“I want people to get a fuller story of the political situation that’s out there, and jokes and memes have always left me in a place where I’m like, ‘Oh, that made me laugh,’ and then, ‘Why did that make me laugh? Let me investigate what this thing’s about.’”
Young leftists are breaking down the points behind their political ideology on TikTok to make it easier for the next generation of voters to understand and get pulled into socialism.
Leftist TikTok creators are booming on the platform, putting out content in just the last month that has collectively amassed hundreds of thousands of views and sparked conversations with other users about leftist movements. For some, creators told BuzzFeed News, TikTok is just an entry point to combat what they see as a battle between the populist left and right for the next generation of voters.
“Yo yo yo! Inviting y’all to the motherfuckin’ revolution,” Gem Nwanne said in their rendition of a TikTok trend where creators parody party announcements over bars of a Chief Keef song. “Location? Around the world. Time? Right the fuck now! Cost? Your privilege. We talkin’ BYO skillset! No cops!”
In another TikTok posted a little over a week later, Nwanne hopped on another trend where they danced to a clip of “I Gets Crazy,” a deep-cut Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne song, while listing out the “stages of radical politicization.” In the clip, Nwanne bops to the song as the different stages of radicalized political thought pop up onscreen. In the 10 second clip, “all full-time workers should be able to afford food and shelter” quickly progresses into “take back the means of production, eat the rich & secure the safety of all people” as Nwanne dances more erratically. The video has over 195,000 views and 40,000 likes.
Those audio and video give creators the freedom to twist and riff for a moment of virality, thousands of likes, or hopefully a few thousand follows from the millions of people that have logged onto the app.
Nwanne said that when they first started using TikTok, they only wanted to use it to watch memes. Their friends had told them it was a funny, lighthearted space on the internet similar to Vine, which had shut down in early 2017.
Since Nwanne started making their own TikToks in early November, they’ve already grown their account to over 14,000 followers. They joined the ranks of a number of other leftist creators who’ve been making content about leftist ideology, dragging presidential candidates and their supporters’ dances, and supporting candidates like Bernie Sanders (whose hashtags, like #bernie2020, have over 30,000,000 views on the app).
“I noticed that there was this whole coalition of Gen-Z that’s doing political content, and there’s a whole other side of TikTok that’s extremely conservative, I mean literal cops. I noticed there was a lack of diversity among the people that were making this political content,” said Nwanne. “They weren’t talking about race and they weren’t talking about queerness. They weren’t talking to my people.”
Nwanne, a former college Republican and a former member of Democratic Socialists of America, said their motivation for their TikTok is to break down the ideas behind socialism and leftist politics to get people interested and make them as accessible as possible for younger people who might not know that their political ideas just might be the basis of a leftist ideology.
“The idea is to break these things down into the smallest bits, use accessible language, put them to music, get something to look at and smile at, and make jokes,” said Nwanne. “It’s explaining these concepts without all of the academia. I think the thing that keeps so many people of color and working-class people away from leftist ideas is how they’re presented, and my entire goal was to make this stuff as accessible as possible.”
Other TikTok creators told BuzzFeed News that they’d noticed more teens on the app posting content about anti-capitalist positions, even though they might not be specifically speaking from a position of someone who’s done research about democratic socialism or leftist politics. Jokes about eating the rich and critiques of billionaires like Bill Gates have gone viral on the platform.
“Just replace the government with TikTok teens,” reads one tweet of a popular TikTok video. In it, a teenager visits a website that lets you spend Gates’ money and notices that no spending makes a significant dent in his wealth. The video wraps with the teen telling the camera, “and then there’s me telling myself not to buy food on my lunch break at work to save some money.” The video’s been retweeted 92,000 times and has been viewed 5.5 million times.
Isra Hirsi, the cofounder of the US Youth Climate Strike and the daughter of Rep. Ilhan Omar, hopped on a trend where creators dance to the chorus of a Flo Milli song. While she dances under a sign that says “capitalism taking ur man,” the lyrics “Yea bitch, I got your man, an, an! If you bad, ho, come catch him if you can, an, an” loop. She then dances under signs that read “insane student debt,” “not being able to make a living wage,” and “overly expensive medical bills, rent and the fear of never being financially stable” as the reasons that capitalism snatched “your man.” Her tweet of the TikTok has been viewed over 300,000 times.
If you scroll through the #bernie2020, #socialism, or #progressive hashtags, you’ll find creators dancing under the question “who doesn’t deserve healthcare?” over a photo of Sanders to Mitski repeatedly singing “Nobody.” Or you’ll see Mikhail King, a 27-year-old creator, dancing to an edited version of the cha-cha slide that keeps pushing to the left to help explain where his political leanings went as he got older.
King’s TikTok account will lead you to a series of videos that critique candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg over their health care stances, a clip using audio of Cardi B to talk about radicalizing liberals, and jokes about corporations not wanting to pay a living wage.
“I want people to get a fuller story of the political situation that’s out there, and jokes and memes have always left me in a place where I’m like, ‘Oh, that made me laugh,’ and then, ‘Why did that make me laugh? Let me investigate what this thing’s about,’” King said in an interview. “My goal is to make a joke where maybe someone might not get it, but they’ll look up the information and say, ‘Oh OK, sick!’”
He added that he hopes the content that he’s put out about candidates can make other people start to question or at least take a closer look at the positions of who they support, or to think about what a leftist candidate might be able to accomplish. King added that he’s creating this content to help people figure out where they might align politically and that videos like the viral Bill Gates TikTok help people explore those options.
“Because of the shared experience of economic disparity in the country, more and more of these kids, at a younger age, are exposing themselves to these arguments that are populist in nature — regardless of it being right or left,” King explained. “Teens, like the Bill Gates girl, are doing better things, without even realizing it, I think. That video is really great at getting a point across without being like, ‘Hey, this is a lefty position.’ It’s like, ‘Here’s some information, do with it what you will.”
Destiny Willis, a 19-year-old TikTok creator, started making content about leftist politics in early December and has already amassed over 100,000 likes on her videos. She said that because she only recently became interested in democratic socialism and leftist politics, she’s found the community on TikTok to be a place to discuss those ideas and hear what other people think.
“I’ve always taken a humorous approach to learning and to things that upset me in general. I use humor as a coping mechanism, and as I’m learning about how capitalism isn’t really working for a lot of people it makes me feel anxious, it makes me angry, and sort of depressed. And my natural way of working through that is through humor,” Willis said. “TikTok has been really helpful with that, as lame as that might sound.”
In a video that’s already gotten 14,000 views, Willis milly-rocks to a Playboy Carti song as text flashes across the screen: “‘Fixing’ capitalism with regulations would require those in power because of capitalism to relinquish that power. Those in power have no incentive to change a system that directly benefits them.” The video ends with her asking the audience “SO NOW WHAT.”
In the comments of that video and others, Willis discussed the ideas around socialism and leftist politics with people who’d commented on her page. Other creators are also engaging with followers who’ve had more questions about leftist politics. Nwanne said that they’ve been putting together an accessible reading list for people who might want to learn more because of their content. They’ve already received direct messages asking for reading materials and said that they’ve had discussions with followers about leftist politics on the platform.
King said that there’s already a diverse set of leftist creators on the platform who are drawing people into leftist politics through memes and trends, and others who’ve broken down the concepts further in explainer videos that have also influenced his content.
“There’s not necessarily a feedback loop between all of us, but there are creators all across the platform who have different lived experiences or perspectives,” King explained. “They’re hitting notes that I might not be able to hit. It becomes a beautiful chorus of perspectives. So we have this edgy guy in the corner, there’s that person who’s breaking down the concepts, there’s another person talking about the experiences of minority groups, and then badabing! Badaboom! We’ve got ourselves a leftist coalition.” ●