Is TikTok suitable as a political medium? Political editor Jarne van der Poel talks about it with Emmelie Valkenburgh van @groenlinksoptiktok and Sanne Kruikemeier, assistant professor of political communication.
With a week to go until the elections, there is a lot of campaigning going on. Due to the coronavirus, the candidates cannot fly on the street and so the attention is more than ever on social media. Several political parties have therefore ventured into the relatively new medium TikTok (politicians can click here to boost their presence on TikTok as well). The VVD and GroenLinks – their accounts together @vvdoptiktok and called @groenlinksoptiktok – are now the biggest players there with 36 thousand and 24 thousand followers respectively.
According to Emerce, a total of 4.5 million Dutch people use the app, mainly people in their twenties and teenagers. TikTok is known for short and often musical videos. Playback or imitation of other videos is encouraged, creating viral trends.
An example of this is the trend where users are to the rhythm of Where Is The Love? of The Black Eyed Peas hopping around the room, accompanied by witty lyrics (‘on the way to a break after 10 minutes of studying’ or ‘subserviating the room if you have to do the dishes). Political parties do not want to be left behind: VVD MP Martin Wörsdörfer (‘on the way to a new debate’) and GroenLinks leader Jesse Klaver (‘on the way to our first post on TikTok’) jumped rhythmically through the House of Representatives building.
Commentators immediately talked about it. In De Nieuws BV, campaign strategist Anne Stokvis said that Jesse Klaver is missing out here. She wondered what exactly he has to look for on TikTok, and felt that he underestimated the target group. ‘Toe-curling and embarrassing’ was the verdict at Editie NL. “If you as an older man or woman are going to do a dance for young people of 15 or 16 years, then you miss the mark,” one analyst scoffed.
Positive influence underestimated
The statements in the media fit into a broader trend in which social media is portrayed in a bad light. The public discourse on social media is defined by discussions about damnation, relocation, invasion of privacy, and the spread of fake news. These concerns are entirely justified, but the balance is sometimes lost.
It becomes painfully clear that the – somewhat older – commentators on television do not fully understand the value of a social medium like TikTok. In addition to fun trends, it is also a place for political activism, education and commentary. “During the U.S. elections, TikTok seems to have had an encouraging influence on young people,” says Sanne Kruikemeier, a lecturer at the University of Amsterdam who has conducted research on online political communication and its effect on citizens’ political engagement.
‘A bit of Klaver and a bit of Emmelie’
Teens and young adults are increasingly using TikTok to express their opinions and concerns about politics. Emmelie Valkenburgh also sees this. She is an online content creator and manages the TikTok account of GroenLinks. “A bit of Clover and a bit of Emmelie,” the caption of the account reads. “Young people are also on TikTok, because they have an opinion about political and social issues and want to get involved,” she says. In the comments below her videos, young users start discussions on topics such as the climate or the housing market.
Content and personal
“Young political involvement is further encouraged by social media making politics more accessible,” kruikemeier says. “Many young people find politics abstract or boring. Research shows that social media makes politics more accessible by giving it a face and a voice.”
Emmelie also tries to do this: “Our social media are substantive, but I also want to show the personal sides of our leader.” An example of this is the popular TikTok video “Cooking with Klaaf”, in which Jesse Klaver cooks vegetarian boemboe bali. On the other side of the political spectrum, the VVD shared on TikTok the morning routine of MP Dennis Wiersma.
Emmelie rejects the suggestion that these kinds of videos are at the expense of the content. GroenLinks’ TikTok account also contains excerpts from debates and speeches and videos in which she films herself and explains what the party’s plans are. And yes, “a minute remains a minute,” she admits, but you can also make a substantive point in 60 seconds. It helps the 27-year-old that she herself belongs to the young target group: “I think I have more insight into it, that I can translate our policy intentions well into ‘the language’ of TikTok and that I know how the app works.”
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New target group
Ultimately, the app, which is now used more often by young people than Facebook, is mainly a way to reach a new target group during campaign time. “I actually think that political parties are always looking for new ways to reach citizens. Instagram is mainly millennials and with TikTok you really reach a new, younger target group,” says Kruikemeier. “We think it’s important to reach as many people as possible,” Emmelie agrees. “There is a large group on TikTok that may not get politics on board with the regular news. We take up the challenge of doing that through this route.”
‘In a democracy it is not only important to vote, but also to participate’
“You can try to appeal to a new target group,” said political scientist Peter van der Heide at EditieNL, “but with TikTok that makes no sense, because that target group is not even allowed to vote.” Sanne Kruikemeier can count on a slight surprise at this statement: “For me personally, that is a bit of a limited view of politics. In a democracy, it is not only important to vote, but also to participate, for example. I think it would be useful to involve young people under the age of 18 as well. Political parties are already doing this, for example through their youth departments.”
Small effect on voice choice
Despite all the positive effects on the political involvement of young people, Kruikemeier expects that the final effect on the choice of the vote is small. “We see in research that successful social media campaigns can lead to preferential votes for a particular candidate, but those are small effects.” She also emphasizes that social media is often used by people who are probably already politically involved and are already voting anyway.
In addition, the TikTok algorithm chooses videos that match the user’s interests and offers them on a silver platter: the “For You” page. So there is a good chance that Emmelie’s videos will end up with people who already think the same way. Still, that’s not a problem: “The goal isn’t necessarily to convince people of other political persuasions, but rather to reach young people in general,” she says.
‘Young people are also on TikTok to talk about politics’
In any case, more attention to the positive effects of social media would not be out of place in the public debate. “Older journalists didn’t think our TikTok was a good idea,” Emmelie laughs, “but I think they underestimate young people because they’re also on TikTok to talk about politics.”
Sanne Kruikemeier also thinks that the positive function of social media such as TikTok remains underexposed: “Young people spend a large part of their day on social media. We often talk about the dangers of this, but forget that it can also contribute to democracy in a positive way.”
That TikTok is the new medium for politicians, she would not want to say. “But social media will remain, in whatever form. And that is the future, also of politics.”