Cool or cringe? Politicians try to connect on TikTok, but risk the dreaded ‘teenage eye roll’
Animation by Jessica Hutchison
As Megan Thee Stallion raps about her desires for a lover, a young woman records herself in her room, strutting toward her phone in sweatpants and a tank top.
On sync to the track’s beat, she drops low. This is usually the part where TikTok creators pivot and show themselves in a new outfit, glammed up.
Instead, a 49-year-old man in a suit and tie appears, mirroring the woman’s dance pose before crouching on his office floor, an American flag on a stand behind him.
“Hey, are you registered to vote?” Florida Democratic congressional candidate Ken Russell asks, bear crawling toward his phone’s screen. “There’s a primary on Aug. 23 and the general election Nov. 8. Wait, come back, wait ...”
A pair of Chapman University students reviewing the video as they lounge on campus are silent for a few seconds. Then they pronounce it “cheesy” and “weird.”
“OK, it’s a girl posting a thirst trap and then all of a sudden it’s a guy,” said Katarina Maric, 20. “I thought that was a little strange.”
But at Cal State Long Beach, Keaton Safu approved. The 18-year-old thought Russell’s eight-second clip was just right for TikTok users short of time or attention: He “was like, ‘Aight, listen, this is when the election coming up, vote now.’ Boom! That’s all the information I need.”
Plenty of TikTok users agreed. Russell’s video went viral.
As Gen Z’s go-to social media app has surged in popularity, with more than 138 million active users in the U.S., politicians are catching on, trying to attract young voters.
Politicians are “trying to establish a presence and foothold in wherever people are going next,” said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at UC San Diego. “That’s really what TikTok is about today. The bet is that the voters and donors of the next five to 10 years are people who will be using it as their social media of choice.”
But how to do it right? There’s the need to be thoroughly authentic and to keep videos ultra-short, a murky backlash over security concerns, and the danger of coming off like the ubiquitous meme of a Steve Buscemi character asking “How Do You Do, Fellow Kids?”
The biggest challenge, according to Kousser? Passing the “teenager eye-roll test.”
Calling Gen Z
“Young people are valuable acquisitions in the campaign trail,” said Michael Cornfield, an associate professor of political management at George Washington University who has studied how politics have emerged on the internet since the 2000s. “If I can get you to watch, if I can get you to give me [your] email address, maybe I can get you to volunteer. Maybe I can get you to share content with your friends and your social network. Maybe I can get you to give money.”
Elise Joshi, 20, deputy executive director of Gen Z for Change, a nonprofit using TikTok to promote civic engagement and help elect progressive candidates, said the platform offers politicians a valuable opportunity.
“If you want to win, you have an untapped generation that cares so much about issues but just doesn’t vote often because they don’t feel like they have an option that’s going to speak for them,” Joshi said.
TikTok, which first gained traction with teenagers for its viral dances and challenges, skyrocketed in popularity during the pandemic as people sought a reprieve from a collective gloom. And it has become a preferred search engine for Gen Z as users look for cool new places and niche communities — and sift through bits of news.
TikTok and its young users — many rejecting curated, carefully planned shots — helped usher in a new era of internet culture.
They were telling their peers it was OK if they were having trouble coping through the pandemic or putting on a few pounds during quarantine, said Alessandro Bogliari, chief executive officer and co-founder of the Influencer Marketing Factory, which connects influencers and brands. Gen Z started opting out of using filters because it created an unrealistic benchmark, he said.
“The term ‘authenticity’ has become an absolutely big buzzword,” said Bogliari, 31.
Young social media users can recognize “in a heartbeat” if a video isn’t genuine or if a politician relied on an intern for direction, Joshi said. For the politicians who get it right, though, “you can see them, hear them and you can feel their passion. It’s hard to hear passion on, you know, a few characters on Twitter and through pictures on Instagram,” she said.
That’s how Rhode Island state Sen. Tiara Mack, 28, approaches her social media platforms since she was elected in 2020.
On TikTok, she talks about the importance of abortion funding, her work as “the first openly queer Black senator elected from Rhode Island” and policy and voting issues. She also makes an effort to have fun. In one clip, she grins while wearing a rainbow crochet bikini top and hot pink cowgirl hat. “I’m not a regular senator, I’m a HOT senator 🌈,” reads the caption. In another clip, she’s at the beach in a bikini, twerking while holding a headstand. “Vote Senator Mack!” she says into the camera.
That eight-second video went viral, which Mack has said was an aim. It brought her hate mail along with interview requests from national outlets. “It was just like a way to be silly, but also be like yeah, I’m a young, hot senator and I have a platform to talk about the things I want to,” she said.
Feeding the algorithm
TikTok is algorithm-driven, meaning its system will curate what appears on a user’s For You page. The more a user engages, the more the system will showcase similar content while occasionally mixing in other material. Users are encouraged to publish videos — usually selfie-style clips ranging under a minute — in hopes they will gain enough traction to appear on feeds. Strangers determine within seconds whether they like the content.
Novice candidates tend to perform well on TikTok because of the risk they take with content, some accidentally tapping into “meta cringe” moments, said Marcus Bösch, a research fellow studying the platform at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences.
Brian Hawkins, a 43-year-old Republican pastor challenging Democratic Rep. Raul Ruiz in a district that includes parts of the Inland Empire and Imperial County, lucked out on his first post, which hit more than 1 million views.
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In the 51-second clip published last year, he introduces himself as “the most dangerous political figure in California.” He strides down the middle of a San Jacinto street declaring: “I’m Black. I’m conservative. I back the blue. I protect the 2nd Amendment. I’m a pro-life person, all life, your whole life.”
More than 12,000 users from across the country left comments. “I’m from California.... AND YOU HAVE MY VOTE MR BRIAN HAWKINS!!!,” wrote one user. Another commented, “Political adds are turning into wrestler intros and I’m here for it.”’
Hawkins is one of the rare Republican politicians using the app. TikTok use among politicians skews Democratic, with many in the GOP — and some Democrats — expressing concern about the app’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance. Scrutiny over TikTok’s data practices revolves around concerns that the company could send user information to China. On Friday, the New York Times reported research indicating that the app could track users’ keystrokes. There are also concerns that the algorithm could be meddled with to change the tone of public discourse.
The Democratic National Committee cautioned staffers in 2020 against the app, but said that if needed for campaign work, they should use a separate device and account. The DNC joined TikTok this year. The Republican National Committee does not have an account on the platform.
Some candidates interviewed for this story expressed minimal concern in how the app manages U.S. user data. San Fernando Valley Rep. Tony Cárdenas said he made it a point to use a separate mobile device when recording TikToks. Hawkins said he wasn’t worried about the issue.
The TikTok bottom line
Will gathering likes and views — even a million of them — help candidates win their races? It’s too early to tell, political analysts say. At the very least, they say, the outreach helps lay the groundwork to try and educate, encourage and hook young people on politics.
Cárdenas, who is seeking reelection, learned through his staff that the platform was a way to meet “a lot of people where they’re at, especially younger people.”
In one video he shared what it was like to bring his staffer’s dog Teddy, the office’s unofficial cavapoo mascot, to work at the Capitol. The theme song from “The Office” played as the pup took phone calls, listened in on office banter and lounged on the floor. Teddy eventually sat up on Cárdenas’ desk chair as a staffer tried to explain paperwork.
Cárdenas, who described himself as a “pretty serious guy,” said he is willing to try “fumbling and bumbling” through trendy dance moves to reach young people. He’s been talked by staff out of trying some — though he’s still considering the “jiggle jiggle” dance — as he tries to work in ways to keep users’ attention as he talks about issues or demystifies what it’s like to work at the Capitol.
“If it means laughing at myself a little bit or people laughing at me,” he said. “It’s not hurting me. But at the end of the day, it’ll be better for everybody.”
What about the eye rolls?
Katarina Maric and her friend, Alanna Sayer, 20, the Chapman students who thought Russell’s video was corny, said they prefer traditional campaign promotions, such as campaign literature and websites.
“When I go onto TikTok it’s because I’m trying to watch like funny, entertaining videos,” said Maric, who is not registered to vote. “Not because I’m trying to get like a lesson in politics.”
Both students said they liked Cárdenas’ video featuring Teddy because of the cute dog and the jingle they recognized. Hawkins, they said, tried too “hard to be relatable and likeable” and the clip was too long. And Mack’s twerking made both of them uncomfortable and embarrassed.
“I don’t take them seriously if they’re on TikTok or like doing that kind of stuff,” said Sayer, a registered Republican who is planning to vote in November.
The ‘realness factor’
For some like Rep. Katie Porter in Orange County, the “realness factor” is enough to do well on the platform, said Bösch, who analyzes how TikTok operates.
The internet-savvy Porter joined the platform in May and already amassed over 300,000 followers. The Irvine Democrat’s account bio reads: “Minivan-driving single mom, law professor, consumer advocate 🚙👩🏫.” Her videos highlight what she’s best known for: holding corporations to account while wielding a white board. At least six of her videos have surpassed 1 million views.
And Porter, as a mother of three, doesn’t have to go far to see if she’s passing the eye-roll test. “There’s some suggestion that my posts are cringey,” she said, “but I think that’s pretty standard for kids to say to their parents.”
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