When Black Lives Matter activist Lex Scott posts to the immensely popular short-form video app TikTok, she gazes straight at the camera and makes each second count.
“Alright, Black people, 60-second know-your-rights training,” begins one of her videos that explains what to do if you are stopped by police. Another of her videos walks people through how to report hate crimes directly to the FBI.
Producing content under the handle @lethallex, Scott has posted more than 600 videos and racked up more than 148,000 followers, using the platform to elevate her message and connect with other Black activists at a crucial time for the movement.
“I decided to use TikTok because it allows you to reach millions of people and to get your message out swiftly,” Scott told Al Jazeera. “With one video, we are able to go viral if it is made right and posted at the right time. I have been able to organise protests and get the word out on petitions that I have and police reform bills.”
Scott, who also runs the Utah chapter of Black Lives Matter, is just one of thousands of ‘TikTokivists’ who have used the app to amplify their messages.
Videos tagged #BlackLivesMatter have garnered more than 21.3 billion views on the platform.
That power and reach is not lost on other TikTokivists who are using the platform to turn out the youth vote for the November 3 United States presidential election.
And as the deadline imposed by President Donald Trump draws near for TikTok’s parent to sell its US operations, get-out-the-vote Gen Z activists say a sale could even boost their efforts.
With one video, we are able to go viral if it is made right.
Videos tagged #vote have been viewed more than 902 million times on TikTok US.
Colton Hess founded @Tok.the.Vote to spur Generation Z voters – TikTok’s original audience, defined as those born after 1996 – to the polls.
So far, the campaign has 20,000 followers and 2.5 million video views, and is working to recruit creators to help spread the word. Hess said the app’s algorithm makes it an effective way to reach young voters.
“TikTok’s algorithm puts your content in front of people who are most likely to want to see it, so you can easily get a message to your target audience – in our case, forward-thinking young people who want to push for progressive change,” Hess told Al Jazeera.
“It offers a creative way for young people to express themselves politically and speak to other young people in their language: the nuanced, quirky culture of memes, sounds and trends.”
But the future of TikTok is in question after Trump branded the app a national security risk and signed an executive order banning transactions with TikTok’s Chinese parent company ByteDance and its subsidiaries.
The executive order, which says data collection by TikTok that “threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information,” effectively forces ByteDance to either find a US-based buyer for TikTok’s US operations or shut down the app.
TikTok US has said it would not share US user data with Chinese authorities and has also filed a lawsuit challenging Trump’s ban.
Oracle Corp confirmed on Monday that ByteDance has chosen it to be its “preferred technology partner” in the US. What that means exactly is unclear. And closing a deal by September 20th may ambitious, given it needs to pass a US national security review and Beijing regulators may also have to sign off before giving the green light.
It offers a creative way for young people to express themselves politically.
Allegations of censorship
Potential abuse of user data is not the only controversy surrounding TikTok, which started as a place to post dance videos and morphed into one of the most popular social media platforms with more than 700 million active users worldwide, 100 million of them in the US.
On May 19, Scott and other Black creators launched a blackout to protest what they say has been a marginalisation of their voices, including hiding some of the content that had been tagged #BlackLivesMatter. Scott is also one of the users who believe they have been “shadowbanned,” meaning content takes longer to upload and does not receive as many views.
In response, the app’s US general manager apologised to Black creators, acknowledging in a statement that “a technical glitch made it temporarily appear as if posts uploaded using #BlackLivesMatter and #GeorgeFloyd would receive 0 views.”
TikTok assured users the glitch had been fixed, and vowed to take steps to “foster an inclusive environment on our platform”.
But Scott said there is more work to be done on that front, explaining “There is a lot of racism that is allowed to flourish. Black creators are not always heard and seen.”
The platform has also been adopted by some users on the right. Content tagged #boogalo, a reference to a white supremacist theory about a coming race war, has garnered more than 385,000 views, and more than 5.2m videos have been tagged #GeorgeSoros, many of them repeating a right-wing conspiracy theory about the Hungarian-American billionaire.
Last month, TikTok released a statement outlining ways it is combating hate speech, including taking down 380,000 videos and banning more than 1,300 accounts in the US for violating its hate speech policy since the start of 2020.
But the company acknowledges policing content is tough, and in recent days, TikTok has been criticised as it has rushed to stop the spread of a video showing a man killing himself with a gun, CNN reported.
Scott said she wants to see the app do more to remove disturbing content and protect young users.
“We creators should be able to make our content only accessible to adults. We should be able to put trigger warnings that allow people with PTSD not to be exposed to harmful videos, and children should not be exposed – ever – to adult content,” Scott said. “TikTok can be a dangerous and toxic place. We need to use the app for good and not evil, and the administration at TikTok needs to focus on diversity and inclusion within the app.”
A force for change?
Still, the community that activists have found on the platform makes it a potentially powerful force for change, particularly ahead of the election.
TikTok users and Korean pop music fans claim they helped tank Trump’s rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma in June by registering thousands of attendees who never showed up, leaving Trump to speak before a partially filled empty arena.
That activism could translate to change at the ballot box, because many of TikTok’s Gen-Z users are eligible to vote for the first time this fall.
There are roughly 24 million Gen-Z people eligible to vote, making then 10 percent of the electorate, a Pew Research Center report found.
Hess is banking on their energy and enthusiasm making an impact at the polls.
“If Gen Z bucks the trend of young voters participating at lower rates, which we believe they will, they will hold tremendous power and demand that politicians listen to them,” Hess said.
“First-time voters who have just turned 18 were born in the wake of 9/11, children during the financial crisis of 2008, taking US history classes during Trump’s impeachment hearing, and graduating high school at the start of COVID-19. They’re ready to see significant change.”
Hess also believes a potential sale of TikTok US could boost his efforts, not diminish them.
“We do not foresee the sale of TikTok having a negative effect on our activism,” he said. “If anything, the platform being owned by an American corporation will reduce any qualms people may have about using the app for political purposes.”