The TikTok generation: not your cookie cutter political activists

By Oreoluwa Ojewuyi, Staff Reporter

TikTok was initially released in 2016 and even more users joined during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.  People from all over the world are able to share cooking videos, makeup tutorials and even political commentary, everyday on this app.

TikTok set itself apart from other social media platforms with the strong presence and voices of young people in Generation Z who have used the app in their activism and to voice their political opinions. The Tiktok generation is a powerful engine of change and encourages political discourse among young people, but it has also caused confusion among older generations and criticism even from those who have built their audience on the platform. 

Olivia Julianna or @oliviajulianna on TikTok is an 18-year-old Hispanic political commentator with 7.4 million likes and about 80 thousand followers on the app. 


Ziggi Tyler is an SIU alumni and Tiktoker with 7 million likes and 199.6 thousand followers on the app.  

Professor Scott McClurg teaches journalism and political science at SIUC.

Julianna started posting on TikTok around last June in response to negative reactions to Black Lives Matter protests. Julianna said people who spoke up in support of the movement in her predominantly white town, were ostracized and treated poorly by the rest of the community.

“I was just sick and tired of misinformation. I had a TikTok account at the time with 300 followers and I decided to make videos there about politics because I felt like I had a voice. It’s something I enjoy doing and I wanted to do anything I could to help in any way,” Julianna said. 

Tyler said he discovered the app after friends sent him videos from the app. He started posting his responses to spam phone calls before moving to other subject matter. 

“So I decided, ‘You know what, I think somebody would probably get a really good laugh out of this.’ So I just recorded it. I posted it. And then two days later, it was at like 8 million views,” Tyler said. 

Tyler has experienced difficulties speaking up about social justice movements like Black Lives Matter on the app. 


“There’s been videos I posted about George Floyd and Breoanna Taylor to the whole situation that I’ve made, I’ve probably made like 30 to 45 seconds videos on it. And within 30 minutes, it was removed for violating community guidelines. And then it doesn’t even tell me what those guidelines are,” Tyler said. 

McClurg said the rise of social media platforms can contribute to divides on the political spectrum. 

“We really don’t have conversations as much as we used to. The facts are not as clear on newer media. It’s not that people don’t have access to as many facts as before but it’s a lot harder for people to understand the differences between fact or opinion,” McClurg said.

Julianna said the responsibility to provide reputable information falls on the creators. 

“Personally, I try to put my sources in my bio or the comment section because I always want to encourage people to do their own research. There are several TikToker’s who blatantly push misinformation but you see that on Facebook too,” Julianna said. 

 McClurg said people are sucked into political issues they have little understanding of. 

 “I think the thing we worry about is we have a lot of people who feel strongly one way or another but don’t actually know why they feel that way,” McClurg said. “When they vote they know what side they are on but they haven’t really thought about the reason why they are making that decision.”

When voters pick the lesser of two evils they are hurting other communities and contributing to misinformation, Julianna said.

“I try to encourage people as much as possible to branch out of their political echo chambers and get uncomfortable. If we are not able to talk to people with different political viewpoints we are not going to be able to combat the extremism that is growing before our eyes,” Julianna said. 

Julianna said young and old generations are both subject to desensitization by the growing digital media. 

“There are two types of creators, those who create with the intention of implementing systemic change or spreading information, and those who create content with the intention of gaining social capital. I definitely think that social media and clout chasing have contributed to the desensitization to issues like the Black Lives Matter movement,” Julianna said.

 Social media has encouraged more young people to get involved in politics, Julianna said.

“I have seen the mindset of young people shift. People are starting to become aware of political issues in a greater way than they had been before. I think social media has been incredibly important in making people aware of global and political issues in the first place,” she said.

According to Julianna, her political ideology began to shift as her videos started to grow her social media presence on TikTok. 

“As I started gaining traction with my videos, I started to research more, grow my political arsenal and my knowledge on certain issues. I started to realize that while in my opinion the Republican Party is oppressive, the Democratic Party is also oftentimes complicit,” Julianna said. “I feel like being a centrist was not the solution to the problem because then you’re not doing anything to disarm those types of systemic issues.”

McClurg said there are also upsides to growing social media political discourse. 

“For example, 60 years ago the news was from one point of view with a little bit of Republican and Democrat opinions but identity was not a part of the political discussion. Nowadays everyone has a chance to share the experiences. You have people who are experts, you get more points of views and you get different outlooks like those from younger people.” 

Julianna identified reasons she thinks older generations might misunderstand TikTok. 

“People are afraid of what they don’t understand. It’s really a fear of changing the systems we have in place. My voice is undermined a lot as a teenage girl who criticizes both parties. I have had people undermine me in a way that they wouldn’t [had] an older white man [been] saying the same things,” Julianna said.

According to Tyler, TikTok has been actively suppressing videos on social justice or activism. 

“Almost every single time I’ve posted a video talking about Black Lives Matter or even mentioning just Black people in general, it gets flagged whether it be for inappropriate content or hate speech, it usually gets flagged,” Tyler said. 

Tyler said the ratios of views on social justice videos versus videos with lighter subject matter do not add up. 

“If I posted a video talking about Black Lives Matter, or any sort of activism that’s pro Black or pro LGBT, I wouldn’t be shocked if it didn’t get above like anywhere between 600 and 1000 views,” Tyler said. “Whereas I can post like a really stupid video of me doing anything else and it could get 30,000 in the first hour so it’s like very crystal clear that there’s some sort of censorship going on in regards to marginalized creators and or the content.”

Julianna said although TikTok is a great tool, it has turned against political creators.  

“I’m lucky if I’m getting maybe 5,000 [views] on a video within the first two hours whereas when I started I was getting 4 million views a month. TikTok is either actively suppressing political content or people just don’t care anymore and they’re not interacting with it,” Julianna said. 

Julianna said the fluctuation of views could also be a result of desentization to social justice issues. She notes that TikTok’s video sharing capabilities allow people to connect with their humanity. 

“When you’re reading a tweet or seeing a picture it’s not as influential as when you see a person on video speaking about their own personal experience. When you put a face to the issue you are much more likely to not only seek out more information but to care about it because you see it influencing people’s everyday life,” Julianna said.

Tyler said Generation Z has restructured how we create relationships with apps like TikTok. 

“I’ve been able to have really awesome friendships with people from around the world. Like I am really good friends with somebody who lives in London, I’m really good friends with somebody who lives in Minnesota and just places and people that I never thought I would end up meeting. So I definitely think friendship has been one of the coolest things.” 


Reporter Oreoluwa Ojewuyi can be reached at [email protected] or on twitter @odojewuyi

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