The TikTok Teens Trying to Meme the Vote

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Joshi started making videos on TikTok a few months ago. She’d planned to spend her first semester at UC Berkeley registering students to vote on campus, but when remote learning kept her quarantining with her parents in Mountain View this fall, she started standing on street corners and holding up signs about voter registration for passing cars. Then Covid-19 cases surged in her area, and even that started to feel risky. So she came home, downloaded TikTok, and started making videos.

Joshi’s videos cover climate change (“it’s my top issue”), racial equality (she’s half-Indian, like Senator Kamala Harris), and the wealth gap (the $750 President Trump reportedly paid in federal income tax in 2016 and 2017 wouldn’t cover a month of her college tuition). But mostly, she talks about why it’s important to vote this November. Never mind that Joshi herself has never voted before. She’s 18 now, and she’s not throwing away her ballot. “The fact that it’s my first time feels really cool,” she says. “It’s like, ‘Hey, Trump? I’ve been waiting four years for this.’”

Many of the places to register first-time voters—like college campuses—are closed this fall due to the coronavirus. That’s put more pressure on digital tools to do the same work. “Voter registration, outreach, and recruitment are all totally different this year,” says Abby Kiesa, the director of impact at Tufts’ Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or Circle. Platforms like TikTok have at least partially filled the gap. In a recent poll of young people, Circle found that 29 percent of 18- to 21-year-olds have heard about the election on TikTok. “Young people are using the tools that they think are going to have an impact,” says Kiesa. “As a result of that, some young people are definitely voting.”

Earlier in the summer, Hess asked Tok the Vote’s creators to make videos encouraging people to register, just to see if such a strategy could work. In one weekend, Hess says the campaign led at least 3,500 people to get registered or request a mail-in ballot. (That’s based on the number of people who used links directly from Tok the Vote’s videos. More may have registered separately, after seeing those videos.) “Now that people are registered,” Hess says, “we need to get them out voting.”

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Historically, turnout among young voters is low—fewer than half of Americans aged 18 to 29 voted in the 2016 election. And while Gen Z seems to have an appetite for social issues, it’s not clear how much the energy that’s led them to protest things like gun violence, climate change, and racial injustice will translate to the polls. Kristian Lundberg, who researches youth political behavior at Circle, says there’s evidence to believe that it will. In 2018, the group found that participating in online activism was a key contributor to young people showing up at the ballot box—in part because youth-led groups like March for Our Lives and the Sunrise Movement “emphasized voting as a lever for change.” This year, Lundberg points out that plenty of young people have already voted with mail-in ballots, at a rate that’s already “exponentially greater than what we saw in 2016.”

Youth-led TikTok groups pick up where those other youth-led movements left off. Aidan Kohn-Murphy, who is 16, took a leave of absence from school to start TikTok for Biden, which now includes about 360 creators. Between them, the group’s creators have more than 160 million followers—a sum greater than the total number of Americans who voted in the 2016 election. Pro-Trump teens have also found a home on TikTok, where the president’s soundbites are easily turned into memes. Aubrey Moore, the 17-year-old creator of TikTok’s Republican Hype House, for example, has amassed a powerful coalition with nearly 1 million followers.

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