Congress is fearful of TikTok’s influence, but America’s young people increasingly see it as a key platform for learning about and spreading political ideas. Will TikTok get young people engaged in the 2024 election or serve as another distraction? Neta Kligler-Vilenchik finds that young people embody an expressive citizenship, where you should speak out if you see injustice, and have found TikTok to be a fruitful platform. But she doubts that older politicians have figured out how to use it for effective persuasion. Richard Fox finds that TikTok users are liberal and more active, online and offline. But they take politics less seriously. He sees the same complaints about media change that scholars have been making for generations: we’re favoring shorter, less substantive, and emotional clips over real learning. They both say we should be skeptical of TikTok remaking politics but that we should listen to young people, who see real change.

Guests: Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Richard Fox, Loyola Marymount
Studies: Not Your Parents’ Politics; “Scrolling, Simping, and Mobilizing.”


Matt Grossmann: How will TikTok change politics this week on the science of politics? For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossman. Congress is fearful of TikTok’s influence,  but America’s young people increasingly see it as a key platform for everything,  including learning about and spreading political ideas. How should we view  TikTok as a political platform? Will it get young people engaged in the 2024 election, or serve as another distraction? This week, I talked to Neta Kligler Vilenchik of Hebrew, University of Jerusalem, about her new book manuscript with [inaudible 00:00:36], Not Your Parents’ Politics. She finds that young people embody an expressive citizenship where you should speak out if you see  injustice and have found TikTok to be fruitful platform for that expression. But she doubts that older politicians have figured out how to use it for effective persuasion. I also talked to Richard Fox of Loyola Marymount about his Journal  of Social Media and Society article with Kiana Karimi, Scrolling Simping and Mobilizing. 

He finds that TikTok users are liberal and more active offline and online, but they take politics less seriously. He sees the same complaints about media change  that scholars and old politicos have been making for generations, that we’re favoring shorter, less substantive and emotional clips over real learning. They both say research on TikTok is just getting off the ground and that we should be  skeptical of any one platform remaking politics, but also that we should listen to  young people who are excited about the new ways of experiencing the world. Let’s start with Neta Kligler-Vilenchik. So you’ve been studying TikTok since its  predecessor. What do you think the most important things we have learned about  its role in political life, especially for young people? 

Neta Kligler-Vilenchik: So [inaudible 00:01:44] and I have been looking at TikTok back when it was  musically, it was a much more niche platform, and the topic of political expression or political contents on musically weren’t at all a topic of conversation. So it’s not something people were aware of. And we were actually  really surprised to see these very creative videos created by young people that were engaging in politics in a very playful way. So creating skits around politics,  doing music, songs around brown candidates, things like that. So that’s what first  intrigued us to look into political content on back when it was musically and now  on TikTok. And really that was for us, the first step into thinking more generally about the role of political expression on social media for young people. And what  we see when we look at young people’s engagement with political contents on social media is that they engage with politics in a way that often seems very surprising to adult audiences. 

They’re speaking a different language, often the language of the platform. So especially on TikTok, the engagement with politics is very playful. It’s very tongue in cheek, it’s very colorful. It’s infused with a lot of popular culture. It’s humoristic, it’s cynical, it’s very affective and emotional. So it goes against a lot  of the ways that we as adults often think what political expression should look like. And so what we try to do is first look at what young people are… What they’re trying to convey in their own way around politics, on social media, and then later also ask ourselves normative questions about, okay, is that form of political expression on social media, is it also conducive to democracy? So I’d say the thing to understand is that although we have a lot of anxiety about young people and social media and also about social media and politics specifically, this  triangle of young people, social media and politics actually has also a positive potential as a place for young people to socialize into politics, to find their political voice and to find their connection to the realm of politics that can seem  quite distant to them. 

Matt Grossmann: So you have a new book manuscript that looks at young people’s political  expression, especially online and in social media. So what are the major findings  and takeaways from that project? And where does TikTok fit in the broader array  of tools that young people have? 

Neta Kligler-Vilenchik: So one of our key arguments in the book is to offer a new way to think about the  relationship between young people, politics and social media. And that is also thinking about the role of social media for young people’s political socialization.  So basically, if we want young people to be active participants in democracy, to  be people who find their political voice, who think about their connection to politics. And when I say politics, I mean politics widely defined, not only partisan politics, but different civic and social issues. That’s something that requires a learning curve, it requires active engagement. And social media can be  a place for young people to do that. So while we are often quite anxious about the  role of social media for young people, we believe that this view or this framing can actually also help us think about the ways that it can be a useful space. 

However, in order to think about social media as a useful place for political socialization or to understand the ways that young people are engaging with politics on social media, we need to put aside some of our dominant expectations  or normative expectations about what political expression should look like. So we often expect political expression to be something that is very serious. It is very objective and very rational. And on social media, we see young people expressing in a way that is very emotional, it’s very personal, it’s coming from their own vantage point, and it speaks the language of the platform. So it’s often  very humoristic or cynical infused with popular culture and so on. And so part of  it is just understanding that young people are engaging with politics, but in a way  that’s very different from what we’re used to seeing. And this is also where TikTok fits in. 

We know that TikTok is particularly popular with younger demographics, and it  is also a platform that has quite a unique language. So its platform vernacular is  all about being authentic and playful. And so we see that even engagement with  politics happens in ways that are very counter to our ways of thinking of it, whether it’s from a point of view video that tries to put yourself in the shoes of a  political candidate. Back when it was musically in 2016, when we looked at the  platform, we saw lots of videos where young people would do lip-syncing to speeches by political candidates or create skits around politics. So it’s a form of engagement with politics that’s very, very different from what we’re used to. And  yet we argue that it can also be a productive place for young people to engage with politics. 

Matt Grossmann: So for those that may not be as familiar, what does TikTok look like relative to  other social media platforms and how might that be important for its use in politics? 

Neta Kligler-Vilenchik: So one thing to know about TikTok is speed. So videos on TikTok are generally  very short and they’re looping. And so it’s something that’s happening very quickly and quite repetitively. When you analyze political TikTok video like we  do, you often need to watch it many, many times in order to understand its layers  of meaning because the meaning is actually created by the mix of the audio track  together with the visuals and also the use of hashtags and descriptions altogether create its rich intertextual meaning. It’s a platform that’s very mimetic. So when  one of its expressivity affordances is that it creates very easy reuse of other people’s content. 

So you can take an audio track or you can speak back to someone else’s video through some of the platform’s features. And so it’s a platform that is very easy to  sort of get into, start creating content by interacting with others. And linking a little bit to our research around politics, one of the things we argue that this enables is a form of political expression that we term as collective political expression because it allows you to fit in a sort of imagined audience, either one  that has views that are similar to you or sometimes different to you, and use the  symbolic resources that others use in order to bring in your message and add that  to the political content that’s out there. 

Matt Grossmann: So what elections and issues have been kind of the quintessential TikTok politics  usage so far? Are there examples where it’s been very influential in prior elections or in issue advocacy campaigns that we can learn from? 

Neta Kligler-Vilenchik: So the question of influence is always one that is a tricky one to answer when it  comes to the role of social media. So we as qualitative research often like to say,  or in terms of our research approach that we look not so much at what social media does to us or does to people versus what people do with social media or what young people do with social media, the approach towards politics is very much from a personal point of view, from a personal standpoint. So a lot of the perspective is how will this affect me and my life and my experiences, or how does it look from my vantage point? And there is something about even the technical features of the platform. So say the fact that you often film with your cell phone camera and you do it on selfie mode. There’s something that sort of centers the individual and the individual’s perspective. 

In terms of the topics and the trends and the things that are interesting, so obviously because it’s a younger demographic, the topics are ones that speak more to that demographic in general. And although we are talking here about politics on TikTok, and definitely it’s something that is growing in scope, we have to understand and to remember that the vast majority of young people are on TikTok, not for the politics. They’re there for the music, the challenges, the goofing out, they’re there because that’s where their friends are. They’re there because the algorithm for you page, they feel like they know it better. The algorithm knows them better than their best friends in terms of knowing what will interest them and what will pop up next to create the mood that they’re looking for. And so these are the draws of TikTok. And so in that sense, our focus on the politics on TikTok looks at a specific slice of a platform that’s really  about so much more for young people. 

Matt Grossmann: Research on TikTok is just beginning and really pretty small, but we have a lot of  research from other social media platforms, especially Twitter and maybe Facebook. How much of that do you think applies? What do we know so far that  you think would translate and what would you be cautious about translating to the new platform, not new, but the other platform? 

Neta Kligler-Vilenchik: Right. So one of our arguments in the book is that we have a problem when we  try to generalize about all social media in terms of thinking about their effects.  

For example, if we talked about influence earlier, because the dynamics of different social media platforms also around politics often act in different ways.  So one of the things we offer in our book is a theoretical framework to think about how different platforms shape political expression. And this happens through the interaction between three components or three aspects. So one is the  affordances of the platform, so what it enables users to do and also what it constrains and makes it difficult for them to do. One has to do with the norms of  the platform. 

So what people perceive are the appropriate norms of expression on that platform? What is an appropriate topic for the platform or an appropriate way to  talk about that topic? And then the third is the contents. So both the contents that  people post, but also the content that the algorithmic feed shows people and makes more visible. And the three of those are in an interaction that then shapes  the kinds of political expression that we end up seeing. So if we try to think or to  compare between you asking between TikTok and Twitter or Facebook and our  book, we’re thinking about TikTok versus Instagram and YouTube, we see that one thing  that TikTok has in particular are its expressivity affordances. So it’s a platform that is very much about expressive creation, that is very creative, it’s easy to be creative on the platform, and that’s part of its vernacular and its language. So we’ll see forms of expression that are really rich, versus on Twitter we mostly see  text and we see some links and so on. In a TikTok video, even a very short one actually, there can be quite a rich, complex layer of meanings to unpack. 

In terms of the user demographics, and this also has to do in our framework with  the norms, we know that TikTok attracts a younger demographic. So Facebook today, for young people in the US, it’s often considered old people’s media, they’re not there. And so, there’s something about our focus as researchers of predominantly researching Facebook and Twitter. That means we often miss young people’s voices, and that’s another thing that makes TikTok quite important. 

And then another thing that’s quite particular from TikTok versus other social media is its algorithm and what it brings to prominence, which is actually not based on who you follow, like on Facebook or on Twitter, but much more on what the algorithm thinks you’ll be interested in and the different characteristics  of the content. And that means that even everyday users can create a video that will actually attract or will be visible or accessible to many, many viewers who  don’t follow them. And in that sense, there is something that’s a, I would call it democratic model, not in the political sense, but in the sense of visibility of different content. 

So all these are things that make TikTok quite particular. In addition to, as I mentioned, it’s quite a specific language that I think when you take a TikTok video and you take it out of context and someone sees it, for example, share it on  a different social media platform, if they’re not used to the platform, they don’t speak that language, they will often not understand a lot of the nuance or the references that it includes. 

Matt Grossmann: So when new media develop or evolve, we often have complaints about how  they’re different from the past media, and some of those repeat over time. One of  the things that I think has been common complaint about TikTok and similar mediums is that, to the extent that it involves politics at all, it’s infotainment, it’s  not really providing information. So how would you think about it in the context  of those kind of perennial debates that we have had about the rise of television and other social as well? 

Neta Kligler-Vilenchik: Right. There’s an interesting meta-analysis of learning about politics on social  media conducted by my colleague Dr. Eranam Salim and Alon Zeusner, which shows, from a meta-analysis of I think hundreds of studies, that the learning about political issues from social media amounts to basically zero. So it’s hard to  claim that social media is the right place to learn in depth about politics. 

I would say that there is something about the way that politics is presented on social media that is conducive much more towards a different political aim or political goal, and that is mobilization. So in terms of getting people interested in  something or rallied around something, especially if it’s something that they’re  already inclined to believe, and in that terms, even getting people active beyond  the social media sphere, social media can be quite a powerful tool. But if we’re thinking about another democratic goal and that’s sort of having a discursive conversation, having dialogue, especially also with those who think other than we do, social media does not seem very conducive towards that goal. And TikTok specifically. So the way that the platform is designed, the way that the algorithm is designed, the way that the norms of expression work, it is not really  a place where you can go very much into depth around political issues and political debates.

We do think, however, that it can be a place for people to find out about something and then say, “Huh, I didn’t quite understand that. Maybe I’ll go and see what they were talking about. Who’s that political candidate? What is that issue? What happened there that I’m not quite understanding?”

And in that sense, we have to remember that for a lot of young people, social media are their main source of news and information because they don’t necessarily read mainstream media. And sometimes they use TikTok to search instead of using Google. We hope at least that it’s not their only source of information, but that at least sometimes it can maybe sort of incentivize them or  push them to also go and learn deeper about these issues somewhere else.  

Because at the end of the day, watching the TikTok videos won’t make them a political expert. 

Matt Grossmann: So you mentioned that it might be a tool for mobilization. Do you think that that  does translate to the offline world? Is this something that can make people show  up at a protest, vote, engage in offline activities, or is this really an alternative? 

Neta Kligler-Vilenchik: In sort of the new media research world, we’re really refraining more and more  from the division between the online and the offline, so assuming that these are separated. Because really, when TikTok is on my phone and I’m taking it everywhere with me, it’s just a seamless part of my life, and so I think that’s not necessarily the right division to make. 

But if we’re asking does participation or political participation on social media, does it translate or does it also involve being part of things like protests or voting  and so on? I think what the research mostly shows is that our previous critique that we had of the slacktivism or the clicktivism that assumed that if I’m active on  social media around politics for example, that would replace the so-called offline  participation. That critique does not seem to hold. Those who are politically active online are often those who are also politically active in real life, and they’re using social media as another place to engage with their politics and to mobilize. 

But social media can also be sort of a first step or an early introduction into some  of the political action for those who usually would not have been active politically at all. In that sense, it’s not suppressing political action for those who  would be politically active anyway. And it is something that enables people to come into or have an introduction into political realms, when that’s not something  that they would’ve necessarily done before. 

Matt Grossmann: Another place where our initial fears haven’t necessarily matched the early  research is about political bubbles and the role of the algorithms, especially on YouTube and Facebook. I think we’ve found so far that certainly there are some  people in bubbles, but not necessarily because the algorithm has forced them that  way. Anything about TikTok that might change that? Is it a medium that might be especially conducive to bubbles or to people getting out of their political bubble and hearing different views? 

Neta Kligler-Vilenchik: It seems that research shows that the bubble hypothesis works mostly for people  who are very political in the first place. The kind of content that they attract is mostly political content and they’re quite partisan. So around that, we have to remember that most people on TikTok don’t come to it for their politics, they’re coming for it for other things. From that reason, we wouldn’t necessarily assume  that it would act more in a way that’s conducive to the filter bubble or echo chamber, but rather that people might be exposed to different things.We do know that the algorithm, as we said, it’s at least known or people say or report that they feel that the algorithm knows them, so it knows to give them the  content that they like and that they enjoy. And in that sense, when the algorithm  is quite predictive in speaking to what people are interested in, then we can assume that at least for the people who are showing some inclination towards maybe just hearing more of their side and having their views confirmed, that the  algorithm will then also speak to that. 

Of course, the fact that so much of content on TikTok is algorithmically curated  makes understanding or really parsing out these questions very difficult. I have heard of some research that tries, I think more anecdotally to [inaudible 00:24:14] bots to like specific videos and then see what the algorithm then keeps  feeding them and so on. But I think this is still a question that is open, and I think  that it’s quite likely that, as we saw that the filter bubble hypothesis was quite overrated for social media in general, I wouldn’t assume that would be very different for TikTok. 

Matt Grossmann: We are in the midst of the 2024 presidential campaign, and on the one hand,  TikTok penetration has increased a lot, a lot of people are expecting it to have more of a role in this year’s election. On the other hand, we have two very old candidates who don’t necessarily seem like they would be TikTok stars. So how  much of a role do you think it will play this year? And how will young people deal with the fact that they’re dealing with two candidates that don’t necessarily speak to them? 

Neta Kligler-Vilenchik: Right. Of course, there was quite an uproar, I’d say, when Biden opened his  TikTok account on Super Bowl day after the TikTok being banned from government devices. It seemed quite hypocritical to many, but I think it’s a step or an action that’s quite understandable given Biden’s attempt to reach these young voters. I think it makes a lot of sense to think that TikTok will play an important place, an important role in this election. 

And politicians traditionally have often, I wouldn’t say quite overlooked, but not  given enough attention to the youth vote. Part of it has to do with sort of a cyclical process where young people in the US vote at lower rates than their older  counterparts, and so they also receive less attention from politicians, and that maybe then reinforces that cycle. Although, we’ve also seen that that tendency has changed in some of the past elections. 

I think you’re right to say that this is an election where young people are feeling  that their voices are not heard and are not well-represented. I don’t think TikTok  can be the remedy for it. It’s not enough, even if one of those candidates will fare  surprisingly well on TikTok. And by the way, if they would want to do that, the key is to have young aides, people who really speak the language of the platform  and who know how to do it well, because there’s nothing more pathetic or damaging than a politician who tries to do TikTok, but does it badly. I’m thinking  it’s an important thing to do, but it will not solve, I think, any of those candidates  problems with young people.

Matt Grossmann: The US House of Representatives recently passed a bill by a pretty large  bipartisan margin to try to force a sale of TikTok to a non-China connected firm.  How surprising have the politics of this been? Why do you think there is this bipartisan consensus on the fears about Chinese influence? And do you think that  if something like this passes that it’s going to create an uproar or a backlash against Biden or anyone else? 

Neta Kligler-Vilenchik: The question of the Chinese influence on TikTok seems, at least to my  understanding, to be resting on a lot of speculation. I’ve not seen clear  evidence that shows that this influence exists, but I think rather it’s more the fears  or the concerns that could exist. So I think banning TikTok on government devices is one thing, because these devices could possibly be hacked and then be  a way to steal data, and I think that’s a viable concern, but banning the platform as a whole seems to me to be quite counter to values of free speech and freedom of expression. 

Matt Grossmann: So researchers tend to have more respect for the role of traditional media than  maybe these users of social media do, and one of the things that they tend to say  when I ask, “Why would you trust what some random person is telling you in this  video?” Is that, actually, they don’t want the gatekeepers, they want the personal  testimonials. So for example, they’re watching a video from someone who is in Gaza, or who is in Ukraine, and reporting their own experiences. To what extent  is that a true change, and what are the costs and benefits of relying on testimonials rather than gatekeepers who provide context? 

Neta Kligler-Vilenchik: So one of the ideas that we suggest in our book is that the kind of political  expression that young people engage on on social media reflects a new model of  good citizenship and what good citizenship looks like for them, and that is what  we call the expressive citizen model. So within the expressive citizen model, there’s this idea that if you see an injustice or if you see something that is wrong,  it is your duty to speak out, and that speaking out on social media is a way to act  on it, so it’s a form of good citizenship in and of itself that is an obligation, or it’s  seen as a moral obligation. 

And we talk about how if indeed young people are engaging with politics around  a model like that, it has advantages and disadvantages from the point of view of  advancing democracy. One advantage is that it’s something that encourages participation, so it encourages people to speak out, to take responsibility, to have  a voice, to see themselves as someone who should be part of a public conversation. But on the downside, it means that sometimes people may speak out or express themselves around things that they’re not necessarily fully knowledgeable about, or really, as you said, bring their specific point of view. It’s  something that resonates very much with the language of some of these platforms  that is very much about telling your personal story, showing the ramifications  from your point of view, and so on, which is partly why it’s resonant with young  viewers who are looking to that. But I think we need to still find ways to bridge between some of the tenets of  expressive citizenship, so this idea of you should speak out and you should tell  your story and tell your narrative, but also think about how it can also enable listening to other views, understanding broader contexts, problematizing your own point of view, and so on. So that is part of what we try to do in our concluding chapter when we think about the advantages and disadvantages of  this expressive citizenship model. 

Matt Grossmann: So we know young people are seeing this as an important platform, but how  much do TikTok users differ from other young people? For that, we now turn to  Richard Fox. 

So tell us the major findings and takeaways from your article about TikTok’s influence on political behavior. 

Richard Fox: All right. Well, thank you for having me. First, a shout-out to my co-author,  Kiana Karimi. We run a project here at LMU, where we have our best senior students in political science, they’re able to run their own surveys, we give them  money to either, on Prolific or MTurk, address questions, and they’re almost always related to social media or media trends. This started with her senior honors thesis project, so I want to just acknowledge her great work, she’s authored lots. 

So 2020, we might call that the first TikTok residential election, I think it is. And so, we did a two-part study where we studied the content of the top 20 most political TikToks that had the most views, and then we did a survey on MTurk,  Mechanical Turk, where your survey respondents can answer questions and get a  little modest pay in their Amazon account, about 615 18 to 29-year-olds on their  TikTok habits, because if you know any young people, it continues to grow astronomically in its usage, and we want to see what kind of impact it might be having. So this data is highly suggestive, I wouldn’t think it’s authoritative. It’s a  first [inaudible 00:33:24], trying to understand what TikTok might be doing. We looked at all the main social media users, and among young citizens, TikTok had more of an influence, or was more correlated with them being political participants, both online and in traditional forms of participation, volunteering, giving money, participating in the political process. So it suggested TikTok has a potentially outsized influence among social media platforms. 

Matt Grossmann: So give us the basics of how TikTok works, how it’s different from other social media platforms, and how that might matter for politics. 

Richard Fox: I’m very worried, as an older person, I end up sounding like somebody talking about the Google or something, as one of our presidents once did, or the World Wide Web. My late teenage children will probably not be impressed by how this goes. My TikTok is a form of a streaming platform that took off when it was launched in 2017, and has become crazily popular. It started off with 15 second  videos, a complete platform where you can just quickly, quickly scroll, swipe through, 15 second videos, was how it started and burst onto the scene. They were almost all fun, dance, music, pet tricks, and it was just in a very amusing way to entertain yourself. They’ve since extended it, you’ve 60-minute videos, and more recently, three minutes, I even think there’s some long-form TikTok now, I was reading possibly up to 10 minutes. 

So there had been something like that, so it was called Vine, that I think did Twitter put that out? That ended up going away. You probably know this way better than I do. It ended up going away, and so it just jumped into this market, and it just seems more fun and faster paced way to look at a lot of things quickly,  so that’s how it’s taken off. When you look at the content of, it’s actually hard to measure. It doesn’t have that much directly political content when you look at the millions and millions of videos posted, most of them are categorized as dance/entertainment, and then tips and life tips, and advice, fashion and trends. But things that are directly and fully political, it’s a pretty small percentage. 

Matt Grossmann: So listeners probably would know you most from your work on gender and politics and American elections rather than see you as a Gen Z TikTok influencer, but as you say, our students are often telling us that social media is going to control, or be very important, in the next election. So how do you deal with that dissonance? When should we believe the young people that everything is changing, and when should we be skeptical? 

Richard Fox: That’s a multipronged question. So I’ve always dabbled in political  communication, I worked on a book called Tabloid Justice, it was about how coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial was perhaps changing how people, or misinforming people, about how they thought about the justice system. So I’ve always, as a secondary field of research, tried to keep an eye on trends in communication and political communication, how that might be affecting voters  and candidates. 

So how influential… There’s so much noise in an election, and it’s gotten harder and harder, especially with siloed new stories, to figure out what really matters, and there’s a lot of research on social media. As you know, all the different, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, X, I guess, and now less on TikTok, it’s mixed, but  it does suggest that it has an influence on getting people to pay attention to certain issues, and even maybe attending rallies, like the George Floyd demonstrations, or getting very upset about Donald Trump. He was disrupted based on some Instagram and TikTok activities. So there are lots of examples, and the research shows that it seems to matter. 

If you watch the usage statistics, TikTok, it’ll stop at some point, but it’s continuing to just grow and grow and grow exponentially, so that’s why it’s getting a lot of focus, and it seems to have an impact. So I don’t think it’s the only  thing or the most important thing, but it seems to be an important thing, especially for voters under 30, as a potential tool to mobilize them, get them to care about certain issues, that does seem to be happening. Will it determine the outcome in the election? Well, in our current presidential state, maybe. If it gets  as close as it’s been in four or five key states, we’re talking about shiftings of pretty small numbers of voters or turnout increases that could be pretty small to  change the outcome. So I’m sure our young people are overstating, because it’s so  important to them [inaudible 00:38:11] on the outcome of elections, but I think for those of us who watch elections, there’s certainly a way that it could really be  determinative or influential. 

Matt Grossmann: So you find that TikTok use is associated with support for Liberal politicians and  beliefs in the importance of racial injustice, so just walk me through what you think the mechanics of that would look like, if we assume that some of that is actual influence of use of the platform, why might it change those kinds of beliefs? 

Richard Fox: Well, there’s quite a bit of increasing evidence that’s social media is more  influential to Liberals or Democrats, or they’re using it more, that’s been seen across a number of spectrums. I have another student project where she surveyed  500 18 to 24 year olds on Prolific and other public opinion-gathering, I’d love to  tell you about. So at this point, it’s a place where Democrats/Liberals are more likely to come together on their issues. And especially for young people, they have issues that are very clear, they have reproductive rights, they have climate change, they have LGBTQ plus rights, and they have gun control, and those seem  to be very mobilizing for young people on the Liberal side on the spectrum. 

So the reason why we asked about racial justice, because that study was about the  2020 election and George Floyd and all the demonstrations in that time period.  

So I don’t think those are not relevant anymore, but we’ve moved onto the next set of issues, more enduring issues, especially with abortion rights having… So just those seem like issues that are very TikTok-able or Instagrammable, where you can come together in a group and get information about them in a place with  a more Liberal base of young voters on social media. 

Matt Grossmann: You also find that they’re more likely to say that they take politics less seriously  as well, so we have that, they’re engaged in these serious issues, but they take the  process less seriously, so might that connect to some worries about trivialization? 

Richard Fox: Yeah, I think all of us, we all go back to Neil Postman, amusing ourselves to  death. When he wrote in the ’80s about how television was turning politics into entertainment, boy, I don’t think he’s still alive, is he? He probably would be quite incredibly… It’s 100 times what he was worried about. Politico did this interesting story last year was talking about TikTok’s influence about how politics comes into things, and they were quoting this influencer who was giving  relationship tips, and tip number one was avoid people who say they don’t like McDonald’s french fries, what are they talking about? Two, oh, avoid people who  only one genre of music. You can’t just like hip hop or country, that’s not a good  sign. And three, buried in this was that you should really get involved with people who say they don’t care what’s going on or don’t vote. 

So TikTok’s blending all of these things, fun, entertaining, tips relevant to my life, and then politics pops along. And a lot of the videos about politics, the direct  ones are funny, so it’s making you aware, but maybe not taking it very seriously.  So I think someone could get very worried like, “Oh, well, I don’t have the right…  Well, I don’t like it, but they took my rights of free speech.” I think it makes politics seem [inaudible 00:41:39]. You’re brought up to speed, you’re made aware of issues that are happening, but it’s not very serious when it’s placed in amongst a 20 second video on relationships. 

Matt Grossmann: So we have a reasonable first cut, but it is from a non-fully representative survey,  and we’re just dealing with associations, observational evidence, so how much would you expect this to carry over to the American population as a  whole of young people and to actually be causal? 

Richard Fox: We use regression and I don’t want to walk us out here a little bit. I mean, MTurk  is a voluntary source where people come on and they get paid a buck to take your  survey and maybe they’re not doing much and over the course of a day or two, they might get 20 bucks if they did 20 surveys, put in their Amazon account. We  know from research that people who answer this tend to skew a little bit liberal, a  little bit more educated, a little bit more white, than the population. We use regression as we’re trying to control for lots of things you would try to control for  in predicting certain behaviors. Their party affiliation, their levels of interest, their income levels. I think it’s slightly more than suggestive. It’s a finding that holds when we try to control for all these things once we acknowledge that the sample is so-so at best. 

Matt Grossmann: Research in this area is just beginning. What would you say is the agenda for  better understanding the role of TikTok in politics? 

Richard Fox: Well, I just want to point out one thing also. There’s huge gender gaps on usage  of these mediums too. Instagram and TikTok have a pretty much a 60/40 female/male gap. Twitter and YouTube are way more male, so that’s something I’m curious about, the understanding why that and what that might mean. I actually think we basically only understand through the impact of TikTok at a pretty surface level. Maybe there’s a handful of articles out there. A lot of this might be neuroscience research also. The Pew suggests that people go on it for an  average of eight minutes a day, the users, eight to 10 minutes a day and they use  it seven or eight times a day for like, oh, I’m sitting on a bus, I’ve got 10 minutes,  I’m going to entertain myself. I don’t know what that’s doing to you. [inaudible 00:44:09] think that’s news gathering now. Does it change how you  think about what it means to get news? Does it change how your brain works to  process information like this? Those are fundamental questions about social media generally, but I don’t think we quite understand how… A lot of experimental researchers are trying to figure this out now. We don’t quite understand, if across 20 videos I just watched in my five minute session, two of  them were about gun control, did that have any resonance? Does that stay with me in any way? Do I remember anything I see on TikTok? We have one of my colleagues here worked at Google for many years and worked experiments, like  that does a meme seem to have more influence like a photo or a meme than having someone read an article online? They’ll remember the meme. I don’t think  we quite fully understand because we care about politics, I don’t think we quite fully understand how political messages are either being retained or not retained,  for TikTok or others, so I think there’s a lot to move on there. 

Matt Grossmann: One benefit of having older researchers study new questions is that we’ve heard a  lot of these arguments before and it is striking that the two main kind of concerns  that we’re just going to get short clips, those have been made about TV news for  a long time, that we’re going to merge information and entertainment. Again, been made for quite a few decades about traditional media. What do we know from the history of those complaints? How often have they been true and how has that changed our politics? 

Richard Fox: I guess our job as a researchers is not to cry wolf every time something happens,  but to provide some long-term perspective. I brought up Neil Postman’s book earlier. That book is approaching 40 years old, right? This deep concern about how we’re going to be shallowing out our discourse and how we think about these critical questions of governance. Maybe it’s just a long process, but these things tend to be hard to measure the way we do them in one-off study here, a study there and it’s hard to look at the trajectory. It’s kind of hard not to be more  deeply concerned about misinformation and attention spans, to those two really strike me. Misinformation’s all over social media. TikTok hasn’t been as aligned  with some of those concerns as other platforms. I’m sure that’s coming in the 2024 election. Even when we go back over time to these other mediums, when we start off with radio, television, the internet burst on the scene, I don’t think misinformation was a leading concern and I think it’s now because anybody can  put anything anywhere almost, is what it feels like. That one feels like a true thing to think about for politics and moving forward, not just pressing the alarm  bells. 

Whether TikTok’s bad for you or social media is bad for you, it’s making you less  engaged with politics, I feel like the research suggests it’s mixed and it’s not making you any less engaged than you used to be as a whole population. I don’t  know if you would agree with that. It’s made certain people way more engaged.  

We know that the people, the ones who are reading the newspaper every morning  anyway, now can drill down and look at TikTok and that special election across  the country, they never could have done that before. It led to a group of political  junkies, but if you talk to teenagers or young people, they would say, I’m learning  a lot of things quickly and they would say, wow. It’s not just to entertain them.  

Your teenage kid wants to ask about the Ukraine war because of a TikTok video  they saw. It is mixed. I of course have deep worries about the kind of discourse,  attention spans, lack of quality information and misinformation that seem like they’re worse to me, studying this over the last 25 years. 

Matt Grossmann: We’re going to have a presidential candidate, a presidential campaign between  two not very well-liked candidates who are very old and we’re talking about a platform used by young people, but how is it that these candidates are going to get any traction on this kind of platform? They don’t necessarily seem conducive  to the TikTok era. 

Richard Fox: Well, I think it’s going to all be issue-based, right? The Democratic party  influencers on TikTok or content creators are going to be focusing on abortion, climate change, the best climate change policy we’ve ever had, gun control and try to motivate support for Biden secondarily. On the Republican side, I mean they’ve been much slower to use TikTok. When we did our study about the top videos that were pro-Trump versus the top videos that were pro-Biden in 2020, the ones for Biden had so many more views and looks. I don’t know. I can’t quite  tell if the Republicans are catching up on TikTok or other social media. My sense  is from news reporting, they’re not yet, so I’m not sure what they’ll do, but Trump was pretty quite savvy on Facebook and whatnot. I just think we’re going to see  this continuation of trying to avoid the fact that these are two old and unpopular  candidates and try to use the technology in ways that could actually motivate, in  this case, our discussion of TikTok people under 30 to actually get out and vote. 

Matt Grossmann: Anything we didn’t get to that you wanted to include or anything you want to tout  about what you’re working on next? 

Richard Fox: I just wanted to talk about one of these next student projects I’m pretty excited  about. I have a student who’s studying political socialization and any of us who teach U.S politics, we’ve always taught people, family, peers, education and media are the most important. Family the most important by far in helping you  derive your political beliefs across your teen years and so she was questioning  that and she thinks, I don’t know, they’re spending so many hours on social  media. I think social media is now the biggest socializing agent. She went to Prolific, which is a better way to get a survey than MTurk, right? It’s a panel.  She’s uncovered that young people, 50% of young people say, social media, this  is Republican, is the most important socializing agent. Then we try to test it.  Parents are way down. The number one is way down in their own perception. 

What we do find is something I alluded to earlier. Social media is way more influential for Democrats than Republicans. Republican 18 to 24 year olds are much more likely to align and match their parents directly, than Democrats. We then say social media is way more important to them and they’re more liberal than their parents. I think there’s some great opportunities for political socialization research as the world changes dramatically in terms of how people get information, so I’m pretty excited about some future projects. We’re going to keep doing experiments also to see, when you watch a TikTok video, what does  it do to you? We’re going to work on that next. 

Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the  Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. If you like this discussion, here  are the episodes I recommend checking out next, linked on our website. Did Facebook really polarize and misinform the 2016 electorate? Does nationalized  media mean the death of local politics? How online media polarizes and  encourages voters. How news and social media shape American voters and the influence of Twitter on journalism and politics. Thanks to Neta Kligler-Vilenchik  and Richard Fox for joining me. Please check out, Not Your Parents’ Politics and  Scrolling, Simping and Mobilizing and then listen in next time.