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  1. The Staggers
9 July 2024

TikTok will destroy our sense of political history

The app flattens all sense of perspective on the past.

By Ella Dorn

Whether or not 2024 was Britain’s first “TikTok election”, the next one certainly will be. Some politicians, notably Nigel Farage, have built up significant followings on the platform. All our major political parties are on the app too. They don’t really have a choice: TikTok is the social media platform of choice for young voters today, their primary cultural snorkel. But it does come with its own biases. As Marshall McLuhan originally observed of television, “the medium is the message”: we learn just as much about culture from its technological carrier as from its actual content. And this means a politics that is transacted on TikTok will be very different from anything that came before.

In his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, the American media theorist Neil Postman, a disciple of McLuhan, described a cultural turn he called “Now… this”, after the phrase used by TV newscasters to herald a pivot from humanitarian disaster to cheerful human interest. This fast miscellany of broadcast news taught viewers that “the world… has no order or meaning and is not to be taken seriously”. An explosion in a far-flung land might invoke some immediate emotional response, but this was ultimately worthless if quickly zeroed out by reports of a celebrity wedding, or the birth of an unusual animal. When further sprinkled with advertisements, the most serious world events seemed to be “without consequences, without value”.

Postman died in 2003, but he serves as an adept Cassandra for the TikTok age. TikTok, which flips automatically from short video to short video, is the logical conclusion of the hyper-speed “Now… this” effect. The regulatory scheduling system of traditional TV totally falls away. BBC News at Ten runs for half an hour, then ends. On TikTok, the single theoretical obstacle to a truly infinite scroll is the battery life of your phone. An event is only as valuable or consequential to the world at large as the individual user says it is. Amnesia comes at will.

There is no verbal cue to ready the user for a switch of tone or content – by downloading TikTok, you give your consent to constant emotional whiplash. Sometimes the whiplash sets in without any permission at all, as Instagram users found in 2022 when the photo-sharing platform was suddenly overwhelmed with TikTok-style “Reels”. Online protests had no effect – the app is still overwhelmed with short-form video content. This is how we absorb information now, say the tech companies, who make bank off the ad-friendly medium no matter what the message is. Get used to it.

TikTok users make videos about political and humanitarian issues, but are mixed into a disorganised array of practically every other genre of short-form “content”: consumer marketing, craft tutorials, attempts at “edu-tainment”, comedy sketches, videos of baby animals. Sometimes you’ll find two or three videos displayed in a simultaneous stack, an attention-grabbing tactic known derogatorily as “sludge content”. Social media managers might have an idea of the demographic they’re targeting, but they are unable to ensure their message comes out uninterrupted. In other words, there’s no way to stop a Lib Dem campaign ad from popping up before a video of Ed Davey falling off his paddleboard. 

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We see the most sinister effects of the short-video wave when we try to tell stories, which depend on a coherent beginning, middle and end. This is particularly unfortunate in the world of politics. Political campaigners are still reliant on an electorate who take a longitudinal, chronological view of history. Parties get the vote by appealing to shared memories of the past. This nostalgic turn gave us “Make America again” and “Take back control”, the most successful slogans of the period just before Covid and TikTok. Rishi Sunak’s Conservative manifesto similarly begins, “We are restoring our economic stability after Covid and Ukraine,” while Labour say it would like to “rebuild our country” after 14 years of Tory rule. But the youngest voters in the election will have been three years old during the last days of Gordon Brown’s Labour government. Politicians are trying to dredge up memories in people who weren’t there to remember it.

This same audience is hooked up to a form of media hardwired to prevent the creation of a communal memory. Neil Postman was very pessimistic about television. But while traditional broadcast news may jump incomprehensibly from story to story, it is still perfectly capable of turning blank time into history. As events repeat and build on themselves over the span of years, we strengthen our sense of shared narrative – think of the search for Madeleine McCann, which started out as a “Now… this” segment among many, but endured to become a national story. Or of last year’s OceanGate disaster, in which a submersible carrying tourists to visit the wreck of the Titanic imploded, whose public stickiness could be attributed to an eerie parallel with the century-old sinking. Human broadcasters understand the public imagination and its communal sources of intrigue in ways that algorithms never will.

On TikTok, footage pops up at random, then disappears into an apparently eternal churn. Nothing is displayed in chronological order. The app has no incentive to provide cultural or historical context, and no infrastructure to support what some call “joined-up thinking” – the mental linkage of an event to its faraway consequence. Influencers can’t appeal to the reference points of their audience because they have no way to understand the content of another user’s video diet. There are no great revelations, or communal moments of historical significance, when everyone in your social sphere has been funnelled into their own algorithmic pipeline.

A political campaign conducted through the short-video churn is one without a sense of genesis or accomplishment. Labour and the Conservatives may be able to ride on the remnants of their messaging from the pre-TikTok era now, but it’s unlikely they’ll hold for voters in five years’ time, when the short-form trend will have captured even more of the internet. As Postman put it, politics is undergoing a reduction to a “congenial adjuncts of show business”. Picture Ed Davey falling into a lake ad infinitum. There’ll be digestible slogans and meme-able moments, but no enduring vision for the future of the country – let alone any sense of its political past.

[See also: Jubilation from the French left on the streets of Paris]

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