Let’s Get Toking – how TikTok as a distinct social media platform impacts youths’ political stances
By Zenith, Editor
*Disclaimer: Some TikTok videos are referenced in this article, and we have added acknowledgements at the end to reference them. Do reach out to us if you are one of the creators we acknowledged and wish to have your videos taken down from our article.
Seeing the words ‘TikTok’ and ‘political’, you’re probably thinking of videos on the platform that rant about social issues or advocate a political stance. Maybe you’re recalling the 2020 US Elections season when videos from the account ‘Conservative Hype House’ appeared on your front page urging you to install the ‘Official Trump 2020 App’. Or in the local context, where Tampines GRC Baey Yam Keng hosts frequent TikTok livestream sessions speaking with young Singaporeans and building his rapport with them.
The answer to the question in the header seems obvious. You might assume that this article will be about how politicians scurry to TikTok to use its features since it is the latest craze, which in turn influences our political scene.
However, what that amounts to is simply the well-known and frankly overused argument regarding the utility of social media to politicians. To me, this is a reductive one. It neglects the agency of the people in shaping Singapore’s political climate. Instead, I believe that we are inconspicuously impacting our own political climate in different ways now, compared to before the advent of TikTok.
TikTok makes it easier for youths to engage in politics and to therefore impact the political scene through features such as the culture of light-hearted content, soundtrack library and the extreme ubiquity and variety of trends for video content.
These features of the application, which seem to merely serve as amusement, can facilitate discussions on pressing societal issues. The pro-/anti-vaccinationism debate is an apt example of such an issue. Consequential to public health, it is no doubt an issue that is of great political significance. It would thus be useful to use that content to explore the ways TikTok is used to spark conversation about important matters. Thus, this article examines the involvement of the platform in this debate, using examples of videos and trends from Indonesia and Singapore from both perspectives. Through this, it will delve into several methods by which the platform’s distinct mechanisms impact political and current affairs discussion amongst Singapore youth, by being a vehicle for their views to gain influence.
Increasing political activeness among Singaporean youths
Let’s premise the arguments that will follow by confronting the well-known alleged problem that Singaporean youths are politically apathetic. Since the 1980s, new generations of Singaporeans have been characterised as such.  While this could be written off as Singaporeans simply being content with their environment such that they have no grievances, it could also be linked to the fact that the Singapore government is known for its state censorship of dissenting views. Fear and indifference characterize Singapore's political culture, fostered through actions like the deliberate magnification of the incidences of political activists’ incompetence and failure in the media.  It would therefore not be absurd for one to speculate that the political inactivity in our society has really been due to fear. If Singaporeans are said to be politically apathetic, it could very well have been cultivated due to the fear resultant from restrictions.
However, recent years show this changing: things are indicative of a decrease in fear among youths regarding their political views: According to findings of the 2016 National Youth Survey, youths are not only increasingly aware, but also more active in their communities. Approximately 86% and 78% of youths, respectively, utilise the Internet and social media to obtain insight into current affairs.  Social media is a useful tool for gaining information about the world as it magnifies voices of regular people and allows them to swiftly receive as well as send information about situations around the world.  Thus, while social media educates one on the experiences of people around the world, it also inclines one to share their own opinions through it, given how the free sharing of thoughts is simply part and parcel of the social media experience. It being the norm, people would be less fearful of sharing their views online, allowing for increased political debate.
Out of all platforms, though, I would argue that TikTok is the most effective in generating discussion. The culture of light-hearted content, the platform’s efforts in advertising ongoing ‘trends’, as well as the repository of background sounds made available to users, are features that make TikTok a platform that encourages more people to get their messages across to others in effective ways, even if they would typically not share their views on other platforms. This adds to the vibrance of local political discourse and encourages youths to be less inactive about social issues.
TikTok’s culture of light-heartedness
The culture of the media on TikTok has always been light-hearted. Being an entertainment application, users generally use TikTok to momentarily enliven their otherwise ordinary day-to-day lives. As such, content that gains most traction are those which elicit feelings of excitement in their viewers, or are humorous or exceptional in some way. There is undoubtedly content that touches on sensitive and serious issues as well, but given the premise of the application as one of entertainment, the majority of the videos on TikTok are made with the intention of entertainment and to spark amusement among audiences.
TikTok is primarily a platform of leisure, with arguably more candid and foolhardy humour. As such, people perceive the content on the application light-heartedly, by default. Users are conditioned to take content on TikTok as jokes before anything else. Satirical videos being practically a dime a dozen on the platform make it difficult to distinguish if one who seemingly commits a social transgression in a video, is holding the behaviour in derision or in honour.
Creators are aware of and take comfort in the ambiguity their videos are perceived with, and are possibly emboldened to portray more controversial viewpoints in their video creations. They are able to express their views subtly under the guise of them being jokes and hence, in a way that is not blatantly political, though they very well might be.
With this ambiguity, creators are able to share videos behind a veil of plausible deniability that what was conveyed were their own political stances. This lightens any blowback if condemnation should come their way. People are then emboldened to share what they think about current affairs or societal happenings although they might invite social condemnation.
For example, there had been a prominent TikTok video that showed the person behind the camera as a server at an ice-cream parlour who gave far larger samples of ice-cream to non-vaccinated customers than to vaccinated customers . The video was uploaded with the caption: “Who hasn’t vaccinated yet?”.
Reactions to this video in the comments section were mixed: while some seemed serious in their condemnation of the uploader who seemed explicitly to be an anti-vaxxer, some in the comments section poked fun at people with anti-vaccination stances.
The video had an extremely wide audience, but as seen from the content of the comments, it reached mostly people from the pro-vaccination standpoint. Considering also how the application recommends videos to TikTok users on their personal ‘For You’ pages using an algorithm that takes into account one’s interests and previous device activity, it leads one to wonder if this video was intended to be satirical after all, given that it was deemed relevant by the algorithm to a large number of pro-vaccination individuals.
Thus, although the video conveys an anti-vaccination standpoint, there is always the possibility this video was satirical and made with the purpose of highlighting their perceived foolishness of anti-vaxxers. Regardless of the uploader’s actual sentiment implicit in the video, the key fact of the matter is that the unpopular anti-vaccinationist viewpoint was explicit, yet not too badly received.
How TikTok videos are typically light-hearted in nature can also be used to retaliate against certain opinions, and in a way that is less overtly offensive or critical, emboldening more people to do so.
TikTok is also used to address anti-vaccinationist views in the Singapore context. Though it is rare to hear outright disapproval for the vaccine in Singaporean public discourse, such views are still held by some, and just shared within more discreet and private congregations. An anti-vaccination group chat on messaging platform Telegram, called “SG Covid La Kopi” was created in early 2021 where Singaporeans who had distrust for the COVID-19 vaccines criticised authorities regarding their COVID-19 decisions, shared natural remedies to illness and discussed statistics related to COVID-19 vaccinations and deaths.
Singaporean TikTok users with pro-vaccination standpoints spoke out against this group, but not in a grave manner. This demonstrates how through the culture of TikTok content being light-hearted and humorous, people can also make criticising anti-vaxxers, which would otherwise be a serious confrontation of deviant people who threaten public health, more light-hearted. TikTokers made the confrontation of anti-vaxxers a humorous one, by making videos that poke fun at the SG Covid La Kopi chat group.
In one TikTok video, the creator appears to be laughing uncontrollably in front of the camera, while using the ‘Green Screen’ effect, a feature on TikTok’s video creation software, to flash screenshots of the content shared by members of the SG Covid La Kopi Telegram group. They include links to warning messages of potential vaccine side effects from obscure websites, as well as images of the senders themselves with metal objects stuck onto their bodies in attempts to prove the existence of microchips in the vaccine .
The creation of this light-hearted and humorous content is made easily accessible and possible to the regular user through its user-friendly video editing features. I would argue that, as a result, content on TikTok is generally consumed with the least gravity compared to other social media sites, even if its message were to be quite strong or even controversial.
The reduced gravity of messages in the videos is contributed to by the inbuilt structures of user experience on the application. Videos are sandwiched one after the other, with the lack of a conspicuous and clearly-defined “buffer” section between them which includes captions or comments.  Users are presented with a seemingly infinite roulette of videos, a new spin available to the user with just the flick of the finger, which shows you new content immediately after he or she is done watching a video. This makes it less likely for one to reflect deeply on the video’s content post-viewing, when one is enticed to simply scroll past to a new refreshed experience with a never-before-seen video.
TikTok’s sound repository
Apart from videos, TikTok has a collection of sounds in its Sound Library. Users can contribute sounds from any existing video to the Library, while also being able to choose a sound from the Library to use in the background of their videos. The culture of sound usage in TikTok, I believe, could also embolden people to share their opinions.
A user may repurpose sounds from other videos, to use in their own videos that could be depicting a situation totally different from the video the sound originated. These sounds that users wish to repurpose could fall into a variety of categories; they could be snippets of songs, a statement said by the original video creator, or an expression such as an exclamation.
Through recycling others' audio, people, in their videos, can use them to react to topics, by for example, lip syncing to the song or statement from the original video or have it playing in the background. With this feature at hand, TikTok creators have the ability to react with less worry of being criticised for their viewpoint, even if they do so with a high extent of brashness or over-exaggeration.
Worries about blowback after airing a potentially controversial view are alleviated, emboldening creators to share. A common topic sensitive to discuss is religion. Through the options it offers with regards to sound usage, TikTok has aided in the conversation surrounding vaccination and religion despite potential controversy.
Around the world, religious beliefs are a factor in inclining people towards anti-vaccination standpoints. In Indonesia, anti-vaccine disinformation is usually conveyed with religious undertones, appearing to advocate the positions of the predominant religion in Indonesia, Islam. According to a report by the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, religious micro-influencers in Indonesia “have the platform, reach and content-creating ability to spread their messages to a large support base of faithful followers, whose trust in religious role models remains unshaken by censorship”. 
TikTok’s sound feature makes it easy to criticise anti-vaccine views on the grounds of religion, something that people would typically be reluctant to do on other platforms. With the available background sounds in TikTok’s sound repository, one can convey disagreement without being “hateful”, even though topics surrounding religion are typically divisive and sensitive. All that TikTok users need to do is to locate a sound that resonates with their sentiments and make a video with it as the background, with some going as far as lip-syncing to statements in the audio. These creators may feel more detached from the accountability that comes with airing particular views on certain controversial political issues, since they did not actually say a statement of opposition (or support), but only “said” it; it was the sound of another person’s sentiments.
On 13 January 2021, Ribka Tjiptaning, member of parliament for the ruling party in Indonesia, PDIP, hurled a tirade of criticism against Indonesia’s vaccine programme mainly regarding the questionability of the vaccine’s safety and how enforcing mandatory vaccination was a violation of human rights. In February 2021, a video of her speech was uploaded onto TikTok, edited and cut to include only her most compelling claims, with a dramatic Islamic song embedded into the background.
It rose to become the top trending video in the #vaksin category, garnering 1.6 million likes, 577,000 comments and 51,600 shares. Researchers at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute attributed the appeal of the video to the appropriation of the speech into the larger argument of a religious background.  It was removed by TikTok shortly after topping the category.
Anti-vaccination sentiments by Tjiptaning were able to be effectively subsumed into discourse of a religious nature, which garnered it a lot of support because of the use of a background sound. TikTok offers a whole variety of such sounds to choose from, allowing users to bend video content to convey the sentiments they wish to imply, in a more covert and hence, a less blatant and offensive manner. This allows the masses to feel more bold in sharing their opinions through their TikTok videos.
A pertinent example to demonstrate the effects of the sound repository in the Singapore context is the use of an electro-style remix of a children’s Christian song by Cedarmont Kids to convey criticism towards people in Singapore who refuse to take the vaccine due to their religious beliefs. Globally, on TikTok, people primarily lip-sync to this sound on TikTok to feign piousness sarcastically, while the text or images in the video would portray negative events with regard to the religion .
One Singaporean TikTok creator utilised the remixed Christian song in the background of his video, while he portrayed himself reacting with exaggerated and ridiculing facial expressions to screenshots, shown once again using the ‘Green Screen’ effect, of statements made by Singaporeans who had been influenced by their religious beliefs to take up the anti-vaccinationist stance .
While statements involving criticism of something of a religious nature is typically always avoided due to its controversy, I would argue that this user was emboldened to make this statement through his video, due to the features through which he was allowed to do so, albeit implicitly.
TikTok encourages people to follow trends
Going viral on the Internet has never before come with the level of ease which TikTok provides – one does not have to be already popular for their content to be put on an audience’s ‘For You’ page. In the perspective of a creator, they experience excitement at the possibility that their next video could just be their next big hit. The algorithm just needs to deem it suited for many users. This might then encourage creators to post things very aligned to the popular stance, or follow trends and use trending sounds, so as to reach as many viewers as they can.
This fact was leveraged by the Temasek Foundation, who began hashtags of their own, on the application: #FlexYourVax and #IGotMyShotSG. With these, they have attempted to gamify getting vaccinated which would encourage youths to take their shots. This indeed made getting vaccinated trendier and something people looked forward to recording and sharing with their friends, evident from how the two hashtags really took off, with videos tagged under #FlexYourVax having amassed over 20.6 million views  and those tagged under #IGotMyShotSG, with 8.9 million views .
One highly popular Singaporean TikTok user uploaded a TikTok video of herself performing a self-written rap, whose lyrics first criticised the perspectives of vaccine hesitators and subsequently explained the benefits of the vaccine. This video was an advertisement for the #FlexYourVax trend, sponsored by Temasek Foundation. This video was highly popular, receiving over 30 thousand likes .
Apart from this government-sponsored trend, there also exist other informal vaccine-related trends and hashtags which made getting vaccinated more of an in-thing.
For example, Singaporean creators have been uploading videos wildly flailing their arms in a circular motion repeatedly to the song Boombayah by Blackpink after getting their shot, emulating the dance move which Blackpink does in the original choreography for the song. Flailing one’s arms in this manner is thought to reduce the soreness one experiences on one’s arm after getting their shot. These videos are highly popular for the comical spectacle they offer and its humorous and ingenious use of the chart-topping Korean pop song. One particular creator stated in the caption of his video that he was inspired to get vaccinated to participate in this trend .
There are not just pro-vaccination trends, it has been shown that the criticism of anti-vaxxers could also be turned into a fun trend on TikTok. There has also been a hashtag created in Singapore which makes going against anti-vaxxers a trend as well.
Singaporean TikTokers began the #covidlakopichallenge, where they send mocking messages into the SG Covid La Kopi Telegram chat to provoke its members and prompt its moderators to remove them from the group . This has been turned into a “speedrun” challenge where creators time how long it takes for them to be kicked from the group.
The result: a more politically-active Singapore youth
In the regular age-old fashion of social media activism in Singapore, it is merely a few bold individuals who declare their stances in their content, while supporters or critics have their views tucked away in the comments section of their posts. In a sense, individuals are afraid to take “ownership” of their views.
Collectively, these three unique mechanisms of TikTok aid in coaxing its usership out of such timidity, to make bold stances online. As such, I strongly believe that the application can, and in fact already has begun to increase political activeness in Singapore youth. They allow for more brave “ownership” of the viewpoints youth publish online by making users of the application more comfortable with publishing original creations of their own that convey a stand. Original content which users dare to publicly “own”, is more impactful as a statement, than ‘liking’ or ‘sharing’ others’ posts or comments as a form of support for the view.
Instances of people being bold with sharing their opinions will inspire others to be more comfortable with doing the same, as they become reassured and convinced that there are few major negative repercussions to doing so.
Drawbacks to the platform
There are, however, potential downsides to these features, which may in fact be detrimental to constructive discourse.
While the light-heartedness with which stances are shared could allow an increased frequency of such sharings, the quality of these opinions could be very likely, questionable. The aforementioned reduced gravity with which people view TikTok videos may not be productive all the time. Viewing stances in a light-hearted manner could be overly nonchalant in certain contexts, denying certain grave issues the seriousness they ought to be viewed with. For instance, the debate on COVID-19 vaccines is a monumental one that deals with global health, ethics, government and the life-or-death of a sizable number of people. People deserve to be educated on this in a comprehensive and sensible manner.
Large amounts of petty content about the issue on TikTok can expose audiences, who otherwise might not be involved in such discourse, to the debate. This can be beneficial. However, if audiences do not act on their onus to do their independent research about such topics more seriously, their impression of the debate could remain highly trivialised and flawed. Perceiving worldviews as trivial could be in turn detrimental, if people resultantly decide to question the need for discourse about current affairs.
The availability of background sounds on the application could potentially lead to the rise of false representations and hence perceptions about certain phenomenons or figures. Such a concern is definitely valid, seeing as the effects of misinformation and disinformation are rampant on all social media platforms. There is the additional concern that the tools TikTok provides might increase the prevalence of them. The ability to use others’ sounds in one’s own videos to represent one’s own views can be empowering. by allowing one to manipulate the visual aspect of the video to suit the intended message of the video. This can quickly go awry if a maliciously-purposed video intentionally warps viewers’ perceptions for its own agendas. For example, a personality in a video could easily be portrayed to be more immoral than he or she really was, tarnishing his or her reputation when such slander was actually undeserved.
In addition, when repeated viewers of overly-manipulated video content recognise the extreme biasness of the content they view, they may end up frustratedly totalising all stances shared on TikTok and elsewhere, as untruthful. This could lead to a refusal in further participation in online discourse, which they believe is full of falsehoods.
With regards to the pervasiveness of trend-creation and -following on TikTok, this could lead to a certain intellectual passivity in users, whereby they simply follow the masses instead of taking time to critically reflect on the viewpoints presented. The Temasek Foundation’s #FlexYourVax trend indeed had a practical outcome – getting individuals vaccinated for the good of public health, and it was achieved to a commendable extent. Nonetheless, it must also be questioned.
The conviction that people have in the vaccine, if a result from the influence of trends alone, is not necessarily stable. One possibly passively and blindly subscribed to certain ways of thinking, for social acceptance online or in real life, without personal evaluations and conclusions regarding them. Such a person could be swayed to and fro from standpoint to standpoint with no real reasons for their belief in either.
TikTok has been a useful tool in spurring societal discourse, and its popularity as a platform has only been growing. Its developments are definitely to be watched. The application has been effective as a starting point as it has spurred and inspired new people to be more bold in sharing their opinions online, making it easier to get individuals to share their views.
Perhaps the next step to take for more progress in intellectual discourse on public and current affairs is ensuring more people do their own research independently, and not just be passive receivers and reproducers of the standpoints they hear. If we form opinions after receiving knowledge and viewpoints from various sources and perspectives, we can be more assured of discussions of a higher quality and greater convictions for what we believe in.
 Victoria Hammett (@victoriahammett), "what if we just fundraised & gave them the money we spent on the mission trip so they could hire people to do it correctly," TikTok video, October 3, 2021, https://vt.tiktok.com/ZSdS82PSn/
 fezco's b!xtch (@shygirl11806), "& they tend to have the worst behavior tho #truetolifestory," TikTok video, October 21, 2021, https://vt.tiktok.com/ZSdS8djb3/
 Rainier (@justispao), "Just got ✨vaccinated✨ tried doing the #blackpink #boombayah dance but I think I just ended up with #blueblack how y'all do it sial #sgtiktok #fyp," TikTok video, July 10, 2021, https://vt.tiktok.com/ZSdS8QbYx/
 Y (@chaexfviryz_), "#covidlakopichallenge AHAHAHAHSBANWKMW THIS WAS SO FUN the devil works hard but the mods work harder 💪," TikTok video, October 12, 2021, https://vt.tiktok.com/ZSdS8L2HU/
Zenith is a second-year Political Science undergraduate at the National University of Singapore who serves as an Editor at The Convergence. Through her writing, she hopes to introduce new perspectives in order to inspire refreshing and unique debate amongst youth. When not the clickety-clacks of her keyboard, she listens to the latest pop hits and chill jazz. Her other interests include sports, crafting and video games.