TikTok as an agent of social identity and a censorship force of the state.
Throughout the last decade, increased technological advancements have changed the way we communicate, spread information, and form opinions on not only such information but also on ourselves. Today, almost everyone is active on social media. Because of this increased visibility, social media platforms have influenced the ways that we perceive others and the ways that we form, and perform, our own identities. Identity formation is defined as a person’s mental representation of who they are, and it is a type of individuation that relates to the development of an individual’s distinct personality. Social media, specifically the app TikTok, acts as an agent of identity formation in terms of gender performance, sexuality, and race, while also establishing and maintaining communication between specific groups of people. However, TikTok also plays a major role in acting as an agent of surveillance and censorship conducted by the state, such as restricting social justice movements and hiding content produced by non-white creators.
TikTok is a popular video sharing app that was launched globally in 2018. The app is a Chinese based platform owned by ByteDance, a Beijing-headquartered company that operates a suite of popular sites and social apps (Biddle, Ribeiro, Dias; 2020). TikTok allows users to create funny 30-second videos with varying effects, voices, and sounds. Many mainstream songs have even gone viral because they have been used in popular TikTok videos. TikTok has gained a major following among Generation Z. In fact, over 60 percent of users on TikTok are Generation Z, meaning people born after 1996 (Muliadi, 2020). This isn’t surprising, considering almost everyone from this generation has grown up surrounded by technology. TikTok is so appealing to these users because its content is “raw, high-energy and deeply engaging” all while being under a few seconds. TikTok emphasizes self-expression and since Generation Z is “one of the most diverse generations yet, with high levels of education, digital nativism, social and cultural awareness,” outlets for self-expression are bound to be popular among this demographic (Muliadi, 2020). In just two years, TikTok has become a site of youth culture. Its ritual of youth culture can be seen in its dances, its hashtags, its trending videos, and its challenges — often all filmed in spaces dominated by teens, like their bedrooms, schools, or in social settings with their friends. It can even be seen among the app’s top creators, whom are almost all under the age of 20 (Kennedy, 2020).
But being an app dominated by young, impressionable users comes with negative effects as well. During adolescence is when a person’s identity is in its critical development stage, according to psychologist Erik Erikson’s theory of identity formation. With increased social media activity comes heightened visibility. Not only are users constantly exposed to normative ideas of beauty or gender performance, but they are also exposed to other’s opinions with just the click of a like button or the posting of a comment. Through social media, we can see how fundamental notions of identity within any group has been replaced by a politics of visibility. TikTok acts as an agent of social identity in its ability to shape and form communications among groups of people; however, it still operates as a framework of capitalism and cultural hegemony — it is a $50 billion app that profits off of the content of young creators while also engaging in a larger global conversation on security and surveillance that has even garnered the attention of the Trump administration.
We can first see how TikTok plays a role in identity formation and maintaining communication in the way that the app treats race and, specifically, its Black creators. In the past year alone, chart-topping rap songs like “Lottery” by K Camp and “Savage” by Megan Thee Stallion have been the background for viral dance videos. Rapper Lil Nas X became a breakout star from the app, and Tabitha Brown is a Black mother and vegan from North Carolina who went viral for her sweet voice and calming energy (Parham, 2020). While Black creators dominate TikTok, their viral-worthy content still goes unnoticed or uncredited. For example, the “Renegade” is one of the most popular TikTok dances to date. The dance was created by 14-year-old Jalaiah Harmon from Atlanta, Georgia to the song “Lottery” by K Camp. Harmon posted the video to her Instagram account in October 2019, and TikTok users did the dance everywhere across the internet, so much so that its origin got lost in the millions of videos. Charli D’Amelio, TikTok’s most famous creator, became known as the dance’s “C.E.O” for popularizing it (Lorenz, 2020). Harmon began commenting under people’s dance videos to tag her as the creator. It wasn’t until popular creators like D’Amelio began tagging Harmon as the creator — they even posted a video of them doing the Renegade together — that people began to know Harmon for her viral dance.
This is a common trend among Black creators on TikTok, where either their work goes unnoticed or Black language and culture is leveraged for clout and virality. For example, a recent hashtag that went viral on TikTok just a few months ago was the “Hot Cheeto Girl” trend; the hashtag has over 160 million views (Parham, 2020). The trend was a parody of a girl who sits in the back of the class and eats Hot Cheetos, no matter what time of day it is. This girl is usually loud and defiant, with long acrylic nails and was often portrayed with gold hoop earrings. The trend quickly became a stereotype of Black and Latina girls, and white creators used the trend as an excuse to slick the edges of their hair or speak with African American Vernacular English. This trend can be seen as a form of digital blackface. Digital blackface “uses the relative anonymity of online identity to embody blackness,” (Jackson, 2017). Digital blackface is the form of an excessive use of reaction GIFs with images of Black people and has connections to the use of blackface in minstrel shows. On social media, digital blackface is so popular because “anyone can leverage Black language and culture without claims to the experiences or identities that create the community,” (Cardoza, 2020). And when white TikTok users are called out in the comment section or by other creators for their stereotypical portrayals or use of AAVE, their defense is often not because they are racist but simply for “the virality, clout, and followers,” (Cardoza, 2020).
It’s not as if this trend of digital blackface goes unnoticed by the makers of TikTok. In fact, it is encouraged. In March of 2020, internal documents were obtained by The Intercept which revealed that TikTok moderators were instructed to “suppress posts created by users deemed too ugly, poor, or disabled for the platform.” The document reveals that it took very little to be excluded on the app; it was merely based on the argument that uploads by unattractive, poor, or otherwise undesirable users could “decrease the short-term new user retention rate,” as stated in the document (Biddle, Ribeiro, Dias; 2020). Many Black creators began to take notice that their videos were being hidden from the For You Page — a section of the app where TikTok videos are funneled to a vast audience based on a secret algorithm. They specifically began to notice a decrease in views and engagement on their videos after posting content in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. These creators soon realized that they were “shadow banned.” Shadow banning refers to practice of limiting the spread of content without notifying creators that their content violates any community guidelines. Due to the nature of the concept of shadow banning, it’s difficult to know whether it is or isn’t happening, almost like a form of virtual gaslighting (McCluskey, 2020). Throughout social media, there is a persistent argument of cultural appropriation vs. cultural appreciation — that it can’t be appropriation if the person is educating themselves and strives to understand a different culture — but this argument fails to center the experiences, as well as the economic impacts, felt by marginalized groups of people. As white creators, like D’Amelio, make millions of dollars a year for their content, the work of Black creators continues to go unnoticed and are even banned from the app. Not only does their work go uncredited, but racist stereotypes on the app persist as well.
TikTok also plays a major role in the identity formation of gender performance and sexuality. The app perpetuates certain ideas on masculinity and femininity. It’s almost as if overt femininity is rewarded on TikTok. Many of the most-followed stars of TikTok are not only “young, but female, normatively feminine, white and wealthy.” Silly, unashamed, and “unfiltered girlhood” is epitomized in a TikTok user like D’Amelio, the app’s most well-known and highest paid user. These characteristics have become the norm for TikTok users, with copycat creators following the exact mannerisms, facial expressions, and dance moves that D’Amelio posts in her videos. The acceptable forms of femininity on TikTok have become “restricted to a narrow set of gendered, racialized, classed and sexualized ideals,” (Kennedy, 2020). There is concern in the fact that the most followed and recognizable users on TikTok are young girls. There is increased surveillance of young girls and in the spaces they occupy like their bedrooms, which is the backdrop to most of their videos. Girl’s bedroom culture has gone from a private space, previously safe from judgement and surveillance, to a public one where everyone on the internet can have an opinion. In digital spaces like TikTok, such risk of humiliation and degradation — whether in relation to the expression of sexual desire or in terms of one’s self-representation — is very much present and “embedded within the architecture and ethos of the platform, in the metrics of likes, visibility via shares, and in the critiques within the comments,” (Kennedy, 2020).
TikTok has also developed certain ideas on performance of masculinity among its users. In fact, the majority of male users are using the app to dismantle notions of toxic masculinity by acting feminine. This trend of “femboys” involves boys wearing skirts, painting their nails, dyeing their hair, and wearing earrings. Many of them, who are otherwise straight, even pretend to be gay with their friends. While it is encouraging to see young boys engaging in conversations about toxic masculinity and working to dismantle heteronormative stereotypes about gender performance, the conversation often veers away from meaningful interrogation to performative feminizing. In other words, these boys are using “gay” as a form of clickbait (Sherman, 2020). For example, Connor Robinson is a 17-year-old British TikTok star who posted a video with his friend Elijah, showing one of them suggestively push the other against a wall. While both of them are straight, Robinson’s video went viral because he believes that’s what the 90 percent of his female followers want to see. Pretending to be gay, for Robinson and many other users on TikTok, has brought them clout and virality, and they’ve even been able to profit off of it. Many of these boys still otherwise engage in behavior that perpetuates gender stereotypes, like “talking about their workout grind, flashing their muscles, often posing shirtless, disclosing their sex lives, and doing dangerous stunts on camera,” yet use their privilege to pick and choose which identity they want to perform (Sherman, 2020).
However, there are still many TikTok users who aren’t fooled by this performative feminizing. Colton Haynes, a 32-year-old openly gay actor on TikTok, called out the trend in March as being homophobic (Hawgood, 2020). In reality, TikTok has become a safe space for many marginalized communities. Because of TikTok’s curated algorithm, user’s activity — which videos they like or share — determines which “side” of TikTok they are on. There’s “WitchTok,” where practicing Wiccans post their manifestations and videos of them performing spells, or “FoodieTok” which shows dinner suggestions or recipes. “Medical TikTok” is dominated by health care professionals dispelling medical myths, and “Art TikTok” is a space for artists to showcase their work. But the most popular sides of TikTok have become colloquially known as “Queer TikTok” and “Straight TikTok.” Queer TikTok, also known as Alt TikTok, has become a space filled with “punks, people who love music, fashion, art, alternative people, gay people, and goths.” Its videos are funny, chaotic, and distinctly different from Straight TikTok, which is mainly comprised of dance videos and verified creators. More importantly, this side of TikTok has become a space for LGBTQ users to freely post about their experiences, post their GoFundMe campaigns, and engage with other users going through the same things as them. TikTok has become a major identity formation tool for young users who want to experiment with notions of femininity and advocate against ideas of toxic masculinity. However, this has also created a problematic trend of capitalizing off of performative femininity for virality and clout. In reality, creating social media spaces specifically for LGBTQ youth plays a major role in providing opportunities to “share similar experiences, access sexuality-relevant information, and experiment in the presentation of versions of one’s self to the rest of the world,” (Bates, Bell, Hobman; 2019).
In the past decade, social media has proven to be an important tool in organizing social movements. The #MeToo movement, while originally started by Tarana Burke in 2006, was popularized from a tweet and raised awareness of sexual assault and inspired broad changes throughout the country. The Black Lives Matter movement found a special place on social media as well, allowing members to organize, spread awareness on police violence, and share resources. This past summer alone, when the video of George Floyd’s murder circulated throughout the internet, it inspired some of the largest protests against police violence that America has seen in recent years. TikTok has played a major role in advocating for social justice and activism. This past summer, President Trump’s 2020 political campaign organized a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma for June 19th, on the same day as Juneteenth. In response to the rally, TikTok users “shared videos with instructions on how to ‘request’ tickets for the event with the caveat that they were not going to attend.” Trump and his staff thought that there would be a large number of people in attendance; almost one million people had registered for the rally. But on the day of the event, thousands of seats were empty (LeBeouf, 2020). TikTok teens have also taken over racist hashtags such as #WhiteLivesMatter and drowned out its anti-Black Lives Matter messages with gifs and memes.
TikTok has become a platform for young people interested in social justice and activism to learn about antiracism and engage with movements like Black Lives Matter. Social media in general has played a major role in digital activism. However, it’s important to understand that with increased activity and visibility on social media, especially in regard to challenging oppressive structures of the state, comes with increased surveillance. Social media platforms are based on a business model that is structured around surveillance. The makers of these apps, like TikTok, entice users through news feeds and updates of each other’s activity, as well as through “providing and selling data and content produced by users to interested third parties,” (Dencik & Leistert, 2015). Because of TikTok’s connection to data-based companies in China, Trump has even begun a campaign against the app over concerns of national security. Of course, it should be acknowledged that American social media platforms like Facebook are just as guilty, if not more guilty, for data mining and selling the private information of its users to third parties. Social media platforms may be perceived to widen the reach of information, which seems helpful to grassroots organizers, but these apps do so on terms “primarily concerned with capital accumulation and profit, and predominantly, if not entirely, engineered to maximize advertising revenue and consumer consumption,” (Dencik & Leistert, 2015). When The Intercept received internal documents that TikTok moderators were instructed to suppress posts from certain types of people, it was also revealed that TikTok moderators were told to “censor political speech in TikTok livestreams, punishing those who harmed ‘national honor’ or broadcast streams about ‘state organs such as police’ with bans from the platform” — specifically, the Beijing-headquartered company was advancing Chinese foreign policy agendas by banning videos about Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, or the banned religious group Falun Gong (Biddle, Ribeiro, Dias; 2020). TikTok is built around an ethos of heightened visibility and encourages users to post their own content. But with such visibility also comes increased surveillance by app makers who wish to advance specific state agendas, profit off of users, and censor others.
Social media has proved to be a helpful tool in sharing information, communicating with people from around the world, and feeling supported by those connections. Social movements grow rapidly over platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. On TikTok, young teens are able to experiment with ideas of femininity and social identity, and they can find comfort in social groups catered to their experiences. TikTok has created an environment that allows an entire generation of young people to be creative and embrace their self-expression. It’s been a helpful tool for LGBTQ users to feel safe and supported by a network of other “Queer TikTok” members. And it’s inspired a new generation of social activists to become educated on antiracism and advocate for the Black Lives Matter movement. But with all of its abilities to maintain communication between specific groups of people, TikTok still plays a major role in acting as an agent of surveillance and censorship conducted by the state, such as restricting social justice movements and hiding content produced by non-white creators. When analyzing the benefits of social media platforms, we must also recognize how these apps like TikTok are ultimately built on a business model that prioritizes profit above all else, and that includes censoring the content of those who challenge its capitalist endeavors.
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