TikTok is reshaping politics and ruining online discourse
Since its invention, the Internet has been the battleground of intense political and philosophical discourse. Online platforms separate us from the other side of the debate, facilitating impersonal, one-sided arguments where we fight with a screen and not face to face. Online discourse is often completely unproductive, with each side scrambling to prove themselves right rather than learning a new perspective. Twitter users have coined the term “doomscrolling” to describe the inordinate amount of time most people spend scrolling through negative content and watching people argue and speculate about intense issues. It is difficult to be present on the internet without feeling obliged to have an opinion on everything.
It is easy to understand where this trend comes from. The Internet has brought the “information age”, and for the first time in history almost everything you need to know about anything is available in your pocket and at your fingertips. Now, more than ever, people can conduct their own research and come to their own reasonable conclusions on everything from geopolitical conflict to gender theory. It sounds like an environment that would foster well-informed debate, but with platforms full of misinformation and reductive buzzwords, it’s easy for conversations to quickly stray from the truth.
Such conversations are faster on TikTok, the sensational short-video platform that has grown in popularity over the past few years, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. On the surface, the app looks innocuous – full of dance videos and people sharing how-to and craft tips – but beneath that innocuous veil lies a sea of TikTok videos that seem to function only as rage fuel, layering a song catchy with a few words on a political or social subject while ridding it of any nuance. TikTok’s “for you” page carefully curates the content it thinks its viewer would like and share, meaning many of these discourse-inducing videos fall into an echo chamber of like-minded people. The views go up and the argument usually goes nowhere.
Twitter was once the kingpin of internet discourse and still is in many ways, but it is undoubtedly affected by its limited character system. Twitter only allows tweets to be 280 characters – doubled from 140 in 2017 – but makes up for that with a somewhat organized thread system, where new additions to a post can be provided directly below. This leaves room for complicated conversations, while keeping tweets short and catchy for situations that need it, like advertising or entertainment. However, TikTok hasn’t learned anything from its predecessor and limits video captions to 300 characters, with comments at a shocking limit of 150. There’s also very little thread system in place, which means Replies to comments are often placed out of order, making conversations incredibly difficult. to follow. This forces commenters to drastically reduce their points to fit in the text box or lose their own arguments in the confusing clutter of the TikTok comments section.
For many TikTok communities, this limitation on the use of characters is not a problem. TikTok has even added a feature that allows videos to be up to three minutes long, so if someone really needs to take their time explaining their point of view, they can. Yet the vast majority of TikTok’s content relies on short 15-second videos and a few sentences in the comments section, and the platform encourages this.
Views don’t lie, and videos that spark controversy are usually the ones viewed, commented on, and shared the most, which tells TikTok’s algorithm to deliver the video to more viewers. Some users even engage in a trend called “No Nuance November” every year, where they are encouraged to share simplistic viewpoints on complex issues with very little explanation or context. It was reportedly started by a 23-year-old student named Tomás, known by his username @abolish_ice on TikTok, who explained his idea by saying, “Every day I’m going to post a hot take, and I’m going to limit myself to one sentence. No walls of text, I won’t put any nuance to it. And I’m going to decline to comment in the comments, y’all can chat amongst yourselves… I just want to be inflammatory.
For simple topics, like personal care or TV shows, it’s not a serious problem, but in the politically charged context in which it’s typically used, it causes more problems than it solves. Many may use it for what’s called “performative activism,” sharing buzzwords that make them seem knowledgeable without doing any work to form a full opinion. “No Nuance November” rarely ends either, leaking into the rest of the year as content creators continue to share reductive takes with an audience that will only bicker and fan the flames even higher.
Discussing controversial topics on the Internet, of course, has its place. The internet can be a great place to effectively spread knowledge about concepts that most people wouldn’t otherwise consider. A few quick words about the occasional discrimination someone has experienced might cause someone else to reconsider how they think about their relationship to the subject. On the other hand, the platform can also encourage narrow ignorance on topics that require close examination. During the pandemic, TikTok and other internet platforms have had to add disclaimers to almost all content mentioning the virus in order to slow the spread of misinformation. In this situation, opposing views could have ripple effects on public health.
TikTok speech can also serve to delegitimize ongoing discussions. When someone watches a video about race relations in America, followed directly by a funny joke that uses the same sound, it can make these serious topics sound like jokes. TikTok continues to blur the line between meme culture and political activism.
Although sometimes well-meaning, Internet discourse solves nothing. We all want validation from our peers, and that’s especially true for younger users who make up a large part of TikTok’s demographic. Sharing a catchy opinion with an audience that’s likely to agree with you is a quick way to feed your ego or make you feel like you’re comfortable. with strangers can not provide. In the future, TikTok may be able to strike a balance between promoting a platform that keeps its content light and fast while leaving some space for complex conversations.