How Teens Weaponised TikTok To Change The Course Of The US Election
From influencers to Hype Houses, Gen Z have changed voting in 2020.
In the lead up to the US Presidential election between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, a number of celebrities and influencers have urged Americans to vote in creative ways.
Leveraging their huge influence and reach, some celebrities have simply spoken up about the importance of voting, while others have publicly endorsed their preferred candidates on social media.
For example, Kendall Jenner used Halloween as her moment to encourage her followers to get out and vote by holding a vote flag, dressed up as Pamela Anderson in Barb Wire. Similarly, Michael B. Jordan posted a shirtless thirst trap of himself biting his lip to encourage his followers to vote early.
But even less traditional “celebrities” have used their influence in the internet world to encourage voting among young people, most of whom have never voted before. Take David Dobrik, for example, who offered his young fans a chance to hang out with Leonardo DiCaprio and himself, if they shared his competition and messaged five friends to “go out and vote”.
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Hey guys I wanna fly one of you to hang with me and meet Leo in LA!! We want you and your friends to get out there and vote! All you have to do is share this to your story, tag a friend in the comments and text 5 friends to vote using the link in my bio and you’ll be entered to win (post covid, of course!) Good luck!! @goodtovote @headcountorg #text5
The Rise Of Gen Z Political Influencers
While it all sounds a little trivial — offering a chance to hang out with a movie star and social media personality in exchange for votes — the power of influencers born and bred on the internet shouldn’t be laughed at. David Dobrik may have started his career on Vine in 2013, but he now boasts an impressive 63.7 million followers across his social medias, with an audience that skews young.
Following this model, teens on TikTok have also used their collective power to encourage voting for both Blue and Red candidates, in the lead up to the election — even though many of them aren’t even at voting age themselves.
Luke Schneider, an 18-year-old part of the TikTok For Biden collective, explained that the use of TikTok for politics and activism is important because “younger generations typically have a lower vote turnout”.
“Apps like TikTok aren’t just another marketing tool; they are a necessity to get the youth to show up and vote,” Schneider told The Face.
Whether it’s dancing while they use the text feature to spit out political facts in line with their beliefs, or by using a trending audio as the background to their content, or by hopping on a popular trend and giving it a politics twist, political influencers are leveraging the way TikTok algorithms work in order to boost their message.
Republican Barbie, a 16-year-old “Republican influencer” from Texas, explained to Junkee that she specifically chose TikTok as her medium due to its algorithm.
“If you’re original and if you put effort into your content, the algorithm does a good job at promoting it,” Republican Barbie, who chose not to reveal her first name because of the death threats she receives for her political choices, told Junkee. “TikTok definitely is the easiest platform to grow a steady following.”
TikTok has become a medium where political content can thrive thanks to the power of the algorithm. Anyone with engaging videos can instantly become an influencer overnight — really, all it takes is one video to go viral for your account to be shot onto millions of For You pages across the globe, even if they aren’t following you.
On a technical level, the TikTok algorithm decides on the videos that get shared across For You pages by measuring which clips get high engagement, through likes, comments, and shares. And what content is more engaging and divisive than political videos? Trump supporters hate the left, the left hate MAGA thumpers, and all of this leads to increased views, comments, and shares from opposing camps, resulting in the rapid dissemination of political content.
But despite so many new-wave Gen Z influencers creating this content, many of them aren’t of voting age — but believe it’s still important to be involved in the conversation.
For example, Republican Barbie is very vocal about her conservative values like “unborn lives matter” and “blue lives matter” across her account, even though she’s only 16. Yet, despite Republican Barbie not even being of voting age, she feels “it’s important for teenagers, even if they can’t vote, to stay educated and active when it comes to politics”.
“I honestly don’t know if I truly influence people’s decisions when it comes to voting, but I hope that I am able to positively influence people’s political decisions,” she continued.
Political Hype Houses Are The Future
Just like the rise of individual political influencers on the app, a number of political coalitions now exist on TikTok, too. Existing as Democrat or Republican ‘Hype Houses‘, these collective groups work together and post daily left-wing and right-wing content to their massive audiences.
There are groups like @thedemhypehouse (215,000 followers) and @tiktokforbiden (870,000 followers) for the Biden supporters, and for team Trump, this content exists on accounts like @conservativehypehouse (1.5 million followers) and @therepublicanhypehouse (930,000 followers).
Typically, a Hype House refers to content creator mansions, where top influencers live and make TikToks together. However, these Red and Blue political Hype Houses live solely online, and are collaborated on by Gen Z and millennials from different states across North America.
For example, Conservative Hype House, the most followed political Hype House on TikTok, features nine members with ages ranging from 18 to 27, according to The Financial Times. One of the youngest members of the group at 18, Madisyn, explains that the Conservative Hype House’s main goal is to simply “spark a passion for politics into young influencers”.
However, a quick look at the Conservative Hype House feed shows Cameron Higby, the creator of the page, constantly berating and “debunking” any TikTokers who happen to go against conservative beliefs, like being being pro-choice and anti-police.
Meanwhile, their main democrat rivals, TikTok For Biden, have a more defined goal for their account, which is to “register young people to vote, raise awareness about the election and eventually put Joe Biden in the White House”.
Only formed on October 8, TikTok for Biden has already managed to amass almost 950,000 followers in the lead up to the election. However, as a collaboration between over 400 almost entirely Gen Z TikTok creators, TikTok for Biden actually has a collective following of over 200 million on the app, with influencers in almost every North American state.
And as a collaborative project that relies on these TikTok creators to push the TikTok For Biden page to their own following, this boosts the reach of the page and ultimately the general message to vote Blue, immensely. This collaborative aspect of online Hype Houses also increases the chance that young voters from all walks of life are likely to find someone at least one person they relate to and trust in.
But the most impressive part of this pro-Biden group account is that TikTok For Biden was actually founded by Aidan Kohn-Murphy, a 16-year-old from Washington who isn’t even able to vote, but still saw the importance of spreading political information to TikTok for those who can.
“This election is not just about politics, it’s about decency and it’s about what we want in this country and it’s so much bigger than traditional politics… teens are realising that our rights come from politics, for better or for worse,” Kohn-Murphy told NBC. “I think people who are younger than 18 are realising how they can be politically and civically engaged even though they can’t vote.”
And it’s this civic and political engagement by Gen Z on TikTok that makes the 2020 election so different. With videos under #Trump2020 and #Biden2020 garnering over 19.6 billion views on TikTok alone, regardless of your opinion on each candidate, Gen Z’s mobilisation on social media during the election has been impressive to say the least.
It’s Cool To Care About Politics
Whether Gen Z are using their platforms to encourage people to go out and vote, urge the masses to vote for a particular party, or to educate the uninformed so that they know what to do once they can vote, teens have undoubtably changed the political climate and sparked conversation about how grassroots movements can now operate solely online.
But Gen Z and millennials mobilising and weaponising TikTok to help influence the polls isn’t reserved for big right and left-wing hype houses or political influencers with tens of thousands of fans, either.
Scrolling on the For You page in recent weeks has shown a number of profiles using the popular “Gen Z for Biden” rainbow logo as their profile photo. Similarly, people have also begun putting links in their bios which lead to a voting registration pages and tagging totally non-political videos with hashtags like #GoVote or #IVoted, to keep the idea fresh in everyone’s mind. Basically, a lot of young people, even in the smallest ways, are turning their accounts political.
Even teens with massive following risk alienating their young audiences by getting political, but that hasn’t stopped creators like 16-year-old @xobrooklynne, who has seven million followers, from getting involved.
Despite being Canadian, Brooklynne used a popular audio that mashed up Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Humble’ with democrat politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s powerful speech against a Republican’s sexist remarks towards her earlier this year.
Implying that she is pro-Biden, the teen captioned the TikTok, which has been viewed seven million times with: “I will never stop talking about politics because it’s not just an election anymore, it’s about human rights.”
On a smaller level, even Kasey Borduas, the creator of the AOC and ‘Humble’ mash up, quietly changing her popular audio to read ‘REGISTER TO VOTE’ is a simple and effective way to remind people on TikTok about the importance of the election. This change meant that any time someone made a video using her sound, or even searched for the sound, they would be subtly reminded to vote.
Or, take 20-year-old Alyssa McKay, who created a point of view video of “the rich girl learning how to register to vote”, which ties in seamlessly into her brand of satirical POV rich girl content. While all just a bit of fun, Alyssa manages to throw in some key information between the candidates to differentiate between Biden and Trump, and explicitly encourage her follower to vote Blue.
Really, if Gen Z’s interest in politics proves anything, it’s that political conversation is no longer just reserved for boring explainers by old people. Instead, quick, interesting and easy to consume content is the future for political conversation and action among young people.
The Power Of TikTok Extends Offline, Too
While Gen Z engaging with politics online is good, real-world action is even better — and it’s been proven that TikTok mobilisation can lead to actual change.
Take Claudia Conway, for example, whose vocal hatred for Donald Trump essentially led to her mother, Kellyanne Conway, resigning as Trump’s political consultant and former counsellor.
But despite the 15-year-old being hailed as the “whistleblower of our time“, Claudia Conway never wanted to be the leader of a resistance. What Conway does want however, and has been consistently vocal about for months, is voting Trump out of office and she has constantly told her 1.5 million TikTok followers to do this for months.
On a more grassroots level, there was also the time that TikTok teens and K-Pop stans quite literally tanked Trump’s Tulsa rally back in June. After Trump bragged online about “almost a million people” requesting tickets to his Oklahoma rally, it was revealed that TikTok users had actually joined forces to reserve spots at the event they never planned on attending.
The sad reality for Trump and his team was only 6,200 people actually attended the event and Trump’s campaign manager tried to blame COVID-19 and “radical protesters” for the significant and embarrassing dip in attendance numbers.
This genius plan was organised on and spread throughout TikTok, when an ex-Pete Buttigieg staffer encouraged users to begin RSVP-ing to the event. Instantly, teens and stans across the globe mobilised and put their powers to good use.
In Australia, climate activists even adopted this same tactic to troll a One Nation meeting and throw attendance numbers out. But unlike Donald Trump’s event, the Australian plans were foiled when Deb Lawson, One Nation’s Whitsundays candidate, noticed the fake reservations and implemented a $20 deposit reserving fee.
Actually you just got ROCKED by teens on TikTok who flooded the Trump campaign w/ fake ticket reservations & tricked you into believing a million people wanted your white supremacist open mic enough to pack an arena during COVID
Shout out to Zoomers. Y’all make me so proud. ☺️ https://t.co/jGrp5bSZ9T
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) June 21, 2020
While there are issues with Claudia Conway being declared a new-found leader of a resistance she ultimately wanted no part of, the 15-year-old, along with the TikTok teens who tanked Trump’s rally, are an exemplar of how Gen Z have weaponised TikTok as a political tool in 2020 — and, ultimately, is proof that teens are able to enact real-world change from their online actions.
Requests for an interview with a number of Biden and Trump political influencers and Hype Houses were not returned by time of publishing.
Michelle Rennex is a senior writer at Junkee. She tweets at @michellerennex.