In front of a crude green-screen filter displaying iPhone screenshots of Bernie Sanders’s immigration platform, a supporter uses a yellow highlighter tool to mark the most important details. Pixels flicker around their head as they explain that Bernie will put a moratorium on all deportations and stop construction of the wall on the first day of his presidency. “This plan is about restoring humanity to a system that’s lacked it for too long,” they elaborate. The caption reads “BERNIE’s IMMIGRATION PLAN IS 😤😤😤.”
This pro-Bernie post was made on TikTok. The short-form video app has quickly become just as popular as Facebook and Twitter among younger people, in part because of its absurdist humor and viral dance routines. It has simultaneously become a megaphone for everyone from truck drivers running for Congress to chapters of Young Democratic Socialists of America to the Sunrise Movement to voice their political opinions. Content creators on TikTok have been lauded as heroes simply for posting on the site. “Gen Z might save the world for the rest of us,” said one BBC commentator about activists on the platform. BuzzFeed News recently interviewed multiple leftists from TikTok, one of whom said their goal is to “break down the ideas behind socialism and leftist politics” while still making “them as accessible as possible for younger people.”
This leftward tilt among TikTokers isn’t exactly shocking. According to a February survey from Yahoo News, 51 percent of eighteen-to-twenty-nine-year-olds would consider voting for a presidential candidate who identifies as a democratic socialist, compared to just 26 percent of those sixty-five and older. Pew Research Center found that 70 percent of Gen Zers believe the government should play a bigger role in solving the country’s problems. And almost half of Gen Z adults report getting most of their news from social media.
But the youth are not an ideological monolith. Around 30 percent of Gen Z approves of Trump’s job performance. On TikTok, as of early March, the #Trump2020 hashtag has over 1.5 billion views, while the #Bernie2020 hashtag has roughly 250 million. For every viral TikTok praising socialism, there is another from a seventeen-year-old with a name like @GenZPatriot creating Donald Trump’s face in popular videogame Minecraft while applauding his decision to say “Merry Christmas.”
Right-wing TikToks are part of a counter-movement, online and off, of younger conservatives fighting the rise of leftism and their own feeling of erasure. Charlie Kirk, millennial founder of the conservative student organization Turning Point USA (TPUSA), told Fox News that these threats stem from liberal college professors and the “utopian dreams” of left-wing politicians. “It’s not that young people are opposed to conservative ideas,” he has said, “it’s just they’re not exposed to them at all in the first place.” In response, TPUSA, which is funded by various GOP mega-donors such as Dennis Prager and the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, has poured money into college chapters across the country to swing student body elections against the looming prospect of socialist takeover. Simultaneously, conservative states with voter-ID laws are making it harder for college students to vote in the first place, including by rejecting the validity of student IDs—a move made in the wake of Barack Obama’s success with younger voters. While TPUSA doesn’t have a TikTok, it hires “ambassadors,” mostly in high school and college, to promote their conferences and brand. A TikTok by @lancevideos, one of these ambassadors, shows off the event space for TPUSA’s action summit, which features a Lamborghini surrounded by velvet rope.
These efforts parallel other ham-fisted attempts by Republicans to create analogues to young left-leaning activists and politicians, like the “Conservative Squad” of younger white women from the South and Midwest running for Congress recently featured on Fox News. (Unlike the actual “Squad”—representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley—the Conservative Squad members are still primary candidates.) These astroturf conservative groups and doppelgängers, unsurprisingly, have failed to make the same impact as the originals.
While the target audiences on conservative TikTok and Fox News may be different (the median age of the latter is sixty-five), the engagement strategies are remarkably similar. Both tap into the fear that conservatives and their ideology will eventually go extinct and be replaced by socialism. For Fox News, the strategy is shaped in part by the Cold War. On TikTok, it’s all culture war.
On TikTok, like other social media platforms, “socialism sucks” is the primary counter-messaging, weaponized by young conservatives in response to their peers’ views. One MAGA teen showed off an ironic Bernie Sanders costume for Halloween with silver paint in his hair and a makeshift “Feel the Bern” button, along with a sash made out of yellow caution tape and fake money taped to his shirt. After Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the second-largest target, frequently called a snowflake and a clown and mocked for her facial expressions. Her Green New Deal legislation is dismissed as an expensive fantasy tied to fashionable politics (“the lives of farting cows matter”). In the eyes of MAGA TikTok, every leftist man is a beta male and every woman has blue hair. If you see a socialist in the hallway at school, you know they “deserve … bullies” for hating “freedom of speech and the Constitution.”
MAGA hashtaggers are scared that a Sanders presidency will lead to an overtaxed future where America “runs out of bread.” While sitting at a bus stop, with Migos playing in the background, one college student warns his viewers that “socialism enslaves you to the government.” The familiar refrain of “What about Venezuela?” rings out incessantly. A TikTok from a twenty-one-year-old lists the Latin American nations that have witnessed instability due to socialist policies, saying that their citizens flee their home countries to find safety in the United States. The video, captioned with the conspiratorial #infowars hashtag, links to the CIA’s website as the source of its information. It has almost 8,000 likes.
After hatred of socialism, the common trait shared by almost every conservative TikToker is an unhealthy obsession with Donald Trump. He’s seen as a protector and a defender, helping rid the new generation of weakness and return the country to unrivaled glory. Trump-branded flags, cardboard cutouts, and clothing are strewn across the rooms of conservative influencers. There’s no doubt that young leftists on TikTok fetishize Bernie Sanders to a certain extent as well. Fandom culture has crept into every facet of teenage media creation and consumption, and it isn’t much of a stretch to find the parallels between pop culture rivalries (Marvel versus DC, Taylor Swift versus Beyoncé) and political competition.
Like most right-wing memes, MAGA TikTok videos are usually crude in both their content and production value. Some are more reminiscent of early YouTube, like one that chops and autotunes various Trump speeches into a remix of Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello’s “Señorita.” Others simply offer the president support in the face of the hostility against him, especially in the media. Gen Z is less trusting of the news media than any other age cohort, regardless of party affiliation. Most adults under thirty believe that news reports are usually more inaccurate than accurate. Young conservatives are especially susceptible to Trump’s “fake news” talking points and the feeling that he is being persecuted. A TikTok by @GeneralMaga flips through an assortment of their favorite Trump photos with the words, “Our president has fought and stood up for us. Its [sic] time the American people do the same. Hit the like button to show Trump we are behind him.” This complete lack of trust in institutional media has naturally led to misinformation and conspiracy theories. The hashtag for QAnon (a right-wing conspiracy theory about the deep state’s efforts to undermine Trump) on TikTok has over 6 million views.
Unlike YouTube, where right-wing channels have a well-documented influence, TikTok feels more like a place for self-expression and community rather than a method for conversion. Young conservatives who post the MAGA hashtag are putting the media on notice for saying that they don’t exist and encouraging likeminded peers to share resources and join groups outside of TikTok to further discuss their ideas. The absence of older people, establishment media, and politicians only makes the platform more appealing. My mom tried to become a regular TikTok user but soon quit, calling it “not old-people friendly.”
Part of this has to do with the app’s rapid speed (videos are no longer than fifteen seconds and flow directly from one to another) and underlying algorithms. TikTok’s “For You” tab curates a seemingly endless feed of bespoke entertainment based on videos you have enjoyed before, your location, and what those in your network have watched. If you make right-leaning TikToks, you will mostly reach and see other right-leaning people—unless you go viral. TikTok offers a safe space for young conservatives to share their views.
As I wrote this article, I began to see the slow transformation of my TikTok feed. While I used to see dance tutorials and videos about Sanders, it was no longer unusual to see videos like those from eighteen-year-old @ConservativeCoffeeAddict warning her followers that Planned Parenthood performs abortions specifically so that China can buy “babies’ body parts” on the black market and turn them into soup. “Planned Parenthood has been caught multiple times, on camera. I have seen these videos,” she said.
I had come to expect a certain level of callousness and cruelty from young people in Xbox Live chats and anonymous comments online but rarely found that in places (like TikTok) where users display their real names. However, I soon came to see plenty of malice, like videos sending a warning to “all the people who want to cross into America illegally” by singing along to “Ice Ice Baby”—a reference to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. While the message of these videos might not be different from the average segment on Fox & Friends, the impudent method and messenger make them feel much worse. There is something particularly ghoulish about advocating for a war with Iran while doing a Fortnite dance.
These teenagers have little fear about privacy or being doxxed. They often put the name of their high school and graduation year in their bio. The alt-right, an overlapping but distinct group of right-wing internet natives, have called their posting style “meme warfare,” making as many social media accounts as possible and flooding them with content. The goal is to push propaganda, and those who fight in the meme war credit themselves for the election of Trump. Conservatives on TikTok, by contrast, want internet fame. Rather than making as much content as possible, the accounts only post a few videos a day in order to maintain consistent quality. Conservatives also emulate the posting styles of non-political TikTokers, such as the content creator collective Hype House, home to some of the biggest stars on the platform. The account @TheRepublicanHypeHouse, which reposts videos from popular conservative TikTokers, has over 200,000 followers. They assure fans that a link to their merchandise store will be coming “soon.”
Unlike on YouTube, where advertising has become lucrative for a small number of content creators, there is no direct way to monetize videos on TikTok (yet). But some young conservatives are finding ways to make money, capitalizing on the fact that the algorithm cannot distinguish between hate-watching and political agreement. If a video starts to go viral, negative engagement will still push it into other people’s feeds, which can mean more followers and more clicks to your merch store. As one TikToker gloated, “to everyone who comes to my account just to post hate comments … Y’all commenting is benefiting me, so thank you!” A generation of conservatives has learned that the most outrageous viewpoints will be rewarded with hundreds of thousands of likes, T-shirt sales, and clout.
On TikTok, the worst traits of conservatism and internet culture have made for a vile combination. Those who trust the youth to save the world they will one day inherit should take notice.
Julian Epp is a recent graduate of Indiana University who writes about the internet and digital culture.