And how it influenced the 2020 U.S. election
Am I the only one who despises the term influencer? Well, TikTok seems to have changed the concept of what an influencer is. As someone who keeps a close eye on the marketing industry, I noticed that platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter tend to promote organic content from pages with a larger following. TikTok’s algorithm seems to do the opposite by predominantly being content-oriented. This means that a creator with possibly a smaller audience can upload a resonating video, and in a matter of hours, it can be global with millions of views.
TikTok has also optimized the content watching experience which nudges users to see the content of pages they may never have seen before. They implement this in a very innovative way. TikTok has its ‘For you’ page as its default option. In other words, no more boring photos of family you barely talk to, but instead snack-sized videos an AI algorithm has calculated you’d like based on a set of preprogrammed data points.
TikTok has essentially given power to the little voice who may have gone unheard in the past. While this may be great for democracy, a vital drawback of using this type of algorithm is the difficulty of controlling how fast disinformation spreads to a considerable amount of people before it gets taken down. Moderation departments are virtually blindfolded as disinformation may come from anyone at any given moment. This has been particularly evident in the spread of disinformation on Covid-19 — I mean, a Bill Gates microchip vaccine, seriously?
The alarming facet of TikTok is anyone can now potentially have the influence of a celebrity with millions of followers.
With #BlackLivesMatter, content on TikTok went from funny dance movements to a powerful political movement in a matter of hours. For the first time, the world saw the magnitude of TikTok’s political force. TikTok was seemingly “the hub” of the Black Lives Matter movement. Voices that were previously silent were heard, arguably for the first time in history. This opened a door before only accessible to the rich and famous. Another great example is ‘TikTok Grandma’ Mary Jo Laupp, she has a small audience of only a few thousand followers. She was able to post a video from her smartphone that went global and tanked an entire Trump rally on June 20 in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Was this one of the cases where China extended the reach of a post based on sentiment analysis that falls perfectly in Chinese interest or is this really a post that went viral because TikTok’s user’s resonated with it? Only ByteDance knows and nobody can prove them wrong. The excuse can always be something in the line of “but our users resonated with the video and its out of our control.”
The unknown aside, TikTok is clearly impactful when organically promoting powerful resonating messages to Gen Z.
On other social media platforms, candidates have verified accounts where voters can, at minimum, see original content coming from their campaigns. A lot of truly viral political TikToks come from third parties and not from candidates themselves. For all we know, these third-party accounts may be operated by the Russian government or just some misinformed kid from Idaho. Who knows?
The argument can be made that this is also possible on other platforms. The main difference is the low barrier to entry on TikTok and its slow reaction times to disinformation. It is all so smooth. One video may be factual, and the next may be apocalyptic, like the recent suicide video that went viral so incredibly fast. The footage caused me sleepless nights. TikTok is failing to remove harmful content in time at China’s benefit.
What Role Did TikTok Marketing Play in the U.S. Election?
Candidates had one of three options:
Avoiding TikTok at all costs
Although avoiding TikTok may distance have distanced candidates from the lousy publicity TikTok is getting as the “spy app,” there may have been a more significant risk of losing Gen Z votes. The U.S. might have been distancing primary campaign intelligence from China, but they have little to no control over the TikTok narrative. Avoiding the platform conveyed a message to stop using a potentially dangerous app, but even that, coupled with a ban, has just increased its usage. Disinformation on TikTok is spreading like wildfire with no primary sources of information. Wouldn’t it have helped to have a primary campaign source?
Opening verified campaign TikTok accounts and using them to scale organically
Finally, a primary source of campaigning, but at what cost? Just imagine how hypocritical Trump would look if he opened a TikTok profile for his campaign. From a branding perspective, it may helped a campaign differentiate itself by positioning their candidate as the ‘hip’ option among Gen Z. Okay, but at what cost? This proposition will have given China primary insights into the election. They may even have used it to nudge the algorithms to promote a campaign in Chinese interest. Ultimately, using other platforms to market their TikTok accounts would also have lead to more unwanted marketing toward a Chinese app.
Doing campaigns via TikTok influencer pages
Was this the best solution to distance candidates from TikTok’s negative reputation? Appropriating already established trust between an influencer and her viewers may not be such a flawed approach to control the political narrative on TikTok. This strategy would have been a great way to reach Gen Z voters at a reasonable cost while using the algorithm as an advantage by supporting creators with smaller, more intimate audiences.
Taken the pandemic’s hit on unemployment rates among young people into account, campaign dollars here may have made a difference in how young Americans see Trump. Seeing how fast TikTok’s algorithm can make content global, this would have been the way to reach a large number of young voters in a short amount of time. Having worked on hundreds of influencer marketing campaigns, the biggest drawback I found besides the admin was the ability to scale. Is this the perfect option? No, but it’s an option to help combat disinformation.
Unfortunately, for the Trump campaign, they chose the first campaign option.
Gen Z is a culturally diverse generation with high levels of education born into a digital era filled with emphasis on self-expression and social awareness. A generation that could determine the outcome of the elections. A generation that got lured into an app that made them believe they had a voice for the first time — a voice that could change the world. The microphone may have been the key to winning the election.