Before the start of this year, Madisyn Bukoski used TikTok just like any other 18-year-old: to fill the time by scrolling through fun viral videos.
But at the end of January, she answered an ad calling for TikTok videos from people who were “Republican, funny and outgoing [and] love America”. The creator of the account was not a GOP operative or slick PR consultant, but a Floridian teenager.
Five months later, Ms Bukoski is part of the new world of political TikTok — a space untouched by mainstream political parties, where young influencers compete to win over their peers with a combination of dance videos, comedy skits, musical numbers and fact-heavy monologues.
Groups of would-be political TikTok stars have organised themselves into “hype houses”, mimicking the collaborative mansions in Los Angeles where influencers live and work together on videos.
The nine members of the Conservative Hype House, of which Ms Bukoski is part, are spread across California, Arkansas, North Carolina, Mississippi and New York. With ages ranging from 18 to 27, together they boast an audience of almost 800,000 followers.
“We’re the biggest political page on TikTok,” said Ms Bukoski. “We want to spark a passion for politics into young influencers.”
She added that the Conservative Hype House has a global following: “We have messages from people in our Instagram direct messages, saying: ‘I’m from Switzerland . . . we love watching your content.’”
‘Users want to be political stars’
For TikTok, the coronavirus lockdown has been a boon, with millions of young people confined to their homes looking to their phones for entertainment. Last month the platform hit 2bn downloads, according to estimates from research company SensorTower, placing it between Instagram’s 2.6bn and Snapchat’s 1.5bn downloads since January 2014.
With months to go before the US election, the app’s content has begun to take a more serious turn, with political videos in particular gaining traction through the downturn.
A recent study into online political content in the US found that TikTok videos with the hashtags #Trump2020 had attracted 1.1bn views as of February 2020, and 3.4bn as of last week.
The hashtag #blacklivesmatter has also gained huge traction after the death of unarmed black man, George Floyd, while in police custody in Minnesota. The hashtag had 2bn views as of the start of June, with top videos including scenes of protests across the US, advice on how to deal with tear gas and a call to “stand up for what is right” from Charli D’Amelio, TikTok’s biggest star.
Not all of the platform’s political influencers are conservative. Leftists, an account that formerly went by the name the Liberal Hype House, has close to 135,000 followers, while a liberal TikTok account run by Gabriella Katharina Huggler has more than 166,000 followers.
In the UK, political hype houses are smaller, but they are also beginning to gain attention. The Labour Hype House, which began in March and now has more than 7,000 followers, had 140 responses when it opened applications for new members. Its 16 influencers, aged between 15 and 18, are based across the UK and include self-described anarchists, democratic socialists and communists. Its pro-Conservative party rival, the Tory Hype House, has about 4,000 fans.
Only a handful of politicians, notably Italy’s former deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, use TikTok; the app has not been seen as an important conduit to voters.
As a result, there is space for young influencers to shape the debate. Some claim that their success on the platform has caught the eye of political institutions, but they largely appear to be grassroots efforts rather than the work of established parties.
“Users on TikTok don’t want to just talk with politicians [like on Twitter] — they want to be political stars,” said Juan Carlos Medina Serrano, a data scientist at Technical University of Munich.
Some produce comedy skits, combining popular trends on TikTok with the contemporary political debate. In one recent Labour Hype House video, a member plays the government handing out lockdown instructions to the public but not to Dominic Cummings, satirising his 264-mile lockdown trip.
As well as original content, short clips from other media are popular. Labour Hype House’s most popular video is of Green Party politician Caroline Lucas lambasting Jacob Rees-Mogg for lounging during a heated debate last year. The video has gained more than a million views since early May.
‘It only takes one video to blow up’
From Milo Yiannopoulos on Twitter to Michael Bloomberg’s ad campaign on Instagram, the online political influencer is not a new phenomenon. But certain features of TikTok’s design make it well suited to driving youth engagement in politics.
Several hype house members emphasised the importance of the “For You” page, which provides a stream of personalised videos for individual users. “It’s less based on your circle of friends and more on who you’re following,” said Mr Medina Serrano, comparing it more to YouTube than to Facebook or Twitter.
While the inner workings of the underlying algorithm remain unclear, Ms Bukoski said that securing a slot on a For You Page could boost the number of views on a video from the thousands to the millions. “It only takes one video to blow up — it’s a great gateway to get into our account.”
Mr Medina Serrano added that TikTok’s duets, in which videos are placed side by side, are vital to political communication on the platform — allowing for edited head-to-head debates on topics ranging from abortion rights to political correctness.
Ms Bukoski said that she had duetted with other Republicans, but videos featuring political opponents such as the Liberal Hype House won significantly more views. “People love to see a lot more opinions,” she said.
‘TikTok is a gateway to huge things’
Last year TikTok said it had chosen to ban all political ads on the grounds that its users wanted “a positive, refreshing environment that inspires their creativity”. Meanwhile the platform also faced criticism last year for temporarily taking down a viral video that criticised Beijing’s treatment of China’s Muslim population.
But its potential as a serious political engine should not be underestimated, said Laurie Rice, professor of political science at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. “When we first start out on a new platform, the dominant response is ‘surely that’s not going to make a difference’. A year or two in, we discover it does matter quite a bit.”
TikTok is increasingly facing the same moderation challenge as other platforms, with Mr Medina Serrano singling out hate speech as a major issue. Members of the Labour Hype House agreed: “I didn’t expect to get told to kill myself as much as I do,” said Ali Gadomski, 17, who joined the group in April. She said another member had taken a break from posting after receiving death threats for a video supporting the abolition of private schools.
A TikTok spokesperson said that keeping users safe was its top priority, and that “any content or behaviour that includes hate speech or that verbally or physically threatens violence” is banned by its community guidelines and terms of service.
Ms Bukoski remained optimistic about the platform’s potential. The Conservative Hype House recently started a Facebook page to reach older audiences, launched a joint brand with the Republican Hype House in April, and hopes to start making podcasts in a few months’ time.
She added that members had spoken with conservative politicians and hoped to get more closely involved with official parties, although she added that it is still early days. “TikTok is a gateway to huge things,” she said. “All of us want to get somewhere big in the political realm.”