Since its inception in 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement has shed unprecedented light on the plight of Black Americans and police brutality in this country using the power of the internet and virality.
This summer, the movement has exploded with more momentum than ever through viral Twitter videos, TikToks, Instagram graphics, online fundraising, and mutual aid organizing. As with most things online, the posts dissipate into old news. However, the stakes of this movement are too high for the message to fade into irrelevance. A few months have passed, but it’s clear the internet has changed for good.
In late May, the growing online discourse over nationwide protests and racial tensions in the U.S. reached a boiling point. From hundreds of miles away, within the sweltering heat of summer in the Bahamas, 15-year-old Aggi Lockhart was growing frustrated.
Lockhart’s social media feed was full of people quoting Martin Luther King Jr. and “misinterpreting his message of peace,” she told the Daily Dot, referring to critiques of looting and riots happening around the country: “This isn’t what MLK would have wanted.”
Narratives were running rampant online, and Lockhart wanted to make things clear. So as millions took to the streets to call for justice, Lockhart did what is second nature to much of Generation Z and broadcasted her thoughts onto the vastness of the internet—through TikTok.
“Y’all can talk about peace and coming together, but I’m mad,” Lockhart said in a video uploaded in May. “I want to argue, I want to yell, I want a revolution, I want to riot.”
Gen Z is confined by Pew Research as people within the ages of 7 to 22. They have little to no memory of 9/11 and are greatly defined by their ongoing relationships to technology and social media. The implications of which are only now coming into focus, wrote Michael Dimock, Pew Research Center president, in a 2018 Pew Research article. If you really want to step into the world of this generation, then TikTok, a young-leaning platform with 100 million U.S. users, is the perfect place to start.
This series of TikTok videos featuring Lockhart in her bedroom clad in a bonnet and dark purple lipstick garnered over 90,000 views. Now Lockhart, known as @daddyspiderlashes on the platform, has over 115,000 followers. At 16 years old, she occupies her time by regularly breaking down leftist ideals, debunking misconceptions about racism to her mostly young, radically left followers while gaining more every day.
Activism and social media have always gone hand in hand, but this summer, the two became one as the nation erupted into unrest, and it seems that TikTok is the newest frontier for young activists.
When they weren’t marching, many young people like Lockhart took their frustrations to TikTok. Without meaning to, many of them went viral, and incidentally, became a voice for the movement on everyone’s minds. All of a sudden, interpreting algorithms and making viral videos are how Gen Z sparks change online.
The revolution will be TikTok‘d
When you think of activist leaders, you might picture them behind a podium or among a crowd of protesters, the way so many were photographed throughout history. Today, young activists are spending more time behind a phone screen than a podium, and reaching more people because of it. Lockhart, a member of her high school’s debate team, has always strived to be a leader for social change, but it wasn’t until TikTok that she was able to do so, she said.
Lockhart describes her page as a place for political education, activism, and fun. In another one of her videos, a heavy filter out of an acid trip blankets Lockhart as she strikes a series of poses for the camera. She doesn’t say anything, but a block of text covers her face that starts off with “You cannot hope to solve racism without the abolition of race.” The heavy bass of Tokyo’s Revenge song “GOODMORNINGTOKYO!” blares throughout. The video with just above 25,000 views is a pretty typical post for Lockhart.
TikTok’s algorithm lends about 50,000 pairs of eyes on a good day, she said. If she makes about 14 videos a week, at least two will get upward of 20,000 likes. Using popular “sounds” and the right hashtags help her reach more viewers. Viewer counts can even depend on how passionate she seems to be about the topic. It took her about two months to get the hang of how the algorithm can help viewers reach her content.
“I think people need to see this kind of education, to be honest,” Lockhart said. “I think people need to see different viewpoints that they may not have thought of before and I think TikTok can do that.”
Social media has largely opened the conversation surrounding race and police brutality within the last decade. Now, millions can see brutality at the hands of the police first-hand thanks to cell phones, Angelo Pinto told the Daily Dot, movement lawyer and co-founder of the UntilFreedom, a recently founded social justice “clearinghouse” for advocates and budding activists. Pinto added that the same cameras also make it harder to ignore and deny everyday acts of racism Black people experience now that new videos of racist “Karens” surface almost daily on TikTok and Twitter as evidence.
Social justice organizations like UntilFreedom have been given more visibility, Pinto said. Education and conversations about social issues have been made more accessible than ever, thanks to social media, and that trend continues as more activists like Lockhart turn dense topics into digestible minute-long TikTok videos for very young audiences.
From memes to the streets
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, TikTok has become the world’s latest social media obsession and made headlines related to privacy concerns and President Donald Trump’s previous threats to ban the app. For a while, the platform remained free of politics and was largely a great means of escape through cute animal videos, dance trends, food, and other niche interests. But this summer, politics and activism found a home on TikTok.
Swarms of the app’s largest creators like Charli D’Amelio, 16, put a pause on their regular content to show support of Black Lives Matter and condemn racism. Black users accused the app of censoring content, and thousands changed their avatars to BLM-related imagery. It was an intense summer for TikTok that even found the app’s top brass apologizing for censorship.
“As a person who has been given the platform to be an influencer, I realize that with that title I have a job to inform people on the racial inequalities in the world right now,” D’Amelio, TikTok’s most followed creator, said in one video.
Since this summer’s protests, white influencers across the internet have reckoned with their silence and apolitical presence during a time of extreme racial tensions. Lockhart said she’s seen more news-sharing and politics on TikTok and that she herself gets most of her news through the app.
“I think after summer, it definitely became a lot more divided,” Lockhart said. “I think a lot of people showed their true colors and I think it gave a lot of people a platform to speak about their beliefs.”
TikTok creator @lakewoodpapi is one of those creators. With over 400,000 followers, his videos receive upward of about 100,000 views each. In them, he sheds light on specific instances of white privilege and takes time to break down the big political news of the day in an approachable or oftentimes funny way: His reaction to a Don Lemon broadcast was one of his more viewed videos. Again no words, just his facial expressions over a photo of Lemon with a popular TikTok audio.
To an outsider, these videos might seem random and even nonsensical. Don’t be fooled, though, these creators are using the meme language of TikTok to share information—and their followers are getting the message loud and clear.
TikTok for voting
As the general election neared this fall, the stakes for activists grew higher than ever. While traditional influencers and celebrities used their “I Voted!” selfies to encourage young followers to vote, many TikTok creators took it a step further..
In early October, the TikTok for Biden account launched as an effort to spread awareness and garner votes for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. The coalition, which was not directly affiliated with the Biden-Harris campaign, had over 200 content creators, most of them between the ages of 16 and 22 and with whopping 100 million followers among them.
In a Zoom call with the Daily Dot, TikTok influencers Aiden Kohn-Murphy, Brooklynne Webb, and Brendan Radecki recalled how the idea for TikTok for Biden came to be. They live in different parts of the U.S. and Canada but met each other through TikTok. On the night of the first presidential debate, the three formed a group chat motivated by the chaos of the debate to see how they could use their following to help elect Biden.
Kohn-Murphy, 16, is the lead organizer of the group and goes by @politicaljew on TikTok. He said the cohort wanted to accomplish their goal of electing Biden through a number of ways. Some of them were through voter registration campaigns, volunteer phone bank events, and merchandise sales, the profits of which they said would go Democratic Senate campaigns, Black Lives Matter, and other organizations.
Education and social justice are admittedly not what group member Brooklynne Webb, aka @xobrooklynne, initially set out to do on the platform. The 16-year-old, who has over 6.5 million followers, is one of TikTok for Biden’s biggest influencers—and she’s not even an American citizen.
“Personally, I found myself not paying as much attention until I genuinely started to see more people talking on TikTok, which over time got me more motivated to do my own research and really look into all these social justice issues and everything going on in the world,” said Webb, who lives in Canada.
Ignorance was no longer an option for these teens who wanted to do everything they could to elect Biden, despite the fact that many of them can’t vote.
Young people like Lockhart and Webb get more of their news and information about social issues from TikTok. Webb predicts that this is because short videos appeal to increasingly shrinking attention spans. The app’s unique For You page only makes it more addicting.
In a June blog post, TikTok revealed some of the mechanics behind its mysterious For You page. This feed is powered by a recommendation system that delivers content uniquely catered to each user, so no two For You feeds are the same. The app bases recommendations on everything from user interactions to device settings.
This algorithm helps creators like Lockhart reach audiences who might be interested in her content while things like sounds, memes, hashtags created on the app help her reach those who might not have been involved with political content before.
“I think a lot of it is like the way it gets content out through its algorithm and kind of how it provides tools to make digestible content that people would want to watch,” Lockhart said.
Another example of this combination of ingredients lies within a recent trend where users celebrated Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) birthday with a series of makeup videos. What looks like a normal makeup tutorial video is accompanied with audio from Ocasio-Cortez’s July 2020 speech addressing the way she was verbally attacked by Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla).
TikTok for Biden insists they didn’t just preach to the choir. The focus was on mobilization of young people, Kohn-Murphy said, more so than persuasion. “We’re preaching to a readily able choir, and what we’re asking of them is to sing,” he said.
According to a GlobalWebIndex statistic, 14% of TikTok users are aged 16 to 24. Young people within the age range of 18 to 29 have historically lower voter turnout than older groups, making TikTok a sensible place to campaign to young people.
“If we can get like 0.1% of our followers to register to vote, that’s 100,000 people, that is so many people,” Kohn-Murphy said. “We have so many combined followers that we can truly flip a state.”
Biden won the election, but members of TikTok for Biden are not done yet. After sharing a whirlwind of Biden-win TikToks, the group changed its name to Gen Z For Change.
“Our journey to making this country a place where everyone can live safely and happily has only just begun,” a member said in a post.
Shaping the future
Since the outburst of 2020 protests and online activism, there has been an unprecedented shift in cultural discourse when it comes to social justice and racism, Pinto told the Daily Dot. “We’re seeing some major shifts happening, that are normalizing important language, that are really about the ways in which people see the world,” Pinto said. “So I think it’s a powerful moment.”
Moving forward, Pinto and UntilFreedom will work with influencers to help amplify their stories and social justice campaigns online. After that, Pinto said, it’s about connecting the people online to action in real life, like making calls to their elected officials and voting.
Gen Z is putting higher stakes within government elections and social justice issues than any other age group, Kohn-Murphy said. Youth led political campaigns and the growing community of activists on TikTok and elsewhere attest to that.
It’s easy to see that many teen influencers have more reach on platforms like TikTok than some of history’s famous activists did from behind their podiums. On it, they’re tackling some of the most polarizing issues facing our nation—and yes, people are listening.
It’s unclear what impact TikTok for Biden had on the voter turnout of the election, but it is clear that it’s are opening the door for more political campaigns targeted towards young people on the platform. The impact of this summer’s events continues to echo throughout the country and online. TikTok isn’t just a place for animal videos and dancing anymore, thanks to the work from young influencers like Lockhart who’ve made a small career from meme-ify social justice issues.
“You always hear people saying, like, you’re too young, you don’t know what’s right, what’s wrong,” Radecki said. “So it’s really encouraging to see people listening or even, you know, giving us a chance to talk about these things.”
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