Over the last few years, TikTok has become the most effective platform for communicating with the largest possible audience in the shortest amount of time. Despite the company’s attempts to be considered an apolitical app that is purely for entertainment, TikTok is now one of the most widely consumed sources of political discourse and activist content. With users spending an average of 95 minutes per day on the platform, its influence is overwhelming.

How Things Go “Viral”

Structured to make ideas go viral, TikTok is a birthplace of trends today. Creators don’t need an existing audience — activist influencers can emerge from a single viral video and relatively small accounts can spread ideas far beyond the reach of their own followers.

The algorithm recommends videos on a user’s For You Page (FYP) based on similar content they have engaged with. This viral-ready framework has fostered many successful niche communities around shared interests – including youth activism. If you engage with activist posts, your FYP will fill up with them.

How TikTok Has Changed Online Activism

TikTok users are more likely to engage in political activities because of TikTok.

For a generation of users that has often been discounted and underestimated, TikTokers are behind a lot of grassroots social change. The platform has been effective in spreading information and getting people to act on their political beliefs, with 77% of users saying TikTok has helped them learn about social justice and politics.

And while TikTok has a ban on paid political ads, some content creators are bypassing this rule by creating activist profiles, with the algorithm determining what goes viral.

Compared with Instagram and Twitter, fewer users on TikTok post content. And although Twitter and Facebook remain popular for news, TikTok has grown exponentially, with 26% of adults under 30 getting news from the platform. Additionally, TikTok has the unnerving power of shaping public sentiments as it strips away expert opinions and turns random users into trusted voices. People with no background in advocacy or research can shill unverified claims and news.

Social Movements on TikTok

Communities form under TikTok activist hashtags, leading to a feedback loop of viral clips and offline activism.

In one such example, K-pop fans took to TikTok to sell out tickets to a Trump rally in Tulsa, with no intention of showing up. This resulted in a million ticket reservations but only 6,200 actual attendees — less than half the venue capacity of 19,000. “Political TikTok” made its views visible through empty seats.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Washington Post reported in March 2022 that the White House was briefing TikTok stars about the war in Ukraine. Thirty macro-influencers joined a Zoom call, where they were briefed on the US’s strategic goal and how to talk about the war online. TikTok became a key news source, even offering some of the first glimpses of the Russian invasion, as young Ukrainian creators documented what was happening in their hometowns.

And after the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, TikTok users in states where abortion rights are protected offered their homes as safe spaces for women who could no longer access the procedure. However, misinformation also permeated the app with poisonous herbs being recommended as a “natural” means of ending unwanted pregnancies, leading to an 86% increase in Google searches for ‘DIY abortions.’

The Problem of Misinformation

Like on YouTube, posts can quickly devolve into conspiracy videos and misinformation. With a lack of fact-checking on the platform, anyone’s opinion is taken as fact.

“It’s the life cycle of a user-generated content platform that once it reaches a critical mass, it runs into content moderation problems,” said Evelyn Douek, an assistant professor at Stanford Law School whose research focuses on online speech.

Rumors, conspiracy theories, and clickbait-y or visually captivating videos often rise quickly to the top of users’ algorithms. Because they’re often made up of innocuous video and audio files, they’re difficult for moderation algorithms to detect. With 33% of users saying they get their news from the app, it is a jarring evolution, where virality can apply to a funny song alongside divisive politica. content. TikTok is great at stoking extremism. After all, sensationalism attracts more attention than a depiction of what the average person thinks.

The lack of fact checking on TikTok puts the burden on users to identify misinformation. Young people online are just as susceptible to misinformation as older people, leading to an influx of fake news and doctored clips. Researchers at NewsGuard searched for content about prominent news topics on TikTok and say they found that nearly 1 in 5 of the videos automatically suggested by the platform contained misinformation.

Shadow Banning

TikTok has often been accused of “shadow banning,” an online term used for when the algorithm purposefully doesn’t put particular content on users’ FYP. Last year, after facing criticism for burying content from queer, fat, and disabled creators, TikTok admitted that its algorithm may have inadvertently played a role in suppressing the reach of creators considered “vulnerable to cyberbullying.” The company claimed these discriminatory policies were no longer in use, though racist videos and challenges continue to populate the app.

The Future of TikTok Activism

Creators are using TikTok to have real, important conversations — and the popularity of its online activism content speaks to Gen Z’s desire to share information amongst their peers. TikTok also provides an avenue for activists, regardless of the size of their followings, to share content that personally affects them.

TikTok’s user experience can be less performative than other platforms because users can remain anonymous and “likes” are private. People only really have to participate if they want to, allowing users to do their own activism outside the platform if they feel so inspired.

However, as misinformation continues to settle into the app, it will be critical for TikTok to respond in a way that prioritizes truth and stamps out misinformation.