Young State Lawmakers in Kansas, Missouri Harness The Strange Power Of TikTok
The popular video app is helping shape a new generation’s political identity, 60 seconds or less at a time.
The social media app also has occupied the minds of President Donald Trump, who tried to ban it, and Missouri U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, who sponsored a bill to forbid workers from having TikTok on government devices.
And while long-established politicians aren’t too keen to use the app, younger ones like soon-to-be Kansas state Rep. Christina Haswood and Missouri state Rep. Andrew McDaniel are reaching younger audiences, having some fun and sometimes seeing short videos (60 seconds or less) bring in donations and national attention. Some researchers even believe the app is revolutionizing political communication.
‘I don’t think I’m young enough for TikTok’
Haswood, 26, will be one of the youngest members of the Kansas Statehouse in the 2021 session. A year ago, when she first got a TikTok account, half of its daily users were estimated to be 14 or younger, according to The New York Times.
“I was about 25 when I got on TikTok and I was like, ‘I don't think I'm young enough for TikTok,’” Haswood said.
But during her campaign to represent part of Lawrence and Baldwin City, it was another way to get out her message.
Plus, one of Haswood’s Democratic primary opponents, A.J. Stevens, had an account that was run by his interns. He had more than 1 million plays on a video of him posing like a windmill and a house to indicate policies he supported (renewable energy and affordable housing).
High school senior Conner Thrash heard about Haswood’s campaign — even though he lives about three hours away in Concordia — and reached out to her to ask if he could help.
“She had the capabilities, she just needed, like, a teenager to get her onto the trendy side of TikTok,” Thrash said.
As the TikTok manager, Thrash kept tabs on popular trends.
“I'll be like, ‘OK, think Connor. How can you make this political?’” he said, “‘and how can you keep it like PG?’”
Enter a deep house remix of Taylor Swift’s “Love Song.” The trend — way back in July — was to have your camera pan out mid-song to show off your suggestive dance moves. Haswood instead power-walked to the beat as text appeared listing her priorities, like expanding Medicaid and legalizing pot.
It worked. This video about state legislative priorities in a tiny Kansas House district got about a quarter of a million likes.
Part of Haswood’s success in connecting with this young audience was likely because more people, like Thrash, were spending time on the app during the pandemic.
“I was always at home, always in my bed, bored out of my mind. And TikTok — this is going to sound so cheesy —TikTok really helped me get through that,” Thrash said. “It's hard to keep a good mental state when you are trapped at home, living through a global pandemic as a high schooler.”
For others, like Missouri’s McDaniel, the extra time on his hands led him to check out TikTok. The 36-year-old lawmaker from Deering in the Bootheel liked the conservative humor he found.
“Late-night talk shows that make fun of Donald Trump all the time, that kind of gets old,” McDaniel said.
His account doesn’t take itself too seriously. McDaniel isn’t using it for campaign purposes, and he has fewer than 2,000 followers. His videos are a mix of capturing snapshots of his work at the Capitol, sharing his love for his mom and poking fun at Democrats. There’s also a fair amount of lip syncing and dancing to popular songs like “River,” “Ballin’ (Country Version)” and a remix of “Still D.R.E.”
Pennsylvania State University professor Kevin Munger says, typically, less well-established politicians like state lawmakers can take the risk of being an early technology adapter.
“I have not seen that many politicians on the app, but I think that makes sense,” said Munger, who studies TikTok. “... It's not like (President-Elect) Joe Biden can physically get on TikTok and start doing the dances.”
The Trump effect
Conservative politicians this year have railed against TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance. Trump tried to ban the app, although his administration’s attempts have been unsuccessful. In a November interview with “60 Minutes,” Hawley said that TikTok could be required under Chinese law to share user data with the Chinese Communist Party.
TikTok, with its millions of Gen Z fans, might seem like a bubble of liberal opinions, especially after it was used to inflate expectations of Trump’s campaign rally in June. But with the app’s rising popularity, older people are jumping on the bandwagon: The under-14 demographic now makes up an estimated third of users, according to The New York Times.
An academic analysis of about 8,000 political TikToks in the U.S. found Republican accounts created more videos and got more likes and comments compared to Democrats’ accounts. The study, which looked at videos posted from March 2019 to February 2020, also noted Trump hashtags are more popular than the combined views of similar hashtags for Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
Juan Carlos Medina, a data scientist at the Technical University of Munich, is one of the paper’s authors. He had wondered if Trump supporters would stop using TikTok because of Trump’s disapproval, but it didn’t. He said, “they were still creating videos for Trump.”
That includes McDaniel, who also believes that politicians (like Hawley) who raise concerns about the app’s possible security threat are just trying to get publicity.
“There are so many different forms of national security threats that they're just going to jump at whatever to get on the bandwagon so they can have the media's attention,” he said. Hawley’s office did not comment on McDaniel’s criticism.
That attention is something McDaniel would know a thing or two about. In one TikTok, he references national news stories about a bill he proposed requiring young people to own an AR-15. The bill wasn’t serious; he was making a point about government mandates. The text superimposed on the video: “When you troll libs harder than Donald J. Trump.”
In another video, he referenced an amendment he suggested that would have required state representatives to get stoned before “entering the chamber or voting on any legislation.” Again, he was trolling his fellow lawmakers and drawing attention to how elected officials tack on amendments.
TikTok’s ‘untapped potential’
Medina said American TikToks are more partisan than what he sees in Germany and realized the short videos “could transform the way that political communication occurs on social media.”
On Twitter and Facebook, users can write rants or link to stories. But TikTok, like YouTube, is a video platform and the user becomes the content. TikTok’s algorithm allows just about anyone to go viral, and you don’t need to have a lot of followers — your content just needs to be engaging.
There’s a lot of “untapped potential” for politicians on the app, Thrash said.
“Christina (Haswood) not only gained recognition from her TikTok, she gained donations, she gained involvement,” Thrash said. “She gained volunteers, she gained interviews.”
Thrash also runs the Kansas High School Democrats TikTok account, where he posts about what it’s like being liberal in a mostly conservative area. And, as a gay man, Thrash said the political climate over the past few years has been challenging, but he’s encouraged by politicians like Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
‘A lot of us … belong in these positions’
Once Haswood takes office, she plans to use her TikTok account to give followers a behind-the-scenes look at the legislative process.
“I really want to bring this level of transparency, but a level of realness that a lot of us younger people, people of color, young women, young women of color, Indigenous peoples, belong in these positions,” Haswood said.
Haswood is a member of the Navajo Nation, and will be one of only three Native American women in the Kansas Statehouse next year. In her videos, she celebrates Native American Heritage month, posts about fighting for the rights of minorities and responds to criticism she got while campaigning, including someone telling her she was using her “skin color for popularity.”
(Note: This video contains an expletive.)
Haswood is more comfortable being herself on TikTok compared to other social media platforms because she said she didn’t feel as much pressure to filter herself.
“My entire life has been balancing on this fine line of Western society and being an Indigenous woman and learning my traditional knowledge and culture, which is not uncommon. That's what all of us Indigenous peoples have to do now these days,” Haswood said. “... I really wanted to highlight this on TikTok.”
She is partly inspired by Gabriella Cázares-Kelly, another Native American woman who harnessed the influence of TikTok. Her account gained more than 16,000 followers, despite the fact that she was running for recorder in Pima County, Arizona. It’s an important job, overseeing voter registration and early voting, but it’s not an office that would typically get a lot of attention.
Cázares-Kelly is a citizen of the Tohono O'odham Nation and is a long-time activist and educator. She co-founded Indivisible Tohono, an organization that focuses on civic engagement. But when she started campaigning, she had some supporters, mostly white people, who told her to not bring up her community work.
“Even people who supported me would come up and say to me, ‘You need to tone down the native,’” Cázares-Kelly said.
It shook her confidence, and said she had to make the conscious choice to be “unapologetically Native American.” For her third TikTok, she zooms by on a scooter wearing a traditional red outfit with white ribbons as she shouts, “Excuse me, I’m Indigenous. Coming through!”
More than 100,000 people watched the video and the image became a symbol of the campaign, printed on posters, stickers and buttons.
“To go from this office that is somewhat obscure to this very visible campaign largely had to do with this mantra and this idea that, ‘I'm an Indigenous woman coming through with, or without your permission, regardless of whether or not you believe I belong there,’” Cázares-Kelly said.
Cázares-Kelly and Haswood both hope their accounts show Indigenous pride. And Haswood sees it as a way to reach people who might not feel like their voice matters. It’s something that’s personal for her. She didn’t vote until the 2016 election.
“How are you going to tell this group of Indigenous peoples to participate in the system that has oppressed them for so long,” Haswood said, “and tell them to trust it?”