From dark humour about gun control to organising strikes and Feroza Aziz’s viral clip on China’s ‘concentration camps’, Gen Z are using the app to galvanise people and talk politics
Since 2017, TikTok has had an exponential popularity spike. Borrowing features from competitors Snapchat and Instagram, and evoking the spirit of Vine (RIP, you’ll never be forgotten), the app has proven a hit with a generation that was born extremely online. With Gen Z making up 60 percent of TikTok’s 500 million monthly users, millennials, Gen X, and boomers might expect that much of its content would centre on surface-level meme humour and harmless dance challenges, but – obvs – they’d be wrong. In a year where teenagers’ activism has dominated the headlines – see: Greta Thunberg and the school strikes as just one small facet – TikTok users are becoming increasingly inventive, using the app to highlight social injustices and spread political messages for turbulent times.
This week saw TikTok user Feroza Aziz, a US-based teenager, temporarily blocked from using her account after her video, in which she begins with beauty tips but segues into accusing China of putting Muslims into concentration camps, went viral.
As the platform becomes more of a visceral place for political thinking, we chart a potted history of TikTok resistance – from organising strikes to raising awareness about racial injustice.
ORGANISING SCHOOL STRIKES
In September of this year, 16-year-old Gillian Sullivan (AKA @gill.no.chill) took to TikTok to drag her local school district over its treatment of teachers. In the minute long video the teenager expresses her anger after Clark County promised teachers a raise, but froze their wages instead. “Our district is refusing to give teachers – who spent the past three years earning enough credits out of their own pockets – a raise,” Sullivan says. “Literally, they won’t pay the teachers what the teachers earn.”
According to Sullivan, Clark County said they would award teachers a raise if they earned extra credit from taking college classes. After many teachers spent money on classes and obtained degrees, the school district seemingly backtracked on their offer. Sullivan, whose mother is a teacher, encouraged students to strike in solidarity. “If you’re sick of this and you want respect for yourself as a student but also for your teachers, please strike September 5, because I’m done and you should be too,” she urged.
After the impassioned speech went viral, Clark County and the teachers union reached an agreement meaning that the planned strike never went ahead.
RAISING AWARENESS OF THE CLIMATE CRISIS
We are well and truly living in a climate crisis, and this year, young people have led the charge when it comes to actually doing something about it. While Extinction Rebellion and striking students have been taking to the streets to demand action, others have been going online to spread awareness. Back in July, TikTok user Anna posted a video entitled “Effects of Global Warming on a Human” to her millions of followers. In the video, Anna simulates the passing of time, becoming increasingly dehydrated and looking considerably worse for wear as the years go by. The video culminates in the year 3000, when we see Anna cough up plastic. A trend began, where multiple TikTok users began highlighting what a climate doom-filled future might look like – coughing up garbage, people drowning in waste plastic, diseased lewks.
"People need to be aware of the problem for things to change,” Anna told the BBC. “We’ve got to take action. Our lives depend on it.” In the wake of Anna’s video, other TikTok users took to the platform to raise awareness of global warming, creating the #GlobalWarning hashtag, which has been viewed over 24 million times.
DARK HUMOUR TO HIGHLIGHT THE URGENT NEED FOR GUN CONTROL
Issues surrounding gun control and school shootings have plagued America for decades, and with over 45 school shootings in 2019, it seems nothing has significantly changed since the Columbine tragedy in 1999. However, in recent years, young people have been taking the fight directly to politicians by pushing for stricter gun legislation through strikes and creative activism. You only have to look at the #NeverAgain movement that sprung up in the wake of last year’s Parkland mass shooting to see how students are taking matters into their own hands.
It’s in this vein that Joshua Mannila uploaded his video titled “2019 back to school shopping in the United States” to TikTok in August. The clip, soundtracked by La Roux’s “Bulletproof”, riffs on the lyrics, which go: “This time, baby, I’ll be bulletproof”. Mannila is shown browsing the internet for bulletproof vests and backpacks, all the while waving his hands and dancing around.
“I didn’t think it would blow up,” Mannila told The Prospector. “I made that video just like, ‘Oh, it’s back to school season, let’s go get some bulletproof backpacks because our schools are turning into a shooting range’.”
Another video shows a US student and a UK student in side-by-side shots with M.I.A's “Paper Planes” playing. As the gunshots of the song ring out, the US student looks around in a panic, while the UK student remains unbothered. One TikTok focuses on the dubious claims that video games encourage gun violence, while another compares the opinions around how young women dress to the discourse around guns.
BRINGING ATTENTION TO GOVERNMENT ABUSE
For all its popularity, TikTok has faced its fair share of criticism. From concerns over how it collects data – the app was fined a whopping $5.7 million for collecting the personal data of children in the US, and investigated for a breach of data law in the UK – to accusations of banning LGBTQ+ content and Hong Kong videos, the app has been embroiled in controversy since its launch.
This week, the app was forced to apologise again after removing a video in which teenager Feroza Aziz can be seen criticising China over its treatment of Uighur Muslims. Posting under the pretence of a beauty tutorial, the teen begins by saying: “Hi guys, so I’m going to teach you guys how to get long lashes”, before changing the subject and encouraging viewers to use their phones and “search what’s happening in China”. She goes onto discuss how Uighur Muslims are being put into “concentration camps” and forced to “eat pork”, “drink”, and “convert to different religions” by the Chinese government.
The 17-year-old concludes by urging people to spread awareness: “People that go into these concentration camps don’t come back alive. This is another Holocaust, yet no one is talking about it.”
TikTok, which is owned by a Chinese company, claimed that Aziz’s account was taken down owing to her having multiple accounts opened, and that the video was deleted “due to a human moderation error”. They have since apologised and restored the video, stating that “nothing in our community guidelines precludes content such as this video, and it should not have been removed”.
MORE DARK HUMOUR… ABOUT COLONISATION
Not content with just using TikTok to campaign for a better future, people are using the platform to shed light on historical injustices. One example of this is user Sharoon Bi, who shared a video depicting Europe’s colonisation of Africa. The clip, which has been liked over 500,000 times, shows British, French, Portuguese, and Spanish settlers invading Africa in the 1400s. Soundtracked by Lil Keed’s “It’s Up Freestyle”, Bi uses different dance moves to highlight how nations invaded the continent.