Young Georgians turn to TikTok as Senate runoffs heat up

Julia Munslow
·Editor
·7-min read

In a potentially decisive U.S. Senate runoff, Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff is hoping to reach young voters where they are: online.

So far, he’s the only Senate candidate in Georgia to make a foray into the world of TikTok, a short-form video app popular with Gen Z.

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Ossoff joined the app only in early December, but his account (@jon) already has over 100,000 followers. The videos, which have millions of views, riff on trends on the platform and focus on voter turnout and his time on the campaign trail; they also poke fun at his opponent, incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue.

“TikTok is one creative element we’re using to speak to young voters,” Ossoff campaign spokesperson Miryam Lipper told Yahoo News. The campaign told Yahoo News it plans to focus its efforts on issues that resonate with younger voters, such as climate change and student loan debt.

Ossoff is locked in one of two Senate runoffs in Georgia that could flip the chamber blue after President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris take office in January. If Democrats win both seats, the Senate would be split 50-50 and Harris would cast the decisive vote for her party. But if either Ossoff or his fellow Democrat, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, loses to Perdue or Sen. Kelly Loeffler, respectively, then Republicans will maintain Senate control and could hinder Biden’s agenda.

Democrats and Republicans in Georgia are hoping to connect with young voters, a group that turned out in record numbers in November. According to Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, 20 percent of Georgia voters were between the ages of 18 and 29, and 58 percent of them voted Democratic, giving the party its first presidential win in the state since 1992. There are also 23,000 Georgians who will have turned 18 and be newly eligible to vote between the presidential election on Nov. 3 and the runoffs on Jan. 5.

But only the Ossoff campaign is on TikTok. The Warnock campaign told Yahoo News it plans to reach out to young voters via digital organizing, but has not joined the platform. (Warnock has appeared on Ossoff’s TikTok account.) Neither Perdue nor Loeffler responded to requests for comment.

While TikTok is widely viewed as an app for participating in dance challenges and posting funny videos, political content repeatedly went viral on TikTok during the 2020 election. In the summer, TikTok users claimed responsibility for a Trump rally’s low attendance, Black Lives Matter activism trended on the platform for weeks and several “hype houses” — collectives of content creators — launched with a focus on politics and have millions of followers.

“Social media is a great way of letting people know their voice does count and their voice does matter,” said Allie Tong, an 18-year-old Georgian who helps run the account @s4ossoffwarnock (Students for Ossoff and Warnock).

Young Georgians on TikTok say they want to discuss important issues and be taken seriously, but aren’t afraid to use comedy to get their points across. TikTok doesn’t release the demographics of its users, but third-party estimates are that roughly 40 percent of its users are between the ages of 16 and 24.

“We’re not really sold to a particular political party,” said Noah Ring, a 19-year-old conservative from Georgia. “Whoever can enact laws Gen Z approves of will win Gen Z.” Ring plans to vote for the Republican incumbents in the runoffs, but said that TikTok has shown him different points of view and helped sway him on criminal justice reform.

TikTok
STRF/STAR MAX/IPx

TikTok “is a place in which young people can experiment with their political voice in a space where they feel comfortable and in the modes of expression they prefer,” said Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, an assistant professor of communication at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

TikTok users often create political content by fusing a serious topic with the app’s snarky humor.

One textbook example of that humor has emerged in the videos about the Senate runoffs. While Perdue isn’t officially on the platform, that hasn’t stopped users from talking about him. On the same day as the launch of the @jon account, a @senatorperdue account posted a single video that has a couple of hundred thousand views. But instead of being managed by the Perdue campaign, it’s run by a Democratic high schooler from Georgia.

“Hello David,” the text on the video reads. “I will return your account after you literally just f***ing lose on January 5th. Hope the insider trading was worth it.”

Sean Manning, who’s 17, holds the account. “I thought it would be funny making something poking fun at [Perdue], to try to laugh at the situation and bring awareness to his insider trading,” Manning said. (Perdue was investigated by the Justice Department over allegations of insider trading, but he was not charged. His campaign denies any wrongdoing and told the New York Times that Perdue’s stocks are managed by outside financial advisers.)

David Perdue
Georgia GOP Sen. David Perdue. (Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Young TikTok users say that while they are attached to the platform — “I’m addicted” is a common refrain — they are wary of misinformation, especially during an election season that has been rife with false claims of fraud.

TikTok pledged to combat the spread of misinformation about the 2020 election and launched an election integrity center that aims to provide “education and authoritative information” about the election through partnerships with fact-checking organizations, a guide to the election and restrictions on misleading content. It has blocked top hashtags, like #RiggedElection, and this week expanded its community guidelines surrounding misinformation. But managing the spread of misinformation is an especially complex task on a platform that often combines current events with satire, which, even when well intentioned, could mislead young users.

One TikTok video with thousands of views urges Georgia voters to write in President Trump’s name instead of voting for Perdue or Loeffler to try to flip the state red. “There’s no way anyone is that gullible,” one commenter wrote. “Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” another replied.

Some media analysts say Facebook, as an online echo chamber, helped to enable Trump’s 2016 victory. But whether TikTok could sway a major election remains to be seen, especially given that younger people generally don’t turn out to vote as reliably as older ones, and that users under 18 are ineligible to vote. As the algorithm learns what a user likes, it appears to both introduce them to new content (which could mean Democratic-leaning videos for one Republican user) and serve up more of what keeps them glued to the screen (which could mean a carefully crafted echo chamber for another).

TikTok hasn’t embraced its politics content, nor has the topic proved it can compete with lighter fare (#politics has over 6 billion views, while #cats has more than 19 billion). The company has also banned political ads since 2019, saying they do not fit the spirit of the platform.

Only a few other major U.S. politicians have launched TikTok accounts. Sen. Bernie Sanders registered an account late in the Democratic presidential primary, but he hasn’t posted a new video since the end of March, a couple of weeks before he dropped out of the presidential race. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., a crafter of Green New Deal legislation who became a favorite among Gen-Zers after a successful campaign to keep his Senate seat, has only 36,000 followers.

But even TikTok users who aren’t old enough to vote, like Manning, are committed to political TikTok. He won’t turn 18 until after the Georgia runoffs, but he’s volunteering as a poll worker and convincing his older peers to register to vote.

“Even if I can’t vote,” he said, “I can still change minds.”

Marquise Francis contributed reporting to this story.

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