Political content creators have not shied away from the social media app TikTok despite President Donald Trump’s executive order that could potentially ban the app. In fact, banning the app, some creators say, could have the unintended consequence of motivating young people to vote in November.
TikTok has millions of young users and creators, some of whom have pivoted their content on the app to the election in November. TikTok was not designed as a platform specifically for political discourse but has become a hub for young people to talk about politics and get engaged. In June, users apparently reserved tickets to the president’s rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with the intent of not showing up, which resulted in a smaller than expected turnout.
“I think there is no better way to get Gen Z to the polls than to ban TikTok,” said Colton Hess, who founded the TikTok account ToktheVote to encourage young people to vote. “I think that could really mobilize young people because it is a cultural sensation.”
The Trump administration can ban TikTok if it is not sold by its Chinese-owned parent company, ByteDance, within 45 days of Trump’s Aug. 6 executive order, according to the order. The administration is concerned about whether ByteDance is harvesting data from Americans.
TikTok creator Leo Scheck, 22, said he believes the threatened ban is about controlling a group of people who have been actively detrimental to the president’s re-election campaign.
“Social media is in need of privacy reform, but the current administration really doesn’t seem to be interested in that,” said Scheck. “This is about a fragile president who can’t handle criticism, who is attempting to silence dissent on an app that happens to be foreign.”
The ban on TikTok could be reversed if it is sold to a U.S. company within 45 days. So far Microsoft has expressed interest and would allow the app to continue operating in the U.S., and Twitter is reportedly in talks about a potential acquisition.
Erynn Chambers, a popular creator on TikTok with almost half a million followers, said the order could just be posturing by Trump.
“I think that Trump has that as a method to his madness where he will draw attention to certain things, or make a big display of certain things, and then kind of walk it back,” Chambers said.
While neither political party has an official presence on TikTok, teenagers collaborate on political content under Republican and Democratic “hype houses.” Named after a Los Angeles content creator collective, hype houses are hubs for content for liberals and conservatives.
Joie P. a 19-year-old self-identified conservative creator and contributor to the Republican Hype House account, said of the ban, “It’s a valid reason to protect the American people from the Chinese government.”
Joie, who requested anonymity because of security concerns, said if the app gets banned, they will just move their content to other platforms.
Aidan Kohn-Murphy, a 15-year-old creator for the Democratic Hype House, said the potential ban would engage more young people in politics.
“This can motivate young voters in a way that voters have never been motivated before,” Kohn-Murphy said.
Historically, America’s young people have been less engaged in voting compared with their elders, but the massive reach of social media has been a game changer. About 28% of 18- to 29-year-olds voted in the 2018 midterm elections, marking the highest midterm youth turnout in two decades, according to estimates by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.
“Not only are we seeing more youth participation in campaigns, marches and protests, we’re also seeing more youth to youth outreach,” said CIRCLE Associate Researcher Kristian Lundberg. “TikTok is, in many ways, a great resource for young people to hear content created by other young people.”
When asked where they heard about the 2020 election, 29% of those between 18 and 21 years old cited TikTok, according to CIRCLE research conducted between May and June.
TikTok has about 30 million unique users every month, with a quarter of its adult users below the age of 24, Comscore data shows.
Popular TikTok creators whose accounts aren’t primarily political will sometimes use their platform to comment on politics. Jeremy Scheck, a 20-year-old Cornell University student and Leo’s younger brother, has 1 million followers on his TikTok account, which focuses on food and cooking. But occasionally he speaks out to support registering to vote and Black Lives Matter.
“I like to include it in a video and take a second like, ‘Hey, if you have time to cook you have time to do this,’” Scheck said.
If a ban on TikTok does become reality, young people will simply seek other platforms to express political opinions, said Brent Cohen, executive director of Generation Progress Action at the Center for American Progress.
“I think young people are extremely resourceful, resilient and will find other methods to get their speeches out there and can get good messages out there,” Cohen said.