With less than one month until the presidential election, 16-year-old Aidan Kohn-Murphy brought together hundreds of Gen Z TikTokers to campaign for Joe Biden. In just 24 hours, the group’s first video under the joint account "TikTok for Biden" attracted 500k views — it has now racked up over two million. The coalition has also doubled in size, with an impressive 400 creators, including viral sensations like Claudia Conway contributing to the account. All together TikTok for Biden has a shared 160 million followers, which is more than the number of votes that either candidate received in the 2016 Presidential election.
Since 2016, 15 million Americans have turned 18, a number significant enough to be a gamechanger in this election. With over 175 million U.S. users and around 40 percent in the 18-24 age demographic, TikTok has the potential to influence new and first-time voters. While young people have had historically low voter turnout, it looks like that could change this election and the popular app could be a reason why.
“If .1 percent of our followers see our video and make a plan to vote, that could be more than enough to win an election if put in the right places,” said Kohn-Murphy, the founder of TikTok for Biden, noting that the coalition’s videos have reached millions of viewers.
Along with groups like TikTok for Biden, initiatives like Tok the Vote are rallying young people in hopes of getting them to the polls by sharing information and inspiring action through viral videos. According to data from CIRCLE, more than five million young people (ages 18-29) have already voted early or absentee in the 2020 elections, including nearly 3 million in 14 key states that could decide the presidency and control of the Senate.
While some might question if the youth is being propelled by political memes, Columbia University Assistant Professor Ioana Literat sees the power in TikTok. According to her research, the app offers young people unique “shared symbolic resources,” which come in the form of the app’s library of sounds, hashtags, and choreographed dances that help young people connect.
“Even for those who cannot vote in this election, for me it's really clear that they're being shaped by what's going on today on TikTok,” said Literat, who teaches in Columbia's Communication, Media and Learning Technologies Design program. “Because they feel like they're part of a movement, which is so significant in this formative stage. The kind of attitudes that you develop now will really shape you as a citizen for a lifetime.”
TikTok officially launched in the US in August 2018, but the platform existed previously as Music.ly. While it was marketed for users to create short-form videos up to 15 seconds, usually lip-syncing or dancing, some young users were already using the platform to speak out on politics.
“When we started collecting data after the 2016 election, we looked at the two biggest hashtags on each side. We looked at #notmypresident and #makeamericagreatagain and there was so much creative, vibrant content,” Literat said. “We saw these political conversations and activism go way back.”
But, the app was not as widely known as it is now, US users have grown by 80 million since January 2018. The pandemic has played a big part in the surge in new users. Some were just looking to quell their quarantine boredom, while other young people turned to the platform as a tool for political activism. In June TikTok teens came together to reserve thousands of tickets for Donald Trump’s Tulsa rally, causing an unexpectedly low turnout and successfully pissing off the president — proving it can be a powerful organizing tool ahead of this election, especially since Gen Z tends to lean left.
“TikTok allows people to get followers so much more quickly, so it gets the message out more effectively,” said Kohn-Murphy. “Even with all the popular creators, I don’t think we could have made an account that had 800,000 followers in two weeks [on any other platform].”
Ahead of an unprecedented election, the importance of the app for Gen Z has only grown. With college campuses closed and social events cancelled around the country, TikTok offers a platform where young people on both sides of the aisle can reach their peers and inspire action.
Accounts like Republican Hype House share videos highlighting what they like about Trump’s policies, while TikTok for Biden have a slew of informational videos like one where a user does the“Hit The Quan” dance challenge while sharing voting deadlines for states around the country.
“We are not a persuasion group, we are trying to mobilize young people by having their favorite creators make videos about how important it is to vote,” explained Kohn-Murphy. “We are sending the message that this election isn’t just about politics, it’s about our everyday lives.”
In recent months Trump has threatened to rid TikTok from the US unless the Chinese-owned app’s operations are taken over by an American company, citing security concerns around user’s data. While a potential ban is still looming, it won’t take effect before young people have their voices heard at the ballot box.
“I think we are going to see youth turnout through the roof this election,” added Kohn-Murphy. “I think our generation is so much more political than the older generation was four years ago, we aren’t going back to not being politically engaged, this is the start of a movement.”