Political memes around the 2020 US election on TikTok have gained more and more attention outside the app’s walls. Many of these memes went viral and gained up to millions of clicks or were remixed by other users. TikTokers are even building highly followed political “Hype Houses”, which repost political memes, such as the @conservativehypehouse, @therepublicanhypehouse, @tiktokleftists, @socialisthh or @thedemhypehouse with followers ranging from 70k to 1.5M.
This article explores how TikTok provided an environment in which the new meme war between Democrats and Trumpists took place in the run up to the 2020 election. It thereby unravels how the structures behind political TikTok function and how both sides employ memes, signifiers, and humour to tackle their political issues.
TikTok – The New Meme Machine
If a person had to summarize TikTok and its 15 to 60 second videos in one meme, it would probably be OK Boomer. 41% of TikTok’s users are younger than 25 and with its huge success in downloads—counting over 2 Billion in 2020—that means that a huge portion of videos on TikTok are from young people.
The secret behind TikTok’s success, compared to its giant competitors like Instagram or Snapchat, may lie in the specific features of the app: overlaying videos with catchy sounds, the duet-function, the For You page, and other visual effects, as well as editing tools. These features centre the app around catchy content or being part of a collective challenge, rather than around the individual user and a follower base like on Instagram. You do not need to start from scratch to create appealing content or a funny meme, but can instead reappropriate any existing dances or memes circulating on the platform.
Through all these features, TikTok is a space for creative expression that encourages silly and memetic behaviour. It’s especially a thriving ground for remixability, one of the main ingredients of memes—and one of the most important creative aspects of the app.
Memes as political weapons
Instagram has a reputation to present the “perfect” life, with content ranging from beautified selfies to artificial holiday photos to commercialised posts. While the main reason people use TikTok is for fun and entertainment. The hashtag #comedy has over 650 billion views alone. Unlike other social media platforms, TikTok does not allow political ads. They say political ads do not fit in with “the TikTok platform experience” the app aims to offer. It’s an active measure the platform takes to enforce fun content. However, political content on TikTok exists. What happens when memetic humour and popular songs are mixed with the highly political?
Political videos on TikTok are not boring. In fact, they are quite entertaining, which is why they may be so effective in expressing political beliefs. Compared to lengthy news reports, the short video clips, combined with catchy songs and jokes, make them so attractive. Humour is central to the connection between popular culture on the app and political conversations, as it helps to tie everyday experience to politics. Political memes on TikTok can thus facilitate the communication of complicated political issues to larger publics and serve as discursive weapons.
So what makes political participation, in the form of creating memetic content on TikTok, so attractive? Gen Z, especially, is known for its irony and identity play online1 and if you ask what is cool to them, then irony is one of the most upvoted answers on Reddit. According to Poe’s law, there is not really a reliable way to distinguish irony from earnestness in public conversation online, making any form of fact checking nearly impossible. It is hard to know if the teens posting ironic political videos are mocking society or are really holding political views about issues like abortion and white privilege. TikTok’s guidelines do not allow misinformation, and videos containing incorrect content in connection with the US election are taken down quickly by the app or are clearly marked as false. On the other hand, memes that wrap political information in humour (like this, or this, or this, or this, or even this) could stay on the app longer or do not get taken down at all, since it is more difficult to decipher ironic memes as misinformation or as going against TikTok’s guidelines.
Another reason that makes political content on TikTok so powerful and attractive to viewers—as opposed to posts by professional campaign workers and traditional campaign efforts—is that user created content on TikTok is authentic. That phenomenon of authenticity, or the internet’s so called “Ugly” aesthetic2, often takes the form of memes. The app celebrates the “amateur”, who makes a creative video with, for example, a badly adjusted green screen background or blue hair filter. But it’s exactly that rather amateurish or “Ugly” aesthetic that makes the self-made videos, with certain political ideas behind them, authentic—and maybe more effective than any traditional campaign banner could ever be.
“The left can’t meme”?
In the polarised environment of the run-up to the 2016 US election, the internet became a battlefield for meme wars, as part of the culture wars online between the left and the right in America. A war in which online right leaning movements, aligned with Trump’s campaign, positioned themselves as the new counter-culture. They set off to fight against the, in their eyes, dominant ‘politically correct’ culture. It was then that political memes—especially those of Trump supporters, and mostly deriving from fringe boards like 4chan and Reddit—gained greater attention, and candidates started to use memes in their official political communication with implications on the election outcome. With so much focus on right leaning memes in 2016, the question came up about what Democrats and “the left” had done so differently. What resulted is the claim that “the left can’t meme”, which was not only used to describe how progressive activists seemed to be bad in making political memes compared to the right, but even formed its own subgenre of memes.
Trump supporters’ subcultural values—consisting of internet pranks, trolling, inside jokes and antagonistic memes—formed key elements of political action. When it comes to political, and thus necessarily collective identity3, the public and its counter public create an “us” that can only exist within a clear distinction from “them”. Political memes can be powerful in forming an “us” that is united by using antagonisms and “inside jokes” against a supposed “them”—an act that is defined as memetic antagonism.4
“The left can meme”
With TikTok came a whole new generation of meme makers. 4chan may have “anons” and Reddit its “redditors”, but TikTok has its own identity of “TikTokers”, who see themselves as part of a highly stylised collective participating in public debates. Although in 2016 “the left” was supposedly “defeated” by the right in the online meme wars, a new generation of democratic memesters might have turned the tables in 2020.
Around the 2020 US election, the ‘us’ vs ‘them’ dichotomy was seen between Trump supporters and the counter public of Democrats or so called “liberals” or “leftists” on TikTok. It’s also important to note that the content on TikTok, although it can be ironic and offensive, does not resemble the targeted harassment campaigns of the Alt-Right, but is instead a display of young people’s power to speak.
On TikTok, Democrat memes can be just as antagonising and offensive as the Trumpist memes. Just take a look at @jairadraper’s video below, where she’s pretending to “punch her Trump supporting father”. Another user parodies Kaitlin Bennett, a young right wing personality, with an inside joke about her stool—only people who know the story behind it will appreciate it (see below). The examples show that political TikTok memes on both sides blend deeply carnivalesque characteristics—such as the bodily grotesque, layers of irony, and debasing parodies—with memetic antagonism in a novel way. In this way, they attack their “out-group” while forming an “in-group” through sharing their inside jokes.
This cohesive ‘in group’ persevered, even while political leaders changed. Democrats on TikTok maintained their support for the Democratic leader, even when it shifted from Bernie to Biden. Even when Bernie dropped out of the election primaries, he kept a fan base behind him (as seen in the video by user @nikolipeacher below), which is not surprising as he is part of various movements online, like Occupy Wallstreet or “Bernie Sanders Dank Meme Stash”. Still, the hashtag #Biden2020 now has over 15 Billion clicks and young TikTokers rallying behind Bernie seem to have #Settle[d]forBiden and kept their collective force, as the hashtag indicates.
Would you rather “vote for Trump or mop the ocean”?
Looking behind the structures of political participation on TikTok also reveals how Trumpists seem to be more likely to form memes around simple campaign slogans and voting—sending out a support message for Trump. Trumpists may use sound pages, displaying all the videos overlaid with a specific soundtrack (seen below). They do this to form a kind of collective voice and chains of visual conversations—with each user, for example, adding their own remixed video to the sound page of the “Vote for Trump or Mop the Ocean” meme—mimicking a campaign rally full of Trump supporters cheering together. They might also use phrases already connotated with Trump supporters, like “trigger warning” and “snowflake” to build their narrative (see video below). While, together, these support messages in memes can form a kind of collective force, they do not embed memetic antagonism, nor much irony. One reason could be that Trumpists were confident Trump would win again and they wanted to show their support, instead of having to find a way to resist a current president.
Democrats, meanwhile, are more concerned with trolling or “shitposting” Trumpist memes. They might do that by adding a “duet” video with a punchline or by posting “bait and switch” videos to sounds reappropriated from Trumpists’ accounts like in the “vote for Trump or mop the ocean” meme (as seen below). If Democrats do come together with their own sound page, it looks more like the “Democratic National Anthem” (seen in example below). The structure behind the sound pages, and the connections between Democrats and Trumpists on TikTok, might as well be compared to a carnival: the meme format lets the most antithetic people come together with different political beliefs, aspirations, complaints, and joys, to unite in a carnivalesque spectacle of community, fun, parody and laughter.
As opposed to users on the “left”, the Trumpists consistently posted memes where they were being defensive for being a Trump supporter. They even seem to fear Bernie’s young followers, like the Barbz4Bernie movement, who form their own collective force on TikTok. The Barbz operate by “shitposting” Trump video comment sections and being bluntly antagonistic against Trump supporters. They mocked famous Trump supporter @nickvideos for so long, that he deleted his account temporarily. He even announced that he was no longer supporting Trump—but after a few weeks he was back to posting about his support for Trump.
The reason the left masters antagonistic behaviour and trolling on TikTok can be due to it being the counter culture that tries to fight the hegemonic status quo of Trump—employing irony to obtain cultural change. If one thing is for sure, after analysing how political memes are structured on TikTok during the run up to the 2020 election and comparing the Democrats with the Trumpists over months, the claim that “the left can’t meme” is not true in 2020. The Democrats definitely know how to apply the “meme magic”.
TikTok gained further attention in big news outlets after TikTokers became politically active online. They allegedly trolled Trump by reserving seats for his Tulsa rally in the summer of 2020. Combined with their way of memeing on the app, it shows that “the left” has found a way to adopt the trolling culture of Trump supporters this election run. Maybe Trump is so petty that his attempt to ban TikTok is also a reflection on the successful use of TikTok by liberals and left leaning people to troll Trumpists. The highly meme savvy Generation Z dominating TikTok today, will remain an important indicator of political participation to follow, even after the elections. With a new Democratic president in office and new problems ahead, the meme wars are far from over. Counter movements may find more reason to fight against the establishment online. Will his followers still feel a collective force after Trump’s defeat or will they simply adapt to a new cultural idol?
|Jay Owens. Post-Authenticity and the Ironic Truths of Meme Culture. In Alfie Bown & Dan Bristow’s book: Post memes: Seizing the Memes of Production. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv11hptdx.7
|Nick Douglas. It’s Supposed to Look Like Shit: The Internet Ugly Aesthetic. https://doi.org/10.1177/1470412914544516
|Chantal Mouffe. Democracy in a Multipolar World. https://doi.org/10.1177/0305829809103232
|Marc Tuters and Sal Hagen. They Rule: Memetic Antagonism and Nebulous Othering on 4chan. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444819888746