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11 March 2020updated 21 Sep 2021 6:25am

Teenagers are turning to TikTok not just for dance clips, but for urgent political debate

TikTok has become a hotbed of political debate, social issue advocacy and policy arguments – and most recently, a battleground for the abortion debate in the US

By Sarah Manavis

Despite being 25, I feel like an ancient crone every time I open TikTok, the Chinese-owned video-sharing app that launched in 2018. TikTok has become synonymous with Gen Z: 13 is its official age requirement but in reality many users are as young as eight or nine. On the app, kids are able to post videos of dances, lip syncs, memes and sketches, in clips of up to 60 seconds, to a potential audience of hundreds of millions if your settings are public. Parents assume that TikTok is where teens go to have light fun, to make jokes or silly videos with their friends. But in recent times it has become a hotbed of political debate, social issue advocacy and policy arguments – and most recently, a battleground for the abortion debate in the United States.

In February one user chronicled, across several videos, the experience of a friend who was going for an abortion. The clips went viral on TikTok and then began to get attention from right-wing activists on Twitter who noticed that the young woman appeared happy about her abortion, rather than mournful or intimidated. 

Charlie Kirk, the 26-year-old founder of the pro-Trump pressure group Turning Point USA, tweeted the video to his 1.6 million followers: “This is the left… Now [abortions are] celebrated and streamed on social media. Sick and depraved – this is the culture they want to force us to live in.” Lila Rose, president of the pro-life organisation Live Action, said: “When society celebrates abortion, should we be surprised to see this kind  of cruelty?” 

Others welcomed the videos for making abortion less frightening for girls. The New York Times journalist Taylor Lorenz tweeted: “It’s great that more women can speak openly and candidly about their abortion experiences online. I wish I had access to this type of content at a younger age.”

On TikTok, the abortion debate has been raging for months: many of the most popular videos come from American users, yet the globalised nature of TikTok (where you see content from across the world) means that TikTokers from Britain have begun to contribute. 

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Most users are likely to see both pro-life and pro-choice memes and explainer videos popping up on their home feed. At the time of writing, the hashtags #prochoice and #abortion each have 80 million views, while #prolife has 100 million. TikTokers use these hashtags to get into the moral, financial and political arguments, with most videos posted by teenage users. 

One of the most popular ways for TikTokers to engage in head-to-head debates about abortion is through the “duet” feature, which allows users to record a video of themselves that, when posted, will play alongside an already published video from another user. One pro-choice user shared a pro-life video that showed “what you will miss” if you have an abortion: stock images of happy mothers holding babies and small children. On the opposite side of the screen, the pro-choice user displayed pictures of distressed women and homeless children, and articles about mothers living on benefits. 

Not all TikToks about abortion are this serious. In one duet video, a teenage boy lip syncs the lyrics “I don’t think I love you no more” while text displayed on the screen reads: “When she’s pro-choice.” On the other side of the screen, a girl shows herself looking at a tiny drawing on a sheet of paper and zooms slowly in on the sketch to reveal, at the end, a doodle of a small penis. This video has had just under half a million views.

TikTok is becoming much more political: it is responsible for many memes around the US presidential election – such as “Mayo Pete” mocking former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, who recently dropped out of the Democratic race, for his supposedly soft attitude to racism. 

Like those making abortion videos, many political TikTokers do not shy away from hard truths and difficult problems. So if, like me, you start to feel old just by scrolling through these videos, take solace in this: the kids are here to save us through intelligent, meme-based action. 

Next week: Tracey Thorn

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This article appears in the 11 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, How the world is closing down