TikTok is one of the most popular social media apps available today. Ask almost any young adult or teenager, and they probably have used TikTok within the past 24 hours. But a new trend is emerging that is not a viral dance—more and more politicians are using the popular app to spread their message to young people nationwide.
Today, most people get their news from social media, whether it is Facebook, Instagram, or another site. In fact, ⅔ of teens report using social media—specifically TikTok—in some way daily. Major cable news networks and talk shows like Fox News and NBC are still popular, but with a different demographic, generally older Americans.
In spring of 2020, former Ohio state Senator Tim Ryan was one of the first prominent politicians to join TikTok, as he saw the app as a way to connect with young constituents. North Carolina Congressman Jeff Jackson also makes short educational videos on important political events, both domestic and foreign, and has amassed more than 1.6 million followers and 11 million likes.
Other popular elected officials on the app include Bernie Sanders, Jon Ossoff, Ed Markey, Ilhan Omar, and more. These politicians have spoken publicly about their involvement, especially as Republican concern over the app mounts. Many have said that TikTok makes complex issues more digestible and relatable, especially for younger voters, as watching a short, informational video with a younger creator is less daunting than watching a longer news segment with an anchor. Additionally, TikTok can highlight smaller news stories that often do not receive slots on major cable networks, thus making it easier to stay well-informed. This is particularly appealing to young constituents, especially when formatted in TikTok’s signature short videos.
TikTok also serves a unique purpose in encouraging young adults to become involved in politics before their 18th birthday. A fantastic example of this was Trump’s rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 2020. Reports stated that almost 1 million tickets were sold, but only 6,200 people attended the rally. The culprit behind this anomaly was mainly young people on TikTok who wanted to see Trump’s rally empty, especially considering that he was scheduled to hold the rally on Juneteenth. Many were unaware of Trump’s rally until they encountered the viral videos on TikTok.
In addition to the Trump rally scheme, Gen-Z has overloaded an anti-abortion tip line with fake calls and sent hundreds of fake job applications to a Starbucks that fired employees for attempting to unionize. Both of these events were organized by Gen-Z for Change, a progressive group of young influencers committed to online advocacy. The group is 100% youth-led and was founded by Aidan Kohn-Murphy during the 2020 election season. Since then, Gen-Z for Change has taken Gen-Z’s obsession with social media and turned it into a “vehicle for its political empowerment”: almost 500 influencers are involved with the group, which covers everything from abortion rights to the environment to foreign policy debates. Collectively, they have almost 500 million followers across all social media platforms.
In an unprecedented move, Gen-Z for Change has also been invited to work with President Biden’s administration and the White House, where they have organized debriefing sessions about the war in Ukraine and other topics. Gen-Z for Change hopes not only to comment on policy but also to influence it through advocacy and an increase in voter turnout.
Working with Gen-Z for Change was not the only time the Biden administration has ventured onto TikTok, however. Anyone who uses the app will remember the White House’s vaccination campaign that included stars like the Jonas Brothers and Olivia Rodrigo. Rob Flaherty, the White House’s director of digital strategy, is credited with this campaign and its success: the video gained 50 million views and 10 million likes within the first 24 hours alone. Social media campaigns like this have since become increasingly popular ways to raise awareness in a way that appeals to adolescents.
The Biden administration hopes to continue working with organizations like Gen-Z for Change to create social media campaigns and openly discuss policy and elections. While many researchers have stated that President Biden’s social media following does not compare to former President Trump’s, Biden is still reaching out to the younger generations and has been engaging with the new 8.3 million eligible Gen-Z voters since the 2022 elections.
While the future of TikTok in politics and campaigns is uncertain, one thing can be said for sure: the younger generation of voters is changing how they interact with the news and elected officials. Gen-Z is a powerful new electoral force to be reckoned with, especially in the upcoming elections, and is creating new ways to influence policy and its impacts.
This article was edited by Sarah Davey.