As the 2020 U.S. election vote closed in on us, Generation Z’s votes played a major role in the democratic win. TikTok may be the new kid on the block, but I reckon it was the same determining factor Facebook was in the 2016 election — at least among Gen Z voters.
TikTok has recently seen a spike in politically motivated content, most of which screams division clashes with TikTok’s self-proclaimed mission to “inspire creativity and bring joy.” In late 2019, TikTok released this statement on its website:
“We will not allow paid ads that promote or oppose a candidate, current leader, political party or group, or issue at the federal, state, or local level — including election-related ads, advocacy ads, or issue ads.”
Despite the company’s desperate efforts to keep its platform squeaky clean from political disinformation, some news outlets have found a considerable amount of false or censored political propaganda potentially sliding its way into the feeds of millions of susceptible voters.
The close U.S. election results have thrown social media sites into a war against disinformation and conspiracies but did they do enough? Let’s take a look at some critical factors that may have played a rudimentary role in the 2020 election.
Did TikTok have enough bang to blow the election?
Generation Z is anyone born after 1996 — roughly 24 million 18 to 23-year-olds will have the chance to cast a ballot in November. That is 10% of all eligible voters. Close to half of TikTok’s users fall in the 18–24-year-old range.
In April, TikTok’s U.S. audience of 18-year-olds and older skyrocketed to a whopping 39.2 million.
One-in-ten eligible voters are members of Gen Z.
Considering that Donald Trump was president thanks to only 80,000 people in three states, TikTok has the audience size to make a substantial difference in the 2020 election, primarily among Gen Z and younger Millennial voters.
When negative publicity is good
Although TikTok has not significantly gained the most affable public image over the last few months, Trump did seem to turn it into a household name — and the data shows it.
“As far as TikTok is concerned, we’re banning them from the United States,” Trump assured the world in July. On Thursday, August 6, Trump initiated an executive order giving ByteDance 45 days to sell TikTok to a “very American” company, underscoring TikTok’s bad security and alleged censorship.
But that begs the question: Was it the right time to initiate the ban? One does not have to be a data scientist to see the effect Trump has had on the platform’s popularity. The pandemic affected the platform’s growth, but the searches exploded after Trump got involved in July.
Has the TikTok ban exploded in Trump’s face?
A Morning Consult poll suggests that 33% of U.S. adults opposed a ban, and 29% support it. This is a close call — right? But when they looked at Gen Z and young Millennial voters, 52% disagreed with the ban, while only 19% of these voters agreed with the prohibition. This is where things get intriguing; 18% of young voters said they would be more inclined to use the platform, considering that the U.S. government was looking to ban TikTok.
It seems like a case of forbidden fruit syndrome; people want what they cannot have.
A glance at how Gen Z voters see the Trump administration reveals further insight into their political standing. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center shows roughly 77% of registered voters ages 18–23 disapproved of how Trump is handled his job as president. This is Trump’s highest disapproval rating among any age group — by far.
Understandably, Gen Z was furious. Their shiny new toy got banned because of an alleged national security concern without a lick of public evidence by a man who nearly 8 out of 10 of them disapprove of immediately after TikTokers ruined his rally. Gen Z grew up in an evidence-based society; if the app is indeed a security concern, why not help the world gain confidence in the notion by simply providing concrete evidence? Perhaps because there isn’t any? A new CIA evaluation reported by The New York Times found no evidence that Chinese Spy agencies collect data from the app; maybe that’s why mainstream media called it a “gross abuse of power.”
I think the word “spy” is an excellent example of brilliant copywriting; even just the idea of being spied on freaks people out. It’s sticky and concrete. Although not so marketable as the word “spy,” I think censorship is a much, much more significant issue than espionage when we’re looking at the election. TikTok employs moderators who sit in front of screens the entire day censoring content according to their instructions. According to leaked documents, these instructions seem to come directly with Beijing’s interests at heart — like the instructions to censor content related to Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, and the religious group, Falun Gong.
After being exposed by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, TikTok admitted that it censored several LGBTQ+ hashtags, including #lesbian, #gay, and #transgender. It is easy to prove TikTok is censoring once they start removing posts, but the way they went about it was so sneaky. Instead of simply removing the content, the platform opted for a much subtler approach by limiting the reach of posts containing these hashtags. This possibly made these creators believe that not many people resonated with their opinions— this is pure discrimination.
Now that we know how TikTok censors, the question that begs to be answered: Is China censoring political content on TikTok by limiting posts’ reach for its gain? Some reports suggest yes, especially during the Black Lives Matter movement.
It still remains unclear if TikTok censored any political messages from the Republican party, however, what is clear is that TikTok had the audience size and toolkit to change the outcome of the election.
In the end, we all thought TikTok's future may have hinged on Trump, but as it turned out, Trump's future may have been hinging on TikTok all along.