With hundreds of millions of young people flocking to TikTok, it’s quickly become Gen Z’s online Mecca for identity and expression. It’s also become a prominent arena for borderless political commentary, ideological formation, trolling (of course), and the bullseye for political parties looking to rally the youth before the next election.
As Malta’s third most downloaded app, it’s here to stay, and it’s going to change local politics as we know it.
Malta has one of the lowest voting ages in the world – any resident 16 and over can voice their beliefs at the ballot boxes here. With a general election rumoured to happen in just a year, politicians have no choice but to take TikTok more seriously: it’s a tool to tap into a pool of young, first-time voters who are less politically dogmatic than previous generations.
1. What is TikTok?
The Chinese app has over one billion downloads as of December 2020. It’s comprised of short, meme-style videos with a myriad of editing, music and dialogue options. Users can create or simply watch content that’s expressive and engaging on virtually any topic: from fun viral dance trends to satirical social commentary and everything in between.
It doesn’t sound groundbreaking, but there are points that set it apart from other social media portals. Speaking to the New York Times, American researchers described it as a platform that “enables collective political expression for youth – that is, it allows them to deliberately connect to a like-minded audience by using shared symbolic resources.”
Shared symbolic resources can be anything from objects like say, political party flags to visual symbols like closed fists used by leftist activists or even hashtags like #blacklivesmatter. There are also symbols specific to TikTok, like viral dances or pop soundtracks.
Young people are the most likely to care about what their peers think. Everyone on TikTok is some kind of activist, that is, a person being watched for doing something.
2. The Political TikTok.
TikTok, like Twitter, has banned political ads. But that doesn’t mean political TikToks aren’t there – it’s one of the most popular hashtags on the platform.
Similar to how people divulge their opinions on Facebook and other social media portals, TikTok for Gen Z is what cable news is for older people – with users campaigning for causes they care for and even forming virtual coalitions – called Hypehouses.
Hypehouses are an effective force for all views on the spectrum – and can help politicians understand which campaign messages resonate with its youthful audience.
A fresh case study has emerged through the U.S election.
Data collection and targeted online messaging played a fundamental role in the 2016 US presidential election and again in 2020.
Similar to how candidates in the 2016 election used Facebook to reach and persuade voters, a propaganda research lab in Austin Texas found that bespoke campaign apps by Biden and Trump allowed them to speak directly to voters and collect massive amounts of data, without needing to rely on big social media platforms that have fact-checkers and other rules.
The Conservative Hype House, composed of nine members who make pro-Republican memes, dance videos and fact-heavy monologues was one of the biggest political accounts on the app, with 1.5 million followers. In the run-up to the election, they encouraged users to download the Trump 2020 app, to get direct, un-checked texts about his campaign.
Half a million citizens downloaded it, which asked users for their identity, location, and control of their phone’s Bluetooth function. The TikTok page was deleted after Trump’s electoral defeat.
@sawyermcdTik tok really did that! A million wasted tickets hahahah #trumpresign #fyp #blm #joebiden #trumprally #tulsa #okboomer #bye #Summer2020 #xyzbca #fypp♬ yeeeee – cash moneyyyy
Meanwhile, last June, anti-Trump TikTok users were instrumental in a strategic blow to Donald Trump’s campaign run.
Gen-Zers on TikTok encouraged users to register online for his Tulsa rally and not turn up on the day. Organisers had boasted that more than a million people signed up to attend. On the day, large parts of the 19,000-person venue were void of people and an outside “overflow” area was dismantled.
What also helps drive home campaign messages is TikTok’s specifically-curated algorithm. TikTok’s main page, the personalised “for you page” consists of an endless stream of recommended videos comes from the large amounts of user data. Unlike Instagram or Facebook, it’s dominated less by big accounts – meaning anyone can go viral if the algorithm puts your content on the “for you page”.
3. How will it influence Malta’s political stage?
While we’re not seeing the full extent of TikTok’s impact on the local scene, we can note that politicians are making their way onto the platform to test the waters of Gen Z, while young activists are paving their own way.
Tiktokers unaffiliated with red and blue flags are also using it to mobilise or comment on current affairs.
The pro-choice movement in Malta has sprouted from the quiet table talk to full-blown discussions in the last two years. And while physical rallies for the cause had to stop because of the pandemic, activists are using the online sphere to push their battle cries.
Maya Dimitrivejic, a young pro-choice activist, has used the platform to rally support for one of Malta’s last taboo issues: abortion. Her meme videos are punchy, critical and educational, touching upon sexual health, consent, how to get abortion advice and politicians’ reluctance to take action on the issue.
Her short, funny videos have amassed nearly 100,000 views in total.
4. Maltese politicians are looking to TikTok to garner young people’s support
With a general election on the horizon, it’s clearly a part of the Nationalist Party’s strategy to appeal to youngsters. Opposition Leader Bernard Grech has jumped on the bandwagon, alongside other young political activists on @pn_tok.
In their debut TikTok, Bernard Grech joins PN youth president Eve Borg Bonello in a viral video trend. The dancers chose between the “better” options between two: PN or PL, personal greed or common good, change or status quo. It’s a light-hearted way to express their brand, in a 15-second moving meme.
It’s a straightforward way to appeal to youngsters who either don’t affiliate themselves with a Maltese party or are fed up with current leadership.
On the other political side, Junior Minister for Reforms Rosianne Cutajar is using TikTok to promote her image and work in government.
In one video, she celebrates Maltese women as part of a popular trend that uses snippets from Nelly’s hit single ‘Hot In Here’. It features former President Marie Louise Coleiro, Cutajar herself, MEP Josianne Cutajar, and Superintendent of Public Health Charmaine Gauci.
The video made local news after it brought a tirade of fiery comments, including that of Eve Borg Bonello, who criticised her for brokering a failed property deal for murder suspect Yorgen Fenech and accepting nearly €50,000 for it.
The comment section has since been deleted, but the heated exchanges paralleled ones seen on Maltese online groups on Facebook, which is today’s centre for public discourse. Its influence will only grow as the months go by.
5. It’s clear – the future of political campaigns lies with Tiktok.
Similar to how Joseph Muscat was the first to harness social media to rally support back in 2013, local politicians will surely use TikTok in the same way. And it’s not only to understand issues that Maltese Gen Zers care about – adults have downloaded the app exponentially during the pandemic too. Through short, eye-catching videos, candidates looking to rally support can go viral overnight.
We might not feel the impact of TikTok on local politics, but with the next election probably coming in the new year, parties better spruce up their dance moves.
Are you on Tiktok? Comment below