WWashington recently entered full-blown panic mode about TikTok, fretting over its ties to China’s ruling Communist Party and how the world’s most popular social platform might be poisoning American discourse. There were last month’s high-profile congressional hearings, followed by a slew of bans both internationally and at the federal, state and local levels. To the app’s detractors it’s a geopolitical Trojan horse, meant to surveil the population and drag its youth into a spiral of decadent narcissism, all while sapping them of any remaining nationalistic fervor.
To its defenders, who are nearly all much, much younger than the typical member of Congress, TikTok is more than just a diversion. It’s a powerful vehicle for personal expression, and somewhere they can make their voices heard absent the incessant chattering of clueless olds who need a refresher on the basics of home wifi. (Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), one of the app’s few defenders on the Hill, described to the New York Times how he uses it to keep in touch with younger constituents and activists.)
I decided to find out which side is right.
My first obstacle was that I had never actually used TikTok before last week. According to the market research firm Statista, 55 percent of the app’s users are aged 18 to 34, a demographic group into which I do happen to fall — but let’s just say I’m the kind of person who still has multiple print magazine subscriptions. Accordingly, I have about as much actual first-hand knowledge of the app as many of the septuagenarian legislators who now hold its fate in their hands.
In that spirit I decided to spend an entire day consuming my political news only via the app, to see just what TikTok did to my brain that Twitter, cable news and the fine journalism of my POLITICO colleagues weren’t already doing. The answer was unsettling — but not at all in the way that I’d expected.
TikTok news is … kinda stale
TikTok news is … kinda stale
Despite the claims of TikTok’s more serious-minded fans, news is decidedly not the app’s primary function; its popularity and notoriety are based more on its parade of viral dance trends, influencer beefs and borderline-antisocial pranks.
But a Pew survey conducted last summer showed that “the share of U.S. adults who say they regularly get news from TikTok has roughly tripled,” from merely 3 percent in 2020 to 10 percent last year. And as Rebecca Jennings pointed out in Vox before the 2022 midterm elections, organizers on both sides of the aisle are laser-focused on using it as a tool to reach voters.
So as the app balloons in popularity (and becomes a news story in its own right), that makes it no trivial matter what its news media landscape actually looks like. And for someone far more used to Twitter’s to-the-nanosecond, deeply-in-the-weeds presentation of the news, TikTok looks utterly bewildering.
When I opened my account I wasn’t following anyone yet, and therefore had no existing feed or meaningful recommendations. Keeping in mind that I wanted this to be serious, I opened the search window and typed in, simply, “news.”
This was 8:01 a.m. on Monday, April 17. TikTok obligingly served up a brief digest of global news stories titled “Today’s World News”… dated the preceding Thursday, April 13. As a hardened news junkie, taking a tour through the headlines from four days ago felt a bit like staining my fingers with a linotyped edition of the Pall Mall Gazette. I was not impressed.
But even more than being stale, it just felt disorienting: Having sworn off my normal news sources, I felt suddenly unmoored in time. When was all this stuff happening? The main “For You” tab, where TikTok’s algorithm works its wonders, didn’t make matters much better — it doesn’t timestamp videos, meaning the user has to click through to its author’s profile to find that crucial piece of information for news consumption.
Some creators remedy this with an in-frame caption, but that doesn’t make it any less disorienting that the app seems to place zero weight on timeliness even if it otherwise detects that you’re looking for “news.” (The very next non-sponsored video I saw, from a financial influencer known as “Coach JV” was clearly marked by the creator with its publish date of April 12, even if its recommendation of crypto as the solution to early April’s rumored interest rate hikes was decidedly unhelpful.)
The overall effect is to create a digital space that feels decidedly outside the “moment” as you might have come to understand it. TikTok exists in its own eternal “moment,” slightly adjacent to the news. What’s served up there isn’t necessarily what’s happening now, but what it senses you’re looking for now. There is no Trump or Elon-like “main character” of TikTok who can twist the platform to their will with an errant statement or news announcement, just a sprawling ecosystem of creators all vying to worm their way into as many “For You” tabs as possible.
In a way, this was quite refreshing. The eternal “now” created by a platform like Twitter is exhausting, to say the least. Much of TikTok’s news content is reflective, whether it’s explainer videos from mainstream news outlets like the Washington Post or Morning Brew that attempt to give viewers more context about the news of the day, or independent pundits who purport to counter those outlets’ biased or elitist worldviews. (More on that later.) At least in editorial approach, it functions more like a weekly news magazine.
As refreshingly different as that might be, the overall effect rapidly becomes surreal. News stories, per se, disappear, replaced by topics (or more accurately, occasions for content creation). What, exactly, was the nature of transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney’s association with Anheuser-Busch? Less important than why it was (supposedly) a bad business move. Even earnest attempts at capsule explainers from professional news-gatherers can only contain so much context given the format. If the knock on the pre-TikTok social media era was that it drove users to reductive conclusions given its lack of moderation, restraints on character count, or algorithmic incentives, those problems are all present here in a more video-forward format.
Which can be a problem, considering:
It’s us against them.
It’s us against them.
When it comes to the political valence of the content TikTok shows you, the algorithm is powerfully naïve. When I watched a livestream of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy railing about the debt ceiling at the NYSE (by this time, the app’s algorithmic engine was rolling), it gave me a heavy dose of Fox News’ Jesse Watters. When I yanked the tiller in the other direction with some Crooked Media videos, I got liberal comedian Jon Stewart and progressive former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich.
Of course, this is not how the average user, or possibly any user, uses TikTok. I was aiming as much for balance and variety as I could — trying not to end up writing a piece titled “The World of Conservative Politics According To TikTok,” or “How my Feed Became an AOC Fan Account.”
Sometimes this took unexpected forms. I did not expect to log on to Gen Z’s favorite app and be confronted with a conservative Black activist sharing a clip from the obscure, hilariously square 1960s-era anti-communist Dan Smoot. Or a liberal activist resharing Frank Zappa’s famous 1986 appearance on “Crossfire” where he railed against “fascist theocracy.” But the contemporary examples of populist anger came fast and furious, especially when it came to ideologically ambiguous conspiracies around the war in Ukraine, the World Economic Forum’s “Great Reset” or the possibility of conflict around Taiwan.
On one hand this omnipresent conspiratorialism seems to be baked into the app. Long before it became the political flashpoint it is today, TikTok was viewed primarily as a window into the daily lives of the working class, whether via Black-powered dance trends such as the “Renegade” or the bizarrely omnipresent, “Jerry Springer”-like character of “Divorce TikTok.” If Facebook has worked hard to tether itself to real-life communities, and Twitter is largely the digital watering hole for the media and professional class, then TikTok is a direct line to the id of the common man that’s almost entirely absent from more traditional media channels.
It’s not shocking that videos from the aforementioned former Secretary of Labor Reich, decrying low-paying jobs and income inequality, would go viral, nor those by conservatives knocking former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi for her skill at the stock market. What is surprising, however, is the extent to which more blatantly conspiratorial content seems to exist on the platform without much attention from outside, given the immense amount of collective hand-wringing and foundation-dollar-spending that goes into fighting “misinformation” on platforms like Facebook and Twitter (at least until the latter’s “truth”-y takeover by Elon Musk).
TikTok’s algorithm is almost platonically ideal for spreading false information, given how eagerly it caters to the viewer’s prejudices. Hence my experience, where crypto boosterism led to the Great Reset led to BlackRock’s “impending global takeover”led to apologia for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with a healthy dose of Alex Jones-like punditry and garbled history sprinkled in between. By the end of my journey I’d had quite a healthy dose of revelation administered to me, but I felt utterly disempowered to make sense of it all.
You can’t help but like it.
You can’t help but like it.
I will confess that contrary to the spirit of goodwill, curiosity and objectivity with which a journalist is meant to approach their subject, I was primed to have a very bad time with this app. I don’t like video, for one. (Confirmed wordcel here.) I first opened and installed TikTok to familiarize myself with it over the weekend before my day-long binge. Cocooned in my safe space of Twitter, I pronounced my first encounters with the app a “massive bummer.”
Still, by the end of the day the app doggedly learned what makes me tick. Not “me” the reporter, but me the person.
The crypto hustle guides, meant to take advantage of the average American’s understandable fear and ignorance of complicated macroeconomic forces, gave way to modestly amusing memes about corporate power that somehow mashed up LeBron James and Teddy Roosevelt. The shrill culture-war preening of figures like The Daily Wire’s Michael Knowles gave way to amusing local news clips, the exact kind of early-social-web viral contentI have a true soft spot for. The algorithm started — I swear to God — serving up global news, featuring developments in France and Mexico. (I even laughed out loud at one point, at a clip of the former President Trump repurposed to skewer a certain type of amoral careerism.)
It feels like it strains credulity to reiterate to the reader that I did not ask for any of this. I had a journalistic mission that I set out to accomplish with this assignment, absent my own preferences, and yet they still found their way back to my feed. I set out to find out how “people,” very broadly defined, experience TikTok, and the app built a weirdly Derek-shaped bubble right around me.
In the United States the news has always been a commercial enterprise set on giving the people what they want, yes. But never has that goal been pursued with the technological sophistication and secrecy deployed by TikTok’s developers, which casts the Beltway class’ paranoia about the app in a new and more sympathetic light.
The social media era has introduced an arsenal of psychological phenomena and classifications to our political discourse, meant to help us understand better how the algorithms play us. We seek out news according to our confirmation bias, or thirst to satisfy pre-existing beliefs. We accuse our opponents of suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect, overestimating their expertise while ensconced in an impenetrable digital carapace of ignorance. Our negativity bias makes every individual news beat an opportunity to catastrophize about climate change, or the erosion of democracy or “wokeness,” or whatever.
TikTok, almost invisibly, subsumes this all into its recommendation engine. You don’t have to think about what you’re thinking about, or how you’re thinking about it — just surrender to the feed, and unconsciously teach the app how to make you like it. With its skillful flattery, TikTok is like every other social media platform, only … better. (One analyst told the Wall Street Journal that, compared to YouTube, “The algorithm on TikTok can get much more powerful and it can be able to learn your vulnerabilities much faster.”) It does its work seamlessly behind the scenes, outside of time, outside of context, outside of choice.
Skeptical politicians, in that light, might celebrate the app rather than accuse it of Chinese espionage. By keeping the focus solely on its user’s preoccupations, preferences and prejudices, it does a damn good job of keeping the spotlight off the analog world surrounding them, where politicians might otherwise face scrutiny and accountability. One can quite easily imagine a world where the societal lotus-eating that TikTok inspires has chipped away at not just our already-flagging idea of a “shared reality,” but any shared sense of the “present” itself — leaving that “present,” as it stubbornly persists, firmly under the control of those more engaged IRL.