The Political Teens of TikTok

The youth of today are often branded as apolitical and apathetic by their generational predecessors. This is a misguided generalisation; they have their political identities, but expression is not occurring via traditional channels.

If Facebook is the arena for controversial comments made by your relatives, and Twitter is equal-parts dominated by trolls and know-it-alls, it can be difficult for some, especially youth, to develop and express their political identity. Ergo a clear need for a youth-dominated space like TikTok. The video-based platform already acts as a form of creative and personal expression for teens, and among all of the diverse, almost chaotic, content on the app, several political coalitions have begun to appear.

Recently, this side of TikTok has been dominated by the US Democrat-Republican, left-wing vs. right-wing discourse, with political ‘hype house’ pages becoming popular. The concept is simple: a group of teens will post content related to their party, expressing their political views and even undermining the stances of the opposing party. The notion of the ‘Hype House’ is an allusion to the mansion that houses some of TikTok’s most popular and most followed creators, in attempt to ‘collab’ and produce as much content as possible. The kids behind these political accounts know their audience, and often use popular, viral formats on the app – like a trending dance or a particular audio – to get their point across in a familiar, digestible way.

Two of the many political ‘hype houses’ on the app. Source: TikTok

Take the following video posted by the account liberalhypehouse, with one member outlining her stance on gun control whilst performing a short dance to a trending song in the background. The opposing political house, therepublicanhypehouse, responds by dueting the video (the feature that allows users to record alongside the original) and stating his own rebuttal on the issue. For those unfamiliar with the app, the song and dance are seemingly unrelated and out of context, but they’re using these tools of virality in smart ways.

Their expression goes beyond short videos, too – members of opposing pages have started debating each other, which are live-streamed and then uploaded to Youtube, often going for over an hour. Snippets of the debate are then posted on TikTok, with some amassing over 400,000 likes. It is hard to maintain that today’s youth are apolitical when over 10,000 viewers tune in to watch a Republican teen, with a gun posted behind him, debating a Bernie-supporting teen who wears a hat that says “Give America Morals Again.”

Teens using a debate format to express their political views. Source: nickvideos on Youtube

Young people are getting involved in this form of political expression and mobilisation because it’s coming from somewhere familiar: teens want to listen and learn from someone they identify with. The demographics reveal that youth dominate the app, with half of the app comprising of people under 30. High engagement with political issues on these platforms follows a global trend of youth feeling disenfranchised by political parties and processes. Only 7% of Australians under 30 felt that politicians were working in their best interests. This echoes the sentiments of youth in the UK, where only 40% of 18 to 24 year olds felt their vote mattered. TikTok, as a safe, accessible political space, is addressing a gap that many youth do not have – a space where many can learn or strengthen their views.

Ultimately, an increase in youth driven political content doesn’t necessarily translate to voter turnout. Take the results of this year’s Super Tuesday, a key date in which several primary elections of presidential candidates occur. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic candidate, is popular amongst young people and adults, with 40% of this demographic considering him as their first-choice candidate. Despite this, Joe Biden, another Democratic candidate, won 10 out of the 14 primaries that day. This reveals one of the biggest pitfalls of youth political involvement on social media: increased name recognition doesn’t equate to votes. Realistically, youth remain confused on political processes, barred by other commitments, or feel intimidated by expressing their views.

Of course, the mechanisms of open commenting and dueting on the platform also open up the possibility of hostility between those who have differing political views. One of the most known Republican TikTokers and self-described ‘King of Politics’, nickvideos, recently deleted his account after an army of leftist Nicki Minaj fans calling themselves #Barbz4Bernie (yes, you heard that right) harassed him and reportedly leaked his address. What should also be considered is whether or not TikTok really provides a space to learn, or whether it acts as an echo chamber for certain ideas.

Meme or movement? The unexpected outcomes of youth political involvement on TikTok. Source: quart__z on Twitter

Young people are doing political involvement in their own way, away from the judgement of others and in the safety of their peers. Whilst seeing young people engaging with important issues is always great, it is clear that this is no replacement for knowledge of political process, as well as the fundamental need for youth to feel that they have a role in politics. What we’re seeing here is a generation that cares and wants to be involved, but does not know how to do so in a way that translates to the rest of society.