TikTok banned political ads—but pro-Trump content is thriving and misleading teens

The logo of TikTok application is seen on a screen in this picture illustration taken February 21, 2019. Picture taken February 21, 2019. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui/Illustration – RC1D734C50F0
The logo of TikTok application is seen on a screen in this picture illustration taken February 21, 2019. Picture taken February 21, 2019. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui/Illustration – RC1D734C50F0
Image: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
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In a TikTok video captioned “best candidate for 2020,” a young man pretends to gun down the names of Democratic presidential candidates, which show up as text bubbles. He uses finger guns, to the sound of actual gunshots–a fragment of the rapper 3ohBlack’s song “All Talk.” In the end, the only name that remains on screen is “Donald Trump,” and the meme is hashtagged #Trump2020.

Still from a video showing man using a finger gun to shoot name of presidential candidate Joe Biden
A TikToker shooting down the names of Democratic candidates.

Earlier this month TikTok announced that it would not accept political advertising, but political messaging is doing quite well on the platform, and reaching millions of young people who are the app’s primary user base—and who are emerging voters.

For months the platform has been a sort of safe haven for Trumpers both young and old, where they like to push the buttons of liberal “snowflakes” and show each other they are “not alone.” But user reports and a rapid increase in video views suggest that #Trump2020 posts have flooded the platform very recently. TikTok also confirmed to Quartz that it’s been seeing an increase in politically-tinged content, adding it’s seen an increase in all kinds of videos.

The #Trump2020 memes garnered 128 million views on TikTok as of Tuesday, Oct. 15, according to a review by Quartz. A week later, the number grew to 152 million—more than double the views from a month prior. It’s not a staggering number compared to other hashtags on the platform, but it outranks other political hashtags, including #politics (128 million, and that’s for the whole world). Numbers for leading Democratic candidate hashtags pale in comparison: #bernie2020 had 6 million views the week of Oct. 15th, #biden had 1.1 million, and #warren had fewer than 1 million.

Several users also told Quartz that they’d been seeing a lot of pro-Trump content in the past month, even if they were not Trump fans.

#Trump2020 content

A sampling of #Trump2020 videos on TikTok includes:

  • a man talking about the QAnon conspiracy theory, suggesting the Hillary Clinton was somehow involved with satanic sacrifice
  • “proof” that global warming is fake, with images of snow
  • a teen spinning a narrative of the Ukraine whistleblower as someone who wants to take down Trump for no reason
  • an older man talking about former president Barack Obama being a foreign exchange student, and thus his entire presidency being illegal
  • a man promoting conspiracy theorist James O’Keefe’s latest sketchy exposé about CNN

Here’s a popular meme that also involves shooting down bubbles:

When asked whether some of the videos Quartz found violated TikTok’s policies, a spokesperson said addressing conspiracy theorists is challenging, because they’ve found ways to game moderation rules, for by example phrasing their ideas as questions.

TikTok’s structure encourages stumbling upon videos that a user might not have seen otherwise.

“Where YouTube recommendations have the potential to take you down a rabbit hole, you usually start somewhere that opens that door,” said disinformation researcher Cameron Hickey. “With TikTok, the default interface is the recommendation engine. The serendipity of finding unexpected new forms of content is the implicit goal.”

Young people who are only starting to form their opinions on politics are getting political messages alongside fun videos that teach them how to shuffle dance. They see both kinds of content in the same meme format that is meant to entertain. “The default response isn’t necessarily to question the validity of the message but to passively consume it as you would other entertainment content,” Hickey said. Users might come across people questioning global warming, or talking about an impending civil war.

“These more extreme messages have the potential to ‘red pill’ this next generation of voters with familiar toxic themes about immigration, white supremacy, and anti-media bias,” Hickey said.

The political videos often resemble the content that’s meant for pure entertainment:

The sudden flood of #Trump2020 videos, and why it has spilled out of the pro-Trump silos, is a bit of a mystery.

It could be the serendipitous discovery aspect of the platform. Another possibility is that the proliferation of pro-Trump content simply coincided with the impeachment inquiry in Congress. The Next Web, which first reported the deluge, hypothesizes that the flood of Trump memes might be related to Trump’s fraught trade talks with China. TikTok’s parent company is Chinese, and it’s been known to censor content when doing so was politically favorable to the country’s authorities, such as during the anti-government protests in Hong Kong.

A TikTok spokesperson denied to Quartz that the company was manipulating #Trump2020 content as The Next Web posited, and shortly after this story was published TikTok posted a statement saying, in part, “We are not influenced by any foreign government, including the Chinese government.”

A TikToker talking about a QAnon conspiracy theory.
A TikToker talking about a QAnon conspiracy theory.
Image: TikTok

The company is in the early stages of defining its policies, deciding what should remain on the platform and what should not. “As a relatively new platform whose origins and soul revolve around fun and entertainment, we are focused on a thoughtful and consistent approach to our ever-expanding range of content,” TikTok said in a statement to Quartz. They also said the company was working on ways to combat bad content including mis- and disinformation. It recently formed an external team that includes two former US congressmen to help with that effort.

Its decision to reject political ads helps maintain the platform’s entertaining character, Blake Chandlee, the company’s vice president of global business solutions, said in a blog post.

A TikToker talking about how Barack Obama’s presidency was illegal.
A TikToker talking about how Barack Obama’s presidency was illegal.
Image: TikTok

TikTok may be trying to avoid the mess that Facebook has gotten itself into around political ads, but it’s clear it hasn’t dodged political messages and questions about whether they belong on the service.

This story has been updated to include the new statement by TikTok regarding China.

Let us know if you know more.

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