From teen dance craze to political tool. How Chinese app TikTok emerged as a force in US election

Linda J. Dodson

It’s the world’s goofiest social media platform.

Since TikTok’s launch in China in 2016, the video streaming app’s popularity has exploded, giving rise to a strange new world of lip-synced dance routines, cat videos and other oddball content that keeps hundreds of millions of bored teenagers and young adults mesmerised.

But with 800m active users – including 45m in the US, the social media app owned by Chinese tech giant Bytedance, is now evolving into something less inane: a potentially powerful political tool in a tightly fought US presidential election which is just five months away.

Its growing power has drawn the ire of politicians in the US. On July 7, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that TikTok could face a complete ban over national security concerns and the company’s handing of user data. 

He said people should use the app only if they want their “private information the hands of the Chinese Communist Party”. The company has denied all suggestions that it hands over data to the Chinese government.

But with droves of young users starting to use the app to influence or discuss politics, could TikTok be to 2020 what other social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter were to the 2016 US election?

There are signs this is already starting to happen. On Saturday, a Donald Trump campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, attracted a crowd of just 6,500 supporters in a centre designed for almost 20,000. That’s despite Trump’s campaign manager tweeting there had been “over 1m ticket requests”. 

It was claimed that the discrepancy in numbers was down to activity from TikTok users disrupting the proceedings. Many young users, left-leaning Generation Z teenagers or “Zoomers”, responded to calls from TikTok user MaryJo Laupp to reserve tickets and leave them empty so Trump would be “standing there alone”.  

Though some questions have been raised about the real impact of the scheme, with  Trump’s election team denying any impact, it’s clear that some TikTok users are not just looking for distractions but are using the platform to mobilise politically. 

Sophia Ignatidou, an academy associate at Chatham House, claims the Tulsa campaign event will serve as a “game-changer”  in terms of how the platform is viewed. 

“I haven’t been paying much attention to TikTok but this incident made me realise I have to,” she says. “Until now it hasn’t been a major player in terms of how elections or political campaigns can be affected.”

Rob Grey, a TikTok user with over 114,000 followers who has gained more than 1.2m video likes with a parody of a middle-aged white woman named “Karen”, has witnessed the app’s evolution to not just being about “silly viral videos” but a place where people can “share current affairs and their own personal views”. 

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