On TikTok, the partisan fury of the 2020 election is just a swipe away

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TikTok video and election influence

People on TikTok are talking politics ahead of the 2020 US election. 

James Martin/CNET

have busted out dance moves, honed their comedy chops and showcased pranking skills in quirky 15-second videos set to music. Now, as the US presidential campaign continues to heat up with , they’re filling the oddly addictive app with political opinions, too.

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TikTok user Lillith Ashworth uses a stick of deodorant as a mock mic as she talks about the Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. 

Screenshot by Queenie Wong/CNET

In an October video, speaks into a stick of deodorant as if it were a microphone while critiquing Democratic presidential candidates, whose photos pop up behind her. “I don’t know who took Uncle Joe out [of] the nursing home,” she says, referring to former Vice President Joe Biden, “but they need to put him back.” The , posted after last month’s debate, has more than 2 million views. 

Lillith Ashworth, the 18-year-old University of Michigan student who made the video, was caught off guard by the reaction. “A lot of people don’t agree with me,” said Ashworth, who has 26,000 follow. So do broader social commentaries that bait liberals or slam conservatives. The bite-size political messages, which can run as long as a minute but are often much shorter, appear to be showing up more frequently as the impeachment inquiry and election developments overwhelm the news cycle. 

Unlike Twitter or Facebook, where candidates often have official accounts, almost all the political videos on TikTok are created by users. Pro-Trump messages dominate, and videos bearing the hashtag have generated more than 257 million views, surpassing hashtags referring to Democratic presidential candidates, including Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. The Trump hashtag has also garnered more views than , which has 160 million, or with 13 million views. 

Reaching young voters

The spike in , which is growing at a fast pace and recently . A spokesperson said the company doesn’t see a lot of inaccurate content posted and may remove an account or content that “harms, defrauds, or misleads other users.” The company hasn’t estimated how much political content is on the platform.

Unlike at other social networks, best practices for TikTok haven’t been established. That means campaigns considering experiments in short video face a steep learning curve. Boiling complex issues into music-driven messages might prove tricky, experts say. Instead of doing it themselves, candidates might lean on influencers with large followings to post about their campaigns or a particular issue.

“It’s a huge hill to climb and people aren’t sure whether it’s going to be worth it,” said Kevin Singer, a senior account executive with Rally, an issue-driven communications firm.

The Trump, Warren, Sanders and Biden campaigns didn’t respond to questions about TikTok.

It’s unclear how many of TikTok’s users are registered voters, but its fast pace and ease of use make it an attractive place for young people to talk politics and national issues. In 2020, one in 10 eligible voters will be between the ages 18 to 23, members of a group widely known as Gen Z, according to the .

John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, said political TikTok videos could be a “kickstarter” to more in-depth conversations.  “As many different ways in which we can talk about the relevancy of politics, the better, as far as I’m concerned,” said Volpe, who studies American youth and politics. 

TikTok’s audience is smaller than those of Facebook and Instagram, its photo-sharing service, but it’s growing quickly. As of August, TikTok had 17.6 million US unique mobile visitors aged 18 and older, more than double a year earlier, according to an , citing data from Comscore.