Gen Z is losing its political voice on social media

President Joe Biden signed the bill this week that could ban TikTok from the U.S. if its parent company ByteDance doesn’t sell the platform. According to young political content creators, the ban could decimate Gen Z’s access to political news and information.

“An unfortunately large amount of 18- to 24-year-olds find out information about local elections from TikTok, so my heart is breaking,” Emma Mont, a political content creator, told TechCrunch. According to the Pew Research Center, about a third of American adults between ages 18 and 29 regularly get their news from TikTok.

“I think it’s going to have an impact not only on the people who provide information, but also the people who receive that information,” Mont said. “Part of the reason I make the content I do is that I know there’s someone who’s watching and this is the first time they’re ever gonna learn about Roe v. Wade, or whatever I’m talking about.”

For most content creators, the transition away from TikTok is difficult, but not insurmountable — many full-time creators already cultivate multi-platform followings, rather than depending on one platform, in preparation for this exact kind of worst-case scenario (remember Vine?).

Instagram Reels is a clear alternative to TikTok, but for political creators, it’s not a real option. As of March, Instagram is filtering out political content from users that you don’t already follow. That means that it’s basically impossible for political creators and activists to reach a wider audience.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” said Pratika Katiyar, a Northeastern University student and research assistant at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. “There’s no need for Instagram to limit political content. That’s just driving users away from their platforms.”

Even before Instagram’s recent policy update, users alleged that their posts about the war in Gaza were being suppressed. Meta communications director Andy Stone chalked up these complaints to a “bug” that had “nothing to do with the subject matter” of the posts.

“I post a lot on my [Instagram] story about politics and the work I’m doing, and it’s becoming really, really hard,” Katiyar told TechCrunch. “There’s no way to get visibility anymore on Instagram, and now with the limiting of political content, I just fear that’s being compounded.”

These gripes have been so prevalent among creators that Instagram head Adam Mosseri addressed the issue on Threads.

“Before some of you say ‘the algorithm’ is the culprit, understand that ranking and recommendations *increase* the amount of posts people get to,” Mosseri wrote.

Lawmakers are adamant that this bill isn’t a ban. Rather, they say it’s forced divestiture of TikTok from its Chinese parent company. But ByteDance could have a hard time finding an American company that can afford to buy TikTok without raising antitrust concerns. Even if it does find a buyer, the Chinese government has the power to block a forced sale anyway.

All the while, President Biden’s reelection campaign is posting multiple TikToks per day, accumulating over 300,000 followers since creating the account in February.

“I’m even more surprised that Biden signed it into law,” TikTok creator Annie Silkaitis told TechCrunch. “I think it’s going to be such a hot topic this year, his campaign being on the app while he’s actively trying to ban it or force them to sell it. It just feels very hypocritical.”

An obstacle for Biden’s campaign

Biden’s decision to set up shop on TikTok makes sense: It’s a platform where more than 170 million Americans spend their time. This is especially true of younger voters, who are part of a key voting bloc with a historically low turnout. But Biden’s presence on the app, which he’s helping to ban, rubs users the wrong way.

“Being on TikTok is a brilliant campaign move, but I do think it’s a bit of a shot in the foot to take it away,” Mont said. “How do you come to terms with these two true things, that you’re banning TikTok and your campaign has had a lot of traction on TikTok?”

In any case, if TikTok does get banned, it won’t get removed from app stores until solidly after Election Day. Per the version of the bill that Biden signed, ByteDance has nine months to divest TikTok, with a 90-day possible extension. Plus, TikTok is expected to mount a substantial legal challenge against the legislation.

Biden’s stance on TikTok may still impact him in November, though.

“With TikTok being banned, that was one of the biggest news sources for Gen Z. It was a place where people felt like their voices were heard. And now that’s being taken away,” Katiyar said. “I think that’s concerning for how the election is going to turn out. And I do think people will hesitate to vote now… We feel like no one is really listening to our concerns right now.”

Voter turnout in the 18- to 29-year-old bloc is already expected to be lower in 2024 than 2020, a Harvard Youth Poll shows.

Not only does this move hurt Biden’s chance at securing the youth vote, but he’s also failing to capitalize on the power of the internet. Though the Biden campaign has been meeting with creators, the president’s organic reach could be limited if online activists feel complacent about his run.

Online momentum can shape an election. During the 2020 election cycle, for example, teens across the U.S. organized online for Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), dubbing themselves the “Markeyverse.” Most of them weren’t even eligible to vote in the Massachusetts Senate race, whether due to their age or residence, but supported the senator for his stance on curbing climate change. This network of Markey fan accounts helped propel the incumbent to victory over a formidable challenger, Representative Joe Kennedy III.

“Engaging young people online in a way that speaks to them gets them excited about political races that they might otherwise have not had any kind of stake in,” Mont said.

But TikTok users are unlikely to rally behind Biden in any way that’s reminiscent of the Markeyverse.

Some creators are frustrated about their lack of context for the TikTok ban. While the Senate has been party to closed-door briefings about TikTok’s threat to national security, very little information has been made apparent in public hearings. Those hearings have only served to show how little our legislators understand about the internet — last year, Representative Richard Hudson (R-NC) asked TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew if TikTok accesses Wi-Fi.

“If President Biden went out today and said China is intentionally putting X-Y-Z on your TikTok feed, I’d be like, ‘Okay, thank you for telling me, that’s all I needed.’ But it’s all very like, ‘Oh, we don’t understand the algorithm.’ Well, we don’t understand a lot of algorithms!” Mont said. “My biggest gripe about all of this as a political content creator is like, how much data do Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk have access to?”

Creators likely won’t be getting any answers soon. For now, they’re locked in limbo.

“It’s something that I’m gonna probably be talking about every day until anything happens, which likely won’t be for another year or two, which is scary to think,” said Silkaitis. “How drawn out is this going to be?”

👇Follow more 👇

Leave a Comment