In 30 seconds:
- Yes, it’s where you turn for skits, dances and recipes – but there’s another side to your favourite video platform you might not know about: it’s a hub of TikTok youth activism.
- TikTok politics comes in many shades, so expect to see Gen Zers dissecting the gender binary, structural racism, environmental issues and more.
- And with young people using TikTok as a powerful tool for social justice, there’s a lot we can learn from the trends.
You may know TikTok as the home of the viral dance crazes and birthplace of new memes – but there’s much more to the video-sharing platform than a casual lurker might expect. It’s also the home of TikTok politics and TikTok activism.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, they’re the most queer and most racially diverse generation to date, which is highlighted by their continued support for social justice movements like Pride and Black Lives Matter. These issues strike close to home.
Generation Z are also the first generation of digital natives, which goes some way to explain their appreciation of online activism. No other generation is as aware of the power of online content to spark change as Gen Z – and no others are quite as community-minded online, either. Over half of Gen Z are friends with someone they only know online, a far higher proportion than older generations.
But what does TikTok politics look like, and does it get results? We’ve dived deep into the politics on TikTok to report back.
Politics on TikTok: Why here?
As a platform for political conversation, TikTok may seem a strange choice. But in reality, the app’s focus on community and collaboration is perfect for fostering open political discussions. TikTok has a ban against paid political advertisements, but this hasn’t stopped activist TikTok videos from gaining significant popularity and traction – which goes to prove how powerful the platform can be for sharing ideas.
As the birthplace of trends, TikTok is structured to send ideas viral. One video with a message that resonates with people can go stratospheric. Activist influencers can be born from one viral video, and relatively small TikTok accounts can spread ideas far beyond the reach of their own followers.
If you’d like to learn more about how the TikTok algorithm works and triggers virality, you can read our article on the TikTok algorithm here.
The algorithm also recommends users videos on their For You Page (FYP) based on similar content they’ve already engaged positively with. It’s this viral-ready framework of TikTok which has fostered so many successful niche communities on the platform around shared interests – of which youth activism is one.
Is TikTok raising activists?
What came first, the chicken or the egg? The platform or the Gen Z activists?
There’s no doubt that Gen Z activists are numerous and vocal on TikTok, though they don’t all agree. A report from the New York Times found that, while there was no clear consensus of views on TikTok, youth identities were “front and centre” in a way that makes it stand out from other social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter.
On TikTok, broad political movements are filtered through personalised, algorithm-led experiences. It’s this personal slant that Gen Zers have a particular affinity with.
Another reason for the rise of youth activism on TkTok? Fanbytes by Brainlabs Creative Strategist Bean Urquhart explains, “as a generation, Gen Z loves being the first to something, especially when it’s ‘woke’ knowledge”. This desire to share knowledge is key to the TikTok politics landscape. It’s, as Urquhart describes, “kind of like ‘cancel culture’, but on the flip. You want to be the first person to access new knowledge, and say ‘look at this’.”
In other words: Gen Z are passionate about change. TikTok just happens to be the best place for them to discuss political content with each other.
TikTok politics: top examples of social movements on TikTok
What does TikTok social justice look like? Scratch beneath the surface, and you’ll find a huge variety of social issues being addressed on the social media app.
From the Black Lives Matter movement to climate change, commentary on a political party to LGBTQ+ issues, TikTok users are unafraid to address social issues across a broad spectrum.
Here are a few of the most notable examples:
1. The war in Ukraine
In March 2022, the Washington Post reported that the White House was briefing TikTok stars about the war in Ukraine. 30 macro-influencers joined a Zoom call with White House press secretary Jen Psaki and National Security Council Special Advisor Matt Miller, where the latter briefed them on the United States’ strategic goals and answered their questions on the war.
It’s a mark of how much TikTok has permeated young people’s lives. As the war escalated, many Gen Zers used TikTok to learn about what was going on. It became a key news source, even offering some of the first glimpses of the Russian invasion, as young Ukranian creators documented what was happening in their hometowns.
However, Russian sympathisers have also used TikTok to spread harmful misinformation. This is why Joe Biden’s government identified top content creators who would then be able to share accurate information with their millions of followers. TikTok influencers have the power to educate swiftly en masse, which is vitally important as events move quickly.
As the war continues, videos from TikTokers in Ukraine are still going viral all over TikTok. These videos forge a direct connection between their teenage civilian creators and peers from other countries, adding relatability and depth that goes beyond the news.
2. Black Lives Matter
In 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, many young people took to TikTok to spread awareness of the Black Lives Matter protests.
There was an outpouring of support for the Black community on TikTok, and the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag now has over 30bn views.
Content creators posted videos highlighting protests, running through the history of the Black Lives Matter movement, and explaining effective allyship. It led to CNN declaring TikTok a “hub for #blacklivesmatter activism,”
Over half of Gen Zers research a company to assess if its ethics align with their own before purchasing from them. That means this kind of widespread youth activism should be on every brand’s radar, along with the need for change it represents.
If you would like to understand more about how your brand can support Black Lives Matter in a meaningful way, check out our article assessing which brands got it right, and what you can learn from them.
3. LGBTQ+ activism
When Coronavirus cancelled Pride celebrations across the UK, teens took to TikTok to celebrate LGBTQ+ identities digitally.
But it’s not all celebratory – Generation Z uses TikTok to draw attention to the challenges faced by members of the LGBTQ+ community, to current affairs which disproportionately affect them, and use their platforms to educate their peers.
And there’s another way that TikTok is proving influential for queer teens – it’s integrating their experiences into the entertaining landscape of the app, providing the easy representation so many find lacking in traditional media.
By creating a safe space for discussion of queer experiences, TikTok has allowed many young people to experiment with their own identities, and find communities of supportive peers. You can learn more about this in our article on LGBTQ+ TikTok.
4. The climate crisis
Last year, influential Gen Z climate activist Greta Thunberg spoke at the Youth 4 Climate Summit, where she delivered a speech saying that “change is not only possible but urgently necessary”.
Political activism surrounding the climate crisis and sustainability is a hot topic for young people on TikTok. This topic appears across all micro-communities on the app – from fashion accounts recommending sustainable clothes lines, to makeup gurus sharing ethical products.
Climate change is a big concern for Gen Z, with one survey finding that 83% of them are concerned about the health of the planet. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that there are some users leveraging TikTok to educate and advocate for greener policies – and their audiences are engaged, educated, and growing.
We are working with second-hand tech marketplace Back Market to leverage Gen Zers’ love of raising environmental awareness on TikTok and spur them to choose sustainable smartphones and laptops. You can read more about the project here.
5. K-Pop vs. Donald Trump
Unsurprisingly, their collective feelings on Republican president Donald Trump were largely negative – and they weren’t afraid to act to show their disapproval.
Ahead of a Trump rally in Tulsa, K-pop fans took to TikTok to deliver a masterclass on registering for the event and selling out tickets – with no intention of ever showing up to see President Trump.
The result? A million ticket reservations, but only 6,200 actual attendees, (less than half the 19,000 venue capacity). “Political Tiktok” made its views visible through empty seats. Naturally it also led to a series of high-profile news articles underlining this powerful show of online activism.
6. Voter registration
Another organisation using TikTok to enact direct action in the political sphere is Tok the Vote.
This group was described as a “creator-led effort” to get Gen Z registered to vote for the US presidential elections in November 2020 and, according to the campaign group, its TikTok-specific tool had been used by around 3,500 TikTokers “to register, check their status or request an absentee ballot”.
Activism on TikTok
Is TikTok spreading awareness for social issues? It’s undeniable that Gen Z creators are utilising the app to have real, important conversations, and the popularity of the online activism content speaks to Gen Z’s desire to share information amongst their peers – and be seen sharing it themselves.
If you can think of a social issue, chances are Generation Z are talking about it on TikTok. And since they’re the voters of the future, you can bet those conversations have the potential to herald real world change.
TikTok is shaping politics, but how much of an impact its Gen Z users will continue to have on the real-world political landscape remains to be seen.
Social activism is important to Gen Z. If your brand is looking for more ways to meaningfully engage with them, check out some of our other guides below: