Even by 2020 standards, the fact that the President of the United States has dedicated so much attention to the video-sharing app, TikTok, when the world is facing one of the biggest global pandemics in recent history, is strange to imagine. However, the Chinese-owned platform has recently become entangled in a political feud that is threatening to end its use in the US.
How did what is a light-hearted, consumer-focused piece of technology come to be Trump’s enemy – and why is it now about to lose access to one of its biggest markets?
Trump’s initial dislike for the app and its users started in June, as the TikTok generation took aim at his rallies; a pivotal communications channel for the President’s campaign. One rally, in particular, caught their attention: Tulsa. Having been surrounded by controversy from the start due to concerns over social distancing, this event became the perfect political storm due to its deliberate coinciding with Juneteenth – a day that honours the end of slavery in the United States – and its location in a state with a history of the worst race massacres in modern US history.
While the rally’s date was eventually changed and COVID-19 waivers issued, more was to come. The Trump administration had used Twitter to promote a free, mobile-first registration link which on the surface seemed to be effective – claiming that a million people had requested tickets. The organising team was so confident about the predicted turnout that a large outdoor area was set up to accommodate the overflow.
However, on the day there was a notable lack of attendees was quickly notable. The stadium which fits 19,000 people was, according to Tulsa Fire Department, filled with fewer than 6,200 – less than half its maximum occupancy. The overflow stages were quickly taken down. How did the campaign get it so wrong?
According to reports, TikTok was used as an unlikely source of political protest. Demonstrating that the app is not just for viral dance videos, K-Pop fans and TikTok users around the world spread the registration link and encouraged people to register for attendance and then not show up. While Trump’s campaign team were quick to respond that the lack of attendance was due to radical protesters making it difficult for attendees to enter, TikTok users took to social to claim the win. For the first time, young activists flexed their political power and changed the narrative; journalists were now reporting widely on the disruption caused by both the platform and its demographic.
What has followed from this small act of political resistance has been remarkable; while clashes between the administration and social media platforms have taken place in the past, it is unprecedented to see a President actively attempt to dismantle a technology company’s presence in America.
As tensions with China have grown, so has his dislike for the app, citing concerns over security and privacy of users in the US as his major points of conflict. August saw Trump go for the jugular, signing an executive order which gave owning company ByteDance 90 days to sell or exit the US market.
As the deadline looms we are seeing potential buyers enter the scene, with Walmart joining forces with Microsoft. But is there enough time to push a deal over the line by November 12th? With 100 million US users at risk, it is worth considering how TikTok has inserted itself in the political conversation and caused such a stir.
Social media sites have long been the battleground of political viewpoints, but the relative newness of TikTok and the low average age of its users allowed its dismissal when, in fact, it has shown itself to be a useful tool for young people to take collective political action. In the social media age where almost all politicians are using digital platforms to communicate with their supporters, it is worth considering how political opinion and action can be leveraged through the app. It’s important not to neglect the platform’s power to influence political opinions and make headlines – something brands, as well as politicians, should be aware of. There are millions of potential voters at stake; if they turn up at the polls en masse it will have major implications for the outcomes in swing states.
In the run-up to the November election and the TikTok’s possible banning, the question to ask next is how is the platform going to be used? As with Instagram and Twitter, candidates should be looking at using it to share their messages directly with an engaged and politically-active demographic (just look at the success AOC has with her followers across all age-groups). As people’s attention span gets smaller and their time gets busier, is it time for politicians to hop on TikTok and create their own 15-second video content? It may be their last chance!