Here’s How TikTok Could Sway The General Election

'Labour's meme-heavy strategy is proving a fan favourite compared to the Conservative's policy-led approach, but what are the dangers of a general election fought on TikTok?' asks Grazia's Senior Editor Georgia Aspinall.

TikTok election

by Georgia Aspinall |
Updated on

‘Hi TikTok!’ shrilled Rishi Sunak in a rushed tone for the Conservative party’s first post on the video-sharing app that now has more than 23million UK users. ‘Sorry to be breaking into your usual politics free feed,’ the British prime minister said while introducing himself to the majority 18–34-year-old audience with a video explaining his new national service policy - which would require 18-year-olds in the UK to partake in 12 months military service or volunteer one weekend per month in their community.

Sunak’s first sentence alone was indicative of the Tory campaign trail so far: misguided and out of touch. Because, unbeknownst to the Conservatives who joined the app a mere four days ago, TikTok is (and has been) far from politics free. Conversely, it’s been a breeding ground for social and political debate for at least the last four years, when the Covid pandemic first hit and opinions on government policies, vaccines and lockdown antics went – unfortunate pun intended – viral every week.

Now, TikTok is fast becoming Britain’s most important political battleground where the next six weeks of general election campaigning are expected to be fought through memes and trending sounds. That’s no joke, because as powerful a tool TikTok could be in spreading polished campaign videos of politicians sharing important policies, the content performing best on the app right now are the rough cuts of relatable footage captioned with silly jokes that would widen the eye of any traditional campaign strategist.

It's perhaps indicative of the audience on there, but it’s nothing to scoff at. TikTok is the fastest growing social media app, and the number of adults using it as a news source increases every year (now standing at 10%). In fact, 18-24-year-olds are twice as likely to get their news from TikTok than the BBC, according to a report by Research Interactive. Rishi’s first video on the app amassed almost 3million views, with the Conversative party account gaining 37k followers in its first week – their total likes sit at 272.9k currently. Labour has more than three times their followers, at 122.7k, and 2.4million likes across all its videos. If anything, it’s an interesting insight into the political proclivities of the Gen-Z to mid-millennial age group that currently use TikTok most.

Labour, who were similarly slow to jump on the TikTok bandwagon but beat the Conservatives by two days, have seemingly mastered the art of a like-worthy TikTok in record time. How? Well, as previously stated, relatable, somewhat ludicrous videos tend to be more engaging on an app that often acts as an antidote to Instagram’s pursuit of perfection. While Labour do post campaign videos, on everything from policies they would introduce if elected to Keir Starmer chatting to kids on school visits, their most liked content by far are their meme videos making fun of the Tories (notably, Sunak’s national service policy) and thirst-trap style videos of Starmer.

One with 671k likes showed Cilla Black singing her 1980s ‘Surprise, Surprise’ theme tune alongside the caption ‘POV: Rishi Sunak turning up on your 18th birthday to send you to war.’ The comments were predictably favourable. ‘Whoever is in charge of the labour social media acc should be the PM actually,’ one person said to 16k likes.

The Conservatives campaign strategy for TikTok could not be more different – so far, nine somewhat stuffy videos explaining policies and showcasing positive reactions from certain members of the public to them.

‘Rishi Sunak’s first foray into TikTok this past Sunday reflects the Tories’ concern that TikTok will be an important election determinant,’ explains Dr. Gina Reinhard, a professor for the Department of Government at the University of Essex. ‘The concern is well warranted – TikTok is likely to be the main means of influence on voting behaviour for exactly the demographic the Tories are most likely to lose – millennials and voters aged 18-29.’

‘TikTok is poised to be highly influential in swaying election results due to its massive user base and the platform's ability to rapidly disseminate content,’ agrees Professor Nick Hajli, who specialises in digital strategy at Loughborough Business School. ‘Labour's approach can be more engaging for younger voters who appreciate authenticity and relatability. However, the Conservatives' strategy can appeal to voters looking for clear and direct communication about policy. Effectiveness ultimately depends on execution and resonance with TikTok's audience, which values creativity and authenticity.’

The Green party is also in the race, with 35k followers on TikTok and 470k likes, having had a foothold in the video app for much longer than the rest. 'The Green Party is reaching a lot more people than it used to, and is making up a lot of ground and gaining support, but they also started with less support than Conservative or Labour, so they have more ground to cover,' says Dr Reinhard. 'Relative to where they all stood previously, the best performer is Green. But if we’re asking who’s leading the charge and outperforming the others in terms of total support, then it’s Labour. Green has improved the most; Labour is the frontrunner.'

While Labour appears to be winning the TikTok war as of now, perhaps concerningly, one also can’t count out Reform UK – the growing right-wing populist party co-founded by Nigel Farage and Catherine Blaiklock, currently being led by millionaire CEO Richard Tice. They’ve been on the app since November 2023 and have more followers than Labour, at 128.1k, and 1.3million likes across their videos. A quick scroll of the Labour and Conversative accounts and you’ll notice their comment sections are often flooded with accounts urging people to ‘Vote Reform UK!’ or saying ‘Reform UK is the only option.’

The comments are so predictable that some have questioned whether they’re coming from bot accounts (fake, automated accounts usually used for malicious purposes). Bot accounts often perpetuate disinformation and intend to disrupt public discourse. They were found to have been used to spread misinformation during the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign in research by Dr Marco Bastos, a senior lecturer at City University.

‘A network of social media “bots” – automated accounts – were used on Twitter to artificially amplify electoral messages during the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign,’ Dr Bastos found, noting that 13,493 accounts tweeted on the two weeks before and after the referendum before disappearing after the polling stations closed. Now, he’s concerned they too will play a role in distorting public perception around the 2024 general election.

Bots can create the illusion of widespread support for fringe movements, skewing public perception and potentially influencing undecided voters

Dr Marco Bastos.

'There is some evidence that botnets are being deployed on TikTok ahead of the general election in a pattern similar to those observed on Twitter during the Brexit referendum,' says Dr Bastos. 'These include a range of bots interacting with other bots to boost the perceived reach of a post. Usual markers of bot activity include accounts with recent creation date, temporal anomalies in posting activity, and markers of semi-randomly generated usernames amongst others. Several of the [128k] TikTok followers of ReformUK follow this pattern with several newly created accounts that follow each other forming what in network analysis we call a clique. This potential botnet includes several accounts with duplicate names and a range of sockpuppet accounts.'

Professor Hajli, who has researched the impact of bots in spreading disinformation, agrees that fake, automated accounts are a major challenge for any election campaign taking place online.

‘Some benefits of TikTok being so instrumental in the election are increased engagement, viral awareness and direct communication,’ Hajli told Grazia. ‘However, there are big challenges. The rapid spread of content can also lead to the widespread dissemination of false information. Using bots and coordinated campaigns can distort public perception and undermine the integrity of the democratic process. These bots can create the illusion of widespread support for fringe movements, skewing public perception and potentially influencing undecided voters. The effectiveness of campaign strategies on the platform varies, and the threat posed by bots is real and concerning. Addressing these challenges requires coordinated efforts from platforms, regulators, and the public.’

Kate Dommett, Professor of Digital Politics at the University of Sheffield, also raises concerns about politicians using an app they were technically banned from (on their government phones) in 2023. She warns of ‘broader security concerns’ now that MPs are actively engaging on the app, after parliament chose to block the Chinese-owned social media app from their Wi-Fi network in March last year when deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden declared that there was a risk in exposing government secrets when TikTok is used on government-owned phones.

It's interesting in and of itself then that the Conservatives are embracing TikTok so boldly in their campaign, given security fears around TikTok remain of concern – the app is expected to be banned in the US due to alleged links between ByteDance (TikTok’s parent company) and the Chinese government, unless ByteDance sells the app. When national security is one of the pillars of the Tories messaging, Sunak joining the TikTok battleground only shows that politicians cannot ignore the apps influence on the election result.

Of course, social media swaying election results is nothing new. In 2008, Barack Obama harnessed the power of Facebook – where 74% of internet users received their news at the time – to rally voters to overwhelming success, while in 2018 controversial senator Ted Cruz broke the record for the most money spent in a US Senate election when $93million was raised by and spent on social media ads and events. One can also not deny the influence Twitter (now X)  had in Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign, with the former US president maintaining near 90million followers on X.

With TikTok’s growth in audience, it was only a matter of time then before it became used as a political tool for social-media savvy campaign teams. And while it doesn’t allow political advertising in the same way Facebook does and X did (they suspended political advertising in August 2023), in March TikTok encouraged MPs to sign up to the app in an effort to limit the spread of misinformation. Of course, some politician outliers remain unconvinced of TikTok’s worthiness as a campaigning tool, with former Tory party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith and Alicia Kearns, chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, publicly dubious due to the aforementioned security concerns.

But whether all the MPs sign up or not, the sheer volume of views, likes and comments on political content on the app proves its power as the new source of political swaying. If you’re not already then it seems your must get on the app now then, dear readers, it’s all going down on TikTok this summer.

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