As Megan Thee Stallion raps about her longings for love, a young woman is recorded in her bedroom, walking to her phone in sweatpants and a T-shirt.
By synchronizing with the beat of the track, it goes down. This is usually the part where TikTok creators pivot and show off in a new, glamorous outfit.
However, a 49-year-old man appears in a suit and tiemirroring the woman’s dancing pose before crouching on the office floor, with an American flag on a stand behind her.
“Hey, are you registered to vote?” asks Ken Russell, a Democratic congressional candidate from Florida, crawling toward his phone screen. “There are primaries on August 23rd and the general election on November 8th. Wait, come back, wait…”
A couple of Chapman University students reviewing the video while on campus are silent for a few seconds. Then they pronounce it “cheesy” and “weird”.
“Okay, it’s a girl posting a thirst trap and all of a sudden it’s a guy,” said 20-year-old Katarina Maric. “I thought it was a little strange.”
But at Cal State Long Beach, Keaton Safu passed. The 18-year-old thought Russell’s eight-second clip was just right for TikTok users with little time or attention spans: “He said, ‘Okay, listen, this is when the election is coming up, vote now.” Boom! That’s all the information I need.”
Many TikTok users agreed. Russell’s video went viral.
As the Gen Z social media app has grown in popularity, with more than 138 million active users in the U.S., politicians are jumping on board, trying to attract young voters.
Politicians “try to establish a presence and a foothold wherever people go,” said Thad Kousser, a professor of political science at UC San Diego. “That’s really what TikTok is about today. The bet is that the voters and donors of the next five to 10 years will be people who will use it as their social media of choice.”
But how to do it right? There’s the need to be completely authentic and keep the videos ultra-short, a murky backlash over security concerns, and the danger of coming off as the ubiquitous meme of a Steve Buscemi character asking “how are you guys”
The biggest challenge, according to Kousser? Pass the “teen eye attention test”.
Calling Generation Z
“Young people are valuable campaign assets,” said Michael Cornfield, an associate professor of political management at George Washington University who has studied the rise of Internet politics since the 2000s. can i get you to give me [your] email address, maybe I can volunteer you. Maybe I can get you to share content with your friends and your social network. Maybe I can get him to donate money.”
Elise Joshi, 20, deputy executive director of Gen Z for Change, a nonprofit that uses TikTok to promote civic engagement and help elect progressive candidates, said the platform offers politicians a valuable opportunity.
“If you want to win, you have an untapped generation that cares a lot about issues but doesn’t vote often because they don’t feel like they have an option that speaks to them,” Joshi said.
TikTok, which first gained traction with teenagers for its viral dances and challenges, soared in popularity during the pandemic as people sought a break from collective sadness. And it’s become a favorite search engine for Gen Z, as users search for new sites and interesting niche communities, and scroll through bits of news.
TikTok and its young users (many rejecting carefully planned, curated photos) helped usher in one new era of internet culture.
They were telling their peers it was okay if they were having trouble coping with the pandemic or putting on a few pounds during quarantine, said Alessandro Bogliari, CEO and co-founder of the Influencer Marketing Factory, which connects influencers and brands. Gen Z started choosing not to use filters because it created an unrealistic benchmark, he said.
“The term ‘authenticity’ has become an absolutely huge buzzword,” Bogliari, 31, said.
Young social media users can recognize “in an instant” if a video isn’t genuine or if a politician was relying on an intern for leadership, Joshi said. For politicians who do well, however, “you can see them, hear them and feel their passion. It’s hard to feel passion for some characters on Twitter and through pictures on Instagram,” he said.
Here’s how Rhode Island state Sen. Tiara Mack, 28, has been approaching her social media platforms since being elected in 2020.
On TikTok, she talks about the importance of abortion funding, her work as “Rhode Island’s first openly queer black senator elected,” and political and voting issues. He also makes an effort to have fun. In one clip, she smiles while wearing a rainbow crochet bikini top and a pink cowgirl hat. “I’m not a regular senator, I’m a HOT senator 🌈,” the caption reads. In another clip, she’s on the beach in a bikini, twerking while holding a headstand. “Vote for Senator Mack!” she says to the camera.
The eight-second video came out viral, which Mack has said was a target. He brought his hate mail along with interview requests from national outlets. “It was like a way to be silly, but also be like, I’m a young, attractive senator and I have a platform to talk about the things I want,” she said.
Feeding the algorithm
TikTok is algorithm-based, meaning its system will curate what appears on a user’s For You page. The more a user engages, the more the system will display similar content while occasionally mixing in other material. Users are encouraged to post videos, usually selfie-style clips of less than a minute, in the hope that they will gain enough traction to appear on channels. Strangers determine in seconds whether they like the content.
Newbie candidates tend to do well on TikTok because of the risk they take with content, some accidentally seizing on “meta cringe” moments, said Marcus Bösch, a researcher who studies the platform at the University of Applied Sciences in Hamburg.
Brian Hawkins, a 43-year-old Republican pastor challenging Democratic Rep. Raul Ruiz in a district that includes parts of the Inland Empire and Imperial County, had good luck with his first post, getting more than 1 million views.
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In the 51 second clip published last year, he is billed as “California’s most dangerous political figure.” He walks down the middle of a street in San Jacinto declaring: “I’m black. I’m conservative. I collect the blue. I protect the 2nd amendment. I’m pro-life, all life, all your life.”
More than 12,000 users from all over the country left comments. “I’m from California….AND YOU HAVE MY VOTE MR BRIAN HAWKINS!!!” one user wrote. Another commented: “Political adds are turning into wrestler intros and I’m here for it.”
Hawkins is one of a handful of Republican politicians who use the app. The use of TikTok among politicians skews Democratic, with many in the GOP, and some Democrats, expressing concern about the app’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance. Scrutiny over TikTok’s data practices revolves around concerns that the company could send user information to China. Friday, the New York Times reported research indicating that the app could track users’ keystrokes. There are also concerns that the algorithm could be tampered with to change the tone of public discourse.
The Democratic National Committee warned staffers in 2020 against the app, but said if it was needed for campaign work, they should use a separate device and account. The DNC joined TikTok this year. The Republican National Committee does not have an account on the platform.
Some candidates interviewed for this story expressed minimal concern about how the app handles US user data. San Fernando Valley Representative Tony Cárdenas said he used a separate mobile device when recording TikToks. Hawkins said he wasn’t concerned about the issue.
The final result of TikTok
Will collecting likes and opinions, even a million of them, help candidates win their races? It’s too early to tell, say political analysts. At the very least, they say, outreach helps lay the groundwork for trying to educate, encourage and engage young people in politics.
Cárdenas, who is seeking re-election, learned through his staff that the platform was a way to meet “a lot of people where they are, especially younger people.”
In a video, he shared what it was like to bring his employee’s dog, Teddy, the unofficial office cavapoo mascot, to work in the Capitol. The theme song from “The Office” played as the pup took phone calls, heard office jokes and laid on the floor. Finally, Teddy sat in the chair at Cardenas’ desk while an employee tried to explain the paperwork.
Cárdenas, who described himself as a “pretty serious guy,” said he’s willing to try “tossing and turning around” with trendy dance moves to reach young people. Staff have talked him out of trying some, though he’s still considering the jiggle jiggle dance, as he tries to work on keeping users’ attention while he talk about topics or demystifies what it is to work in the Capitol.
“Whether it means laughing at myself a little bit or having people laugh at me,” he said. “It doesn’t hurt me. But at the end of the day, it’s going to be better for everybody.”
What’s with the rolled eyes?
Katarina Maric and her friend Alanna Sayer, 20, the Chapman students who thought Russell’s video was cheesy, said they prefer traditional campaign promotions such as literature and campaign websites.
“When I go on TikTok it’s because I try to watch funny and entertaining videos,” said Maric, who is not registered to vote. “Not because I’m trying to get like a lesson in politics.”
Both students said they liked Cárdenas’ video with Teddy because of the cute dog and the jingle they recognized. Hawkins, they said, tried too hard “to be relatable and likeable” and the clip was too long. And Mack’s twerking made them feel uncomfortable and embarrassed.
“I don’t take them seriously if they’re on TikTok or like doing that kind of stuff,” said Sayer, a registered Republican who plans to vote in November.
The “reality factor”
For some like Rep. Katie Porter in Orange County, the “reality factor” is enough to do well on the platform, said Bösch, who analyzes how TikTok works.
Porter, an internet expert, joined the platform in May and has already amassed more than 300,000 followers. The Irvine Democrat’s account bio reads, “Minivan-driving single mom, law professor, consumer advocate 🚙👩🏫.” Her videos highlight what she is best known for: holding corporations accountable while handling a white board. At least six of his videos have surpassed one million views.
And Porter, as a mother of three, doesn’t have to go far to see if she’s passing the eye test. “There is some suggestion that my posts are creepy,” he said, “but I think it’s pretty standard for kids to tell their parents.”