As Twitter and Facebook continue to dominate conversations about social media and the 2020 presidential election, TikTok is quietly becoming a political force.
Teenagers in America — many of them too young to vote — are forming political coalitions on TikTok to campaign for their chosen candidates, post news updates and fact check opponents. They are sharing real-time commentary for an audience that is far more likely to watch YouTube videos than turn on a cable news channel.
In a sense, these TikTok users are building short-form TV networks, each with a cast of talking heads. On TikTok they’re called hype houses, named after the high-powered influencer collab house in Los Angeles. These political houses are not physical homes, but virtual, ideological ones represented by group accounts.
There are conservative-leaning houses (@conservativehypehouse, @theconservativehypehouse, @TikTokrepublicans and @therepublicanhypehouse, which amassed more than 217,000 followers in under a month) and liberal ones (@liberalhypehouse, @leftist.hype.house). There are also bipartisan houses, for users who love discourse, and undecided houses, for those who aren’t sure what or whom they love.
“I do feel like TikTok is cable news for young people,” said Sterling Cade Lewis, 19, who has nearly 100,000 followers. “CNN and Fox and big-name news media, those are all geared toward people who have honestly grown up with a longer attention span.”
TikToks, on the other hand, run a maximum of 60 seconds; most videos are as short as 15. “Being able to make shorter videos and educational clips, it’s easier to connect with a younger generation who’s just swiping through their phones 24/7,” Mr. Lewis said.
In recent months, content on TikTok has been getting more political. Before the general election in Britain in December, TikTok users there voiced their opinions on Brexit through popular formats, including lip syncs, skits and “checks” (self-assessments, essentially). In the United States, political videos have revolved around the Trump administration, the Democratic presidential primary and the general presidential election in November.
The nickname “Mayo Pete,” for example, was popularized on TikTok, as was a popular meme about Mike Pence, suggesting that he is in favor of gay conversion therapy. (Vice President Pence is opposed to same-sex marriage, but he has never voiced support for conversion therapy.). Political hype houses were born out of this enthusiasm for election-related content.
Political TikToks often rely on popular trends and dances. In one video, Kyndal, 14 and a member of @liberalhypehouse, does a dance as she points to statistics about President Trump’s history of racist comments.
For the most part, these videos revolve around two candidates: Bernie Sanders and Mr. Trump. “The Republican hype houses all root for Trump, and the liberal hype houses all root for Bernie,” said Javon Fonville, 19, the founder of the progressive hype house (handle: @votebernie2020).
Many users are campaigning hard, especially because they may not be of voting age in time for Nov. 3. “I feel like I am making an impact on the election even though I can’t vote,” Izzy, 17, said of her pro-Sanders TikToks.
Many of these creators look up to YouTube’s political commentators and have sought to replicate their success on TikTok, where growth can happen rapidly. Benjamin Williams, 19, said the platform is ideal for the kind of videos he wants to make and the audience he hopes to reach. “A lot of political stuff is on Facebook and Twitter, but Gen Z isn’t really into that stuff,” he said. “With TikTok you can put politics into comedy and have someone their age talking like they’re a friend.”
Mr. Williams said he is inspired by YouTubers like Steven Crowder, Tim Pool and Paul Joseph Watson, a prominent far-right personality and Infowars contributor who is known for spreading conspiracy theories.
Speaking of which: TikTok has struggled to prevent conspiracy theories from spreading across the app. Media Matters, a nonprofit, recently issued a report on the platform’s role in spreading false information on the coronavirus.
Debunking @republicanism: For this video you cited the D.O.J., but some new videos later you cited that it wasn’t actually the D.O.J. For these stats you use the Center of Immigration Studies, but you forgot to mention that it’s an anti-immigration think tank founded by white nationalists and eugenicists. It also has a bad credibility rating because of these reasons.
“It worries me a lot that some of these videos have one million views,” Kyndal, of @liberalhypehouse, said, referring to the misinformation on the platform. “Knowing that one million impressionable teens have seen this video and chosen to believe or not believe it.”
A TikTok spokeswoman wrote in an email: “We encourage our users to have respectful conversations about the subjects that matter to them. However, our Community Guidelines do not permit misinformation that could cause harm to our community or the larger public.”
For many members of political hype houses, tamping down on misinformation is a top concern. When various accounts began citing the claim that Mr. Sanders intended to tax Americans making more than $29,000 a year at a rate higher than 50 percent, Jordan Tirona, 19, responded with a video debunking it.
Though they disagree on major issues, members of different political groups frequently engage with each other. Their videos often go viral when they “duet” on major issues. (Duetting is a feature on TikTok that allows users to respond to videos with videos of their own and post them side by side.)
The @republicanhypehouse and @liberalhypehouse accounts frequently duet over health care reform and corporate tax rates. TikTokers across the partisan divide also take part in live-streamed debates on TikTok.
Cam Higby, 20, the founder of the bipartisan hype house who also posts under @republicanism, said that ultimately he wants to build a platform on TikTok where anyone can promote their opinions, whether they’re on the right or left. He live-streams himself for hours, debating people on TikTok and Discord.
Many members of Gen Z will be voting for the first time in the 2020 presidential election. Those who can’t have been taking political action in other ways, especially on social media.
“I think it’s cool when you have people who are like 14 trying to get involved in politics and educate themselves,” Mr. Higby said. “Those are the people — they’re not voting this year, but they’ll be voting within the next term.”