Social Media

Is TikTok breaking young voters’ brains?

An illustration of a bright purple wormhole made up of iPhone shapes with hands holding them. Icons such as voter stickers, peace signs, and question marks show up throughout. In the center, an iphone displays a TikTok logo.

I don’t remember looking for anything in particular when I opened TikTok one February evening.

What I do remember was one video that dared me to examine my digital diet. “Check your TikTok screen time,” user @katherout challenged me. “Then check how many hours last week you actually hung out with your friends. It should not be similar … It’s very possible that you spend more time with people you don’t know on TikTok and YouTube, than people you do know in real life.”

And so I checked. At my peak, I was using TikTok — a social media platform famous for user-uploaded short-form videos — for a little over 10 hours a week. In the same week, I’d spent around 11 hours hanging out with friends.

My experience is not unusual. For many Americans, Tiktok has become one of the great time sucks of the era, a perpetual engagement machine with an algorithm that knows how to keep you glued.

That superpower — Tiktok’s ability to keep us watching and watching and watching — is something that has experts, pundits, and politicians worried. Today, tens of millions of young people say that they’re getting their news from TikTok. What exactly are they seeing, and how is that affecting what they believe?

TikTok counts some 150 million Americans among its monthly users, many of them young people who spend hours a day scrolling.

Yet, because of the app’s rapid rise and relative newness, we know very little about how all that TikTok time is affecting its users’ politics and the politics of our country as a whole.

Is it driving further polarization and spreading more low-quality information? Is it driving nihilism and apathy? Or is all of this an overblown moral panic, the product of older generations seeing something sinister about “kids these days” mixed with a dash of xenophobia thanks to the app’s Chinese owners?

TikTok itself says it’s a boon to our politics. The company argues its platform is a vehicle for informing, entertaining, and building community, saying it tries to balance its users’ demand for debate and discussion with the goal of connecting people and “not caus[ing] division.” 

“During elections, we focus on protecting the integrity of our platform to maintain a creative, safe, and positive place for people to enjoy a diverse range of content,” a spokesperson for the company told me. 

Much of the US government, however, sees it differently. President Biden last month signed legislation that would force ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok, to sell the app by January 19, 2025, (with a possible 90-day extension) or shut it down. TikTok’s bipartisan critics mainly object to the app on national security grounds, fearing what a company cozy with the Chinese Communist Party would do with millions of Americans’ data. 

But they have also raised concerns about its effects on our politics. “[The] thing I think is probably the biggest concern, which is that most people are getting their news from TikTok under the age of 30 and therefore it could be an instrument of propaganda and disinformation going forward. Those are the concerns that are specific to TikTok,” now-former Wisconsin Rep. Mike Gallagher told tech journalist Kara Swisher in December

Normally, when caught between corporate spokespeople and politicians, comfort — or at least some shreds of truth — can be found in consulting the experts. But when it comes to TikTok and politics, consulting the experts leads to an uncertain place.

Studies have repeatedly suggested that using TikTok does have a significant impact on one’s political views. But when it comes to fears of the app contributing to a more polarized, less informed discourse among the nation’s youngest voters, there’s still too much we don’t know. The app, and the studies of it, are simply too young for researchers to draw conclusive answers.

We have unwittingly found ourselves in the midst of a grand political experiment.

Not all social media is the same. TikTok is a different beast.

What separates TikTok from other social media apps is its explosive growth — and how quickly it happened.

The app launched in 2017 and merged with the lip-syncing app in 2018, but 2020 was the year it really took off. That year saw a pandemic-fueled surge from about 40 million monthly users at the start of the year to more than 100 million users by August. 

Today, its user count is up to 150 million, according to the most recent figures that TikTok has publicly shared. Though Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook still boast more adult users, TikTok is closing the gap, growing swiftly while its rivals’ growth is largely stagnant, according to a 2023 Pew Research Center study of how quickly TikTok’s user base had grown.

And people who use TikTok tend to use it a lot. The app is notorious for how addictive it can be, especially for younger users. Researchers at Baylor University found that TikTok users, compared to other platforms, are prone to fall into addictive habits with the short-video TikTok style. 

The Baylor researchers discovered that something like 24 percent of TikTok users in their study could be diagnosed as having an addiction to the app. Similarly, more than half of teens in Pew’s survey of teenage social media behavior say they use TikTok daily; 17 percent say they’re on it “almost constantly.”

And in those endless scroll sessions, young people are consuming political content: About a third of adults under the age of 30 are now regularly getting their news from TikTok specifically.

What does TikTok’s political content look like?

Neither widespread, addictive social media, nor young people using social media is new. Before it was a haven for boomers and AI art, Facebook was a college-students-only platform. And TikTok isn’t the first platform to host an influx of political commentary (as anyone who’s had their YouTube or Twitter recommendations flooded with Jordan Peterson or Ben Shapiro takes can attest).

So what’s different about politics on TikTok?

The answer lies in the short-form video nature of all content on the platform and the powerful, mysterious algorithm that delivers those videos in a fine-tuned way that keeps users hooked and emotionally invested.

The content on the app is highly emotional, vibes-based, and usually presented through another average person sharing their experiences, not usually from professional news accounts or reliable sources.

“Much of the political expression we find on TikTok is humoristic or cynical, colorful, often over-the-top, and infused with popular culture references. It is deeply emotional, ranging from roaring laughter to rolling tears,” write researchers Ioana Literat and Neta Kligler-Vilenchik in a 2023 paper on TikTok and youthful political expression.

“It is often profoundly personal, framing political issues through young people’s personal experience and worldviews,” the pair write. “In other words, it is anything but serious, detached, and rational. However, that does not make it any less meaningful.

Quick rants and bursts of commentary from a person looking at you through your phone make analysis and discussions feel genuine, intimate, and real, even if the content of what they are saying is misleading or not entirely factual.

And the platform’s design makes political spaces different from the algorithm or feeds of other social media.

Much of the engagement on the app happens on the individualized For You page, a hub for videos the algorithm suggests for a user. Once you engage a video, the For You page algorithm responds by showing you similar content from like-minded individuals or accounts. The app keeps tracking your interactions to see what is getting you to respond or stay on the platform, and these kinds of videos draw more engagement through comments and “stitches” (the app function that lets a user include a snippet of an original video and add commentary on top to make their own clip), drawing even more emotional reactions and adding to the sense that other people are feeling exactly the way you are. 

Facebook’s comments section used to elicit the same kind of responses and debates; some viral Twitter takes still do — though you generally choose to participate in those conversations. TikTok’s political and social discourse, meanwhile, can feel at once secluded and totalizing. That creates an echo chamber: a sense of shared community or identity dealing with the same frustrations or worries you might have and insulating you from views outside that sphere.

The case for TikTok

To be a young, politically aware TikTok user might feel like a losing battle. After all, the age-old gripe of older generations is that the youth are checked out of politics, uninterested, and insufficiently engaged. Then, when they take to TikTok and create a political discourse of their own, the critics’ answer is, essentially, “but not like that!”

And some researchers point to the broad positives of an app that is bringing political content to users who might not otherwise get involved.

The key is to think differently about what political expression and activity might be, when examining the culture of TikTok, Literat, the TikTok researcher from Columbia’s Teachers College, told me. 

“The idea that political expression should be serious and based on facts and rationality — when we look at TikTok political content, it looks almost the opposite of that,” Literat said. “It’s silly and humorous, sometimes nonsensical but really personal, and filtered through young people’s lived experience.”

She and her collaborator — the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Kligler-Vilenchik — argue that TikTok offers young people a kind of sandbox where they test out what it means to be good citizens while discovering and honing their political identity and political speech.

They also offer a challenge to outside observers: Just because that political speech looks different from the discourse that came before doesn’t mean it’s an outright cause for concern, Literat said. This kind of political expression may be the starting point for additional political self-discovery, as well as for feeling less removed from the political process. 

Even researchers critical of TikTok’s impact on political discourse acknowledge some upsides. Researchers Richard Fox and Kiana Karimi at Loyola Marymount University, for example, have raised concerns about the app, but their research found that young TikTok users are more likely than users of other platforms to engage in online political acts, like sharing political posts and following a politician’s account. And those political acts aren’t just online activity either: The researchers found those young users are also more likely to make donations to a political or ideological cause and say they would volunteer for a campaign.

The case for concern

Still, “participation” in politics is not the sole metric for a healthy civic body. Just as apathy endangers democracy, so do rival camps of hyper-partisans whose media diet near-exclusively confirms their preexisting biases.

Early research suggests that TikTok may be fueling that type of polarization, feeding each user their own personal self-affirmation chamber. 

“TikTok is … likely part of a new echo chamber as the algorithms being applied deliver ideologically compatible content to TikTok users,” Fox and Karimi write in a 2023 study published in the Journal of Social Media in Society.

“It feels pretty dire to me when you think about how partisan we are, that if you’re only exposed to one thing, or mostly one thing, you don’t sort of assess or think of other views,” Fox told me. “I would say TikTok possibly contributes to young people … being sort of aware of and activated on a smaller subset of cultural issues. And it … detracts from any notion of a well-balanced set of news stories.”

Intuitively, that makes sense, as an algorithm adept at delivering personally pleasing content to users seems primed to reinforce one’s existing political beliefs. I saw this for myself when I created two new TikTok accounts: For one account, my first searches were “Donald Trump” and “Trump trial.” For the other, I searched “Joe Biden” and “Gaza.”

Within a few scrolling sessions, the “Trump” account was getting non-stop Trump, Marjorie Taylor Greene, incel, and anti-immigrant content. The Biden account quickly morphed in the opposite ideological direction: Viral funny videos began to turn into updates from Gaza, takes about college Palestine protests like at Columbia University, videos critical of Biden’s mental competency, and angry responses about the potential for a TikTok ban.

It’s not so clear, however, that TikTok uniformly moves people to the extremes. In a 2022 University of Oregon study, the vast majority of TikTok users reported that their ideology shifted after using the app, and most said it had shifted “a great deal” or “a lot” during their use.

But the study’s author, Lauren Church, wrote that there was “no clear pattern between party affiliation and direction of ideological change along the political spectrum.” And while half of the sample’s registered Democrats indicated they’d become more liberal during their TikTok use, a full 40 percent said they’d grown more conservative. Similarly, among Republicans, 57 percent reported getting more conservative, while 40 percent said they’d become more liberal. 

Still, while research into TikTok’s effects on political polarization or shifts in young peoples’ ideology is rather new, plenty of journalistic and academic work has tracked another TikTok challenge to democracy and American politics: the classic threat of misinformation. 

Though not a problem exclusive to TikTok, misleading or false narratives can spread on the app because of the highly subjective, emotional, and often humorous nature of speech by its users. And TikTok has not been spared from examinations into how it can be a vehicle for misinformation and how it can try to stop the spread. 

TikTok, for its part, argues that it has taken steps to prevent echo chambers from forming on the app and proactively tries to stop too much similar content from inundating the average feed. “TikTok’s For You feed enables people to discover a variety of ideas and topics by design, as it recommends a range of diverse content and proactively interrupts repetitive patterns,” a TikTok spokesperson told me. The company points to the safeguards it has implemented to avoid the spread of health or election misinformation and to fact-check or review the spread of manipulated media, conspiracy theories, or posts about emergency events.

Whether any of TikTok’s safeguards or moderation tactics are making a difference remains to be seen. Even the best research on the subject relies on a relatively short time frame. We’ll have a better idea what TikTok is doing to our politics with more time to study it.

But life won’t wait for those conclusions. Even if the TikTok ban ultimately dooms the app, it won’t be for at least seven months — meaning it will remain in full swing throughout the 2024 election. In short, the grand national experiment will continue.

It won’t for me, however. I quit the app and I’m not coming back.

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