A news report two weeks ago stated that TikTok had hired lobbyists to work the Knesset. The report read as if it had been written almost with a wink and a nod: It’s true, this is a silly video-sharing app – but hey, serious things are happening there. Remember how the round of fighting in the Gaza Strip in May started with TikTok terror?
That’s an understandable approach. For anyone over the age of 20, the chances of even being exposed to TikTok are close to zero. But that’s a mistaken approach. The attitude toward this platform, and especially the attempts of its corporate owners to shape governmental policy worldwide, needs to be very serious. Researchers of the digital world are finding worrisome elements in it – precisely because of its ostensibly fanciful, non-serious sides. After all, at the beginning of the last decade, when Facebook became the world’s leading social media company, no one thought it would become a prime factor in making public discourse superficial, threatening political stability and being directly tied to human rights violations and even to genocide (in Myanmar).
TikTok is a platform for short video clips (originally limited to 15 seconds, now 60, and up to three minutes for a small number of select users), often of dance, singing and comedic performances. The vast majority users access it via cellphone, and there is also a limited internet version, similar to Instagram. What differentiates it from its competitors, as Dr. Crystal Abidin, an anthropologist who researchers web influencers, notes, is its focus on sound over image: The platform’s “privileges sound over vision.” The “Sound” (as it’s referred to on the platform) accompanying the video has a prominent place on the app’s screen, and users are urged to recycle it – for example, to lip-synch a segment from a song, or upload their own version of the dance being performed.
For instance, during the Israeli war against Hamas in Gaza two months ago, many TikTok creators expressing anti-Israeli sentiment, chose songs of opposition to the occupation as the soundtrack for explaining the Palestinians’ situation to worldwide audiences. Within a short time the label “Free Palestine” appeared on more than 50,000 clips, ranging from grim shots of the Strip being bombed to a makeup guide made by a beauty influencer. Alongside the originally uploaded clip, others can be found using its same soundtrack, with an invitation to users to immediately record their own video while reusing the underlying sound.
More than hashtags, which are familiar from other social media, a singular soundtrack and the ability to reinterpret it into a work of your own in order to instantly join the “conversation” that forms around the song, is what enables TikTok to become a meeting place for digital audiences that unite rapidly around one theme – whether it’s a new meme, an emerging hit song or a political movement.
Another distinctive trait of TikTok is the elimination of the feed, the succession of posts based on whom you follow, in favor of a unique personalized content delivery mechanism: the For You Page (FYP). Users do not have to create a profile on the app or follow other accounts themselves; those who enter the app the first time immediately receive recommended clips that are adjusted, approximately, to what the platform tries to infer about them based on their location or type of device. The moment a user begins to watch and approve or disapprove clips with a quick swipe of the finger – familiar from dating apps – TikTok “understands” which type of content will interest this user. The machine-learning algorithm behind the app remembers earlier preferences and draws conclusions that call up the relevant clips. Within days, even hours, users report a viewing experience that is amazingly personalized and they often wonder where all the hours of their life went while they viewed clips, each only a few seconds long, in rapid succession.
Recently ByteDance, the developer of TikTok, announced a monthly revenue of $34.3 billion from about 1.9 billion active users – a figure similar to that cited by YouTube for its current user numbers of around 2 billion. These numbers provide further perspective when we consider that YouTube began operating a decade earlier. The fusion between TikTok’s volatility vis-a-vis sparking viral trends and the ability of people to immediately create content that corresponds with those trends, has brought about the rise of a new generation of web influencers. Its practitioners are less interested in creating a uniform and/or consistent image from post to post, and are ready to try different styles and themes in an attempt to accumulate as many casual followers as possible.
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According to Abidin, these features, together with such events of the past year as the coronavirus pandemic or the Black Lives Matter protest, have definitively turned TikTok into a more political platform than its rivals, in terms of how creators are often expected to focus on social-justic issues to grab attention and enhance a given clip’s prestige and attract new followers.
Under the radar
How many political messages can be stuffed into an app characterized by hoards of silly clips with an average length of 10 seconds? A lot, it turns out. The classic example today is the organization by fans of Korean pop music (K-pop) in September 2020 against Donald Trump’s reelection campaign. Trump organized a mass rally in Oklahoma in defiance of the restrictions on public gatherings during the coronavirus crisis. He boasted on Twitter of over a million orders for tickets and promised that it would be the first of many such gatherings. In practice, however, there were many empty seats: It emerged that tens of thousands of TikTok users around the world ordered tickets under the radar and then canceled them, thereby preventing true supporters of Trump from getting seats. The rally, which was supposed to exemplify the president’s popularity, was a flop and was reported as such by established media outlets. Some view this gloomy – from the former president’s viewpoint – episode as the catalyst for his administration’s efforts to ban the use of the app in the United States in the ensuing months. That attempt proved unsuccessful; indeed, under President Joe Biden it has effectively been abandoned.
That dynamic recalls the ban on TikTok that had been implemented a few months earlier, in India. There, too, the popular platform had become suspect, both because of its ties to the regime in China and because it was seen as promoting national social movements opposing the government. However, TikTok, like other social media, can by the same token promote conservative views – and India is a good example of this.
In a study I conducted last year with my colleague Darsana Vijay, from the University of Toronto, we followed a specific soundtrack on TikTok and its connection to the 2019 election in India. Shortly before the election, groups of female pilgrims tried to pray in the Sabarimala Temple in the state of Kerala, where entry to women is forbidden by religious zealots, despite a decision by the Supreme Court (the similarity to the struggle of the Women of the Wall here in Israel is not coincidental). An excerpt from a short interview with one of the women who had been turned awaybecame a popular soundtrack for TikTok parodies, which mocked the way she spoke and cast doubt on her beliefs and even her sanity. The clips were characterized by motifs, both overt and less so, of the ruling party, BJP, including some of a religious and nationalist character.
Many of those who participated in the specific “sound” surrounding the woman’s interview were may well have been completely unaware of the sensitivity of the issue, or of the attempts of local BJP officials to appropriate it for their own purposes. They simply saw a viral trend and joined in. And therein, perhaps, lies TikTok’s greatest strength. The app’s tremendous popularity, its wacky image and the mysteries of the algorithm of the recommendations page ensure that popular content will spread. It does so, across linguistic spheres and geographical regions alike, with immense speed, without much thought – and in a situation of “context collapse,” a term coined by internet researchers Alice Marwick and Danah Boyd: That is, social media collapse the boundaries of the original discourse and reveal new audiences who may not understand the original context of what they published.
TikTok looks as though it was built especially for imitation without its users needing to delve too deeply into a subject. Millions of users are liable to find themselves adopting images, sounds and messages relating to causes and objectives they know nothing about. Moreover, a viral trend that appears to reflect a popular-based campaign of support for some cause or another can actually arise from some catchy sound in the original clip by a creator who unwittingly adopted that cause. It’s logical that some people would want to exploit this for additional political purposes, and that is what’s happening in practice.
The rise of TikTok and its covert-overt politics poses numberless dilemmas for users, parents, policy makers and web researchers. Unlike other huge platforms, such as Facebook and Google-owned YouTube, TikTok is Chinese-owned. It is not committed to transparency and democracy, not even in the form of lip-service, like its competitors. The lobbying services the app has hired in Israel can be seen as part of a typical effort by an economic or media player to influence relevant regulation in its favor. But one can also wonder about how TikTok perceives its role as a supplier of content – also of a political nature – for nearly one out of every four people on the planet, and about the methods it will use to consolidate its strength in countries where it enjoys popularity.
Alex Gekker is currently an assistant professor of new media and digital culture at the University of Amsterdam, and an incoming senior lecturer at Tel Aviv University.