Young people often struggle to figure out their stand on certain political issues and making the topics relatable can really help in figuring out their stand. Most videos on TikTok make politics very understandable, and politicians often present themselves as humanly as possible. This sense of familiarity could make politics more personal and relevant to viewers.
This can therefore make political content not only more relatable, funny and understandable, but also more memorable which is a very valuable combination to make young people interested in politics.
Apart from this, TikTok has the ability to make politics funny. A concept that is not often related to politics. If political content can make people laugh, it can create something called the humour effect, a psychological phenomenon that causes people to remember information better when they perceive that information as humorous. This can therefore make political content not only more relatable, funny and understandable but also more memorable which is a very valuable combination to make young people interested in politics.
Political content on TikTok is, however, not all fun and games. The main source of getting in touch with the content on TikTok is the ‘for-you page’, which is the home screen page that shows videos the TikTok algorithm has picked out for you. TikTok has revealed this as part of the app where most users spend their time. They have also recently released a blog post on how they recommend videos on the for-you page. They state the for-you feed reflects preferences unique to each user based on user interactions, video information and device and account settings.
This means not all content reaches you, not even all viral content. This can have a huge impact on the type of political content you see. If the algorithm catches on to your political preferences, it is likely your for-you page will be adjusted to this interest. This means you will get more and more content about your own political beliefs, constantly affirming that your own truth is everyone’s truth. After all, it is the only truth you get confronted with on the app.
The problem is, everyone finds their own truth on TikTok. This means different truths are being affirmed for different people at the same time. When people are so invested in their own political opinions and the for-you page fails to show them some other political perspectives, it can increase polarization. The different political attitudes will develop towards more ideological extremes.
So, people who have constantly seen their political beliefs on TikTok being affirmed might lean towards a more extreme attitude. This includes feeling more warmly towards the people in your own political group and colder towards the people from other political groups.
This risk is even more dangerous because the information on TikTok is not always accurate. A political explainer from a TikTok user is not necessarily based on facts. This means politics on TikTok comes with a big risk of people not being able to get a grip on the whole truth. Which could perhaps increase the differences between political groups.
Differences Between Countries
That being said, it is important to mention that the risks of polarization are not the same for every country. To a large extent, the risk is related to the political system of a single country. In a two-party system, like the United States of America, the algorithm has a relatively easy job. My own for-you page during the 2020 elections was therefore filled with content from only one side of the political spectrum. Whereas in a multi-party system like the Netherlands, it is much harder for the algorithm to figure out a user’s political opinions. In the weeks leading up to the primary elections, my for-you page was filled with political content from many different parties. It is important to take these differences into account when fearing polarization.
With these potential positive effects and dangers, the decisions TikTok needs to make about their app’s content and algorithm are hard. In the upcoming years, it will be a challenge for TikTok to sustain the positive effects of their political content while ruling out as many risks as possible. They state to be aware of the potential homogenous stream of videos, taking this as a serious concern. But for now, it is up to us. The political content is here, and the algorithm is thriving. Let the app trigger your political interests, but don’t let it play us apart.
Cover: Rolling Stones
Edited by: Rajal Monga