TikTok didn’t exist in 2016, so this is the first presidential election with the app in play. In that respect, it’s a major test of TikTok’s moderation system.
Last week, TikTok addressed how it’s been fact-checking and moderating election content, and added that it’s partnered with the Associated Press to crack down on “content that prematurely claims victory in a race before results are confirmed.”
The company released a transparency report in September, boasting that through a combination of human moderators and automated efforts, 96.4 percent of videos that were removed for violating community guidelines in the first six months of 2020 were taken down before someone reported it. TikTok recently cracked down on QAnon content and hate speech, though misinfo about QAnon had already been circulating on the app for a year. As the app continues to grow, its team of moderators will have to as well. (TikTok did not offer comment on how it plans to step up moderation after the election.)
Notably, neither Joe Biden nor Donald Trump has an official TikTok account, so young and first-time voters have picked up the slack, creating grassroots, politically-focused accounts that engage with the app’s Gen Z base. That also means that while TikTok has banned political ads, it has less control over influencers partnering with political action committees to support a certain candidate, often for money.
I don’t comment on or like TikToks. I am but a simple scroller. My FYP has, for the most part, been blissfully devoid of political content, but I suspected the week before the election might be different, and that misinfo might be more rampant. (And the app can measure how long I watch something, which factors into the FYP.)
Without actively seeking out or interacting with any political content, here’s what started showing up in my feed.
One of the first things I saw was Mandy Patinkin and his wife Kathryn Grody, who arrived on TikTok earlier this month, in the wake of the Ocean Spray wave, and quickly started using the platform to engage with voters, using TikTok trends and dances.
I follow Claudia Conway, so TikTok fed me a lot of her content, but the 16-year-old has become a divisive figure, and not just for her anti-Trump stance. I was served several videos of fellow Gen Z-ers calling her out for throwing a birthday party less than a month after she and her mother, Kellyanne Conway, tested positive for COVID.
And then there were just a lot of videos about managing anxiety.
I was fed more of a spectrum, seeing both pro- and anti-Trump videos. One TikTok from Maren Altman assessed Trump’s health through his astrological chart. Altman, whose videos focus on astrology, tells the Daily Dot one of her TikToks was flagged for “inaccurate information,” but says she was “only predicting, not making clear claims.” (She didn't state which video it was.)
There was a clip from the account karenwatch, which collects Karen videos, and another Claudia Conway video: This time a theory about her activism being “performative” and the drama with her mother a bit to “save reputations.”
TikTok for Biden, one of the many accounts trying to engage with Gen Z voters, also appeared in my feed. As Wired pointed out in a recent piece about TikTok and the youth vote, with many college campuses closed, TikTok became a default campus for getting people informed and telling them how to get registered. Virtual TikTok "houses" have also formed to activate young voters for Biden.
I’m suddenly seeing way more Pete Buttigieg content—mostly clips of him destroying people on Fox News, or destroying hecklers while stumping for Biden.
One of the accounts using Among Us in a more creative way is MemePAC, a political action committee looking to unseat Trump. Founder Jackie Ni recently told Business Insider: "After seeing the impact of the Lincoln Project, I wanted to create my own super PAC that focuses on the youth."
Ni, 18, tells the Daily Dot he programmed all the interactive games posted to TikTok, like the Among Us “ejector” simulator and a program that replaces MAGA hats in photos. He says some of MemePAC's videos have been flagged as "inappropriate even though they are completely legitimate. I'm assuming some Trump supporters are reporting our content."
There’s noticeably more Trump content, though many videos are of young people reacting to their parents political views. "My brown dad being a trump supporter and going on zoom meetings WITH OTHER BROWN DADS WHO SUPPORT TRUMP," stated one TikTok.
More PatinkinTok, and I started to see way more political content from early October and even late September, including the apparent origin of the "Cult 45" sound bite.
I'm seeing multiple videos about the Biden bus incident in Texas, including some misinfo about exactly what happened. TikTok also showed me the Claudia Conway video from when she got COVID… in the beginning of October.
Aaaaand we're back to videos about anxiety.