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How young people are using TikTok to get political this general election

From Tory teens to dancing to the Labour manifesto pledges, Stormzy’s ‘Vossi Bop’ and #privateschoolcheck , TikTok is becoming a dynamic space for political debate

In 2010, student protests raged against devastating Tory-Lib Dem cuts to education and the tripling of university fees, sparking a youth-led mass movement that would come to define the next decade of young people’s political fervour. In 2017, we had the ‘youthquake’ – a surge in the youth vote that was vital for Labour. Now in 2019, this turbulent election trial has seen people mobilise IRL and URL – thousands have pounded the pavements to canvass, many for the very first time, while lots of the most striking moments have been fought out on Twitter and memed enmasse. This year, another political arena has emerged – TikTok.

The overarching political feeling among TikTok users is divisive and wide-ranging, using the full elements of the app to push their message, challenge what political candidates have been saying or doing, and make their own statements. Teenagers under the #privateschoolcheck hashtag lounge in their dorms with sunglasses on, pointing to a miniscule text overlay that you can only read by squinting and holding your phone close: “Don’t vote Corbyn”, it says, a Migos tune as the soundtrack. Others use the lipsyncing and music features to jump on already popular challenges and meme formats – one user, jumping on the ‘Enough from the clown!’ dialogue snippet from Batman, which makes the rounds on TikTok, presents a skit as Jeremy Corbyn in a Russian Cossack hat, facing off with taxpayers “five years into a Labour government”. “Absolutely despite Corbyn,” the caption reads, “but the man does provide quality content.” One ironically and incredulously uses Counting Crow’s “so she said ‘what’s the problem baby’?” lyrics while listing austerity cuts and stats on increasing homelessness onscreen. Stormzy’s “Vossi Bop” is popular among Labour supporters on the app, who lipsync along to the now infamous line “I could never die, I'm Chuck Norris, fuck the government and fuck Boris”. University political societies, like Durham’s Labour group, have also been active on the app.

Gareth Bentley, 27, from south London has created nine political TikToks on the short-form video app, with a pro-Labour, anti-Conservative message. He’s been a Labour Party member for several years, and tells Dazed that he owns a Labour-branded water bottle – basically, he’s politically engaged on and offline: “I discovered TikTok just before the election, and the two things just kind of dovetailed,” he says. “I thought it would be fun to try and get young people engaged, as most youngsters don’t vote.”

Bentley’s TikToks include one skit dancing with the Labour party manifesto, spelling out its main pledges on climate change and the NHS. Another utilises a popular meme format that involves lipsyncing to “It Doesn’t Matter” – posing as the Liberal Democrat party, Bentley runs through galling headlines about the Grenfell Tower fire and increased food bank usage while shrugging his shoulders, mouthing “oh, well!” to criticise their actions on the issues.

Bentley says he’s found the TikToks to be most successful when reshared on Twitter in left-wing circles, rather than on the app itself. On Twitter, he’s garnered thousands of views across multiple videos. “They’ve really just become a fun thing for me to make in-between going canvassing,” he adds. Rather than aiming to change people’s hearts and minds, Bentley is happy to boost Labour voters’ spirits. “I'm under no illusion that they actually convince people, but they probably raise morale on the Labour side.”

“I got recognised as ‘the TikTok guy’ at canvassing a few days ago – that was weird, but cool.”

While it recalls the days of Vine (RIP, gone but not forgotten) and champions its not-serious spirit, Bentley says it does make him feel old – 41 per cent of TikTok users are aged between 16 and 24. “A few kids are mocking how old I am, and a few private school kids are hating on me, but, on the whole it’s good,” he adds.

Adam Cooper Hill, a 16-year-old from Leicester, has been one of the most consistent young Conservative voices on the app, creating dozens of short form videos backing Boris Johnson and reacting incredulously to Labour policies. His account, @BackBorisJohnson_ has 1,100 follows, with one video, in which he announces himself as a proud young Tory, reaching over 30,000 views.  “Some people love my videos, and some people hate them. I welcome all views. I use TikTok to give reasons why Boris is the best man to run the country and to have good political debates with other young people. (TikTok) gives teens a reason to get into politics.”

He adds that in “real life”, he would describe himself as “central”, though his profile remains pro-Brexit Party and pro-Conservative. “I believe there is no perfect government, and would love to see democracy happen. Yes, Boris Johnson has said some wrong things in life, but 90 per cent are blown out of context and lies from the media.”

Though not old enough to vote, Cooper Hill says he’s remained active and engaged across the election campaign, finding allies mostly in young Conservative men on the app. He relates that the most backlash he receives are from “Labour girls”. In the days leading up to the election, he claims to have received multiple death threats on the app. 

20-year-old David Charles Lam, from Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland, created a series of TikToks that highlight the failings of NI’s DUP. The Democratic Unionist Party – who propped up Theresa May’s Tory government following a supply deal – are notorious for their regressive, anti-LGBTQ+ politics and last year’s RHI scandal, which forced the collapse of NI’s parliament. Lam particularly highlights the importance of getting the DUP out in today’s vote.

“Being as political as I am in real life, it was inevitable that I would make political videos among the ‘silly’ ones,” Lam says. “I’ve seen hundreds of political videos from many perspectives.” Lam says he wanted to zone in on the DUP because of the current precarity of the Good Friday Agreement – the agreement that brought 30 decades of conflict to an end in NI. Lam highlights a current “generational split in political views”, making political dialogue much more difficult. “This has contributed to the DUP being able to frame politics in NI as a two-horse race, which in turn lets them continue to field candidates who make disgusting and reprehensible remarks about the LGBT community, women, and ethnic minorities, effectively endorsing such comments by failing or refusing to hold their own members accountable for such bigotry.”

Labour, the Lib Dems, and the Conservatives all have accounts on TikTok, but have not posted any content. Nigel Farage’s Brexit party has been hugely active throughout the campaign, posting 82 videos to TikTok that range from emoji-overlaid clips of Farage and BP candidates to flashy supercuts about delivering Brexit.

More than three million people registered to vote from when the election was called right up to the deadline, with two-thirds under the age of 35. Galvanising young people to get engaged with politics is vital this election run – women under 30 are among the demographics that are least likely to vote, with youth turnout in areas like NI abysmal in the past. Issues such as housing and renting, climate change, Brexit, and education – which young people frequently flag as issues that concern them most – have become far more urgent in recent years, and feature as some of the parties’ most prominent manifesto pledges. But the numbers registered, our timeline feeds, and the conversations out on the trial highlight a palpable excitement for change among the youth. The landscape for political engagement has grown wider in tandem with the advent of social media, the longing for radical change, and the importance of including voices outside of the elite few, and TikTok will continue to be a burgeoning, democratising frontier.