To understand this platform and observe the MAGA-Tok community, we have spent the last two years developing red-pilled flows. By favoriteing problematic content, clicking Follow on notable accounts, and continually scrolling the platform, we trained the recommendation algorithm to share a story with us about how this policy community has evolved at violent.
There are several key features that set TikTok apart from almost all other social platforms. On Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and WhatsApp, users make active decisions about friends, people to follow, and groups to join, which define and limit the scope of content.
TikTok is different. The “For You” page is a personalized stream of videos from the users you follow, but it also includes videos from accounts you’ve never heard of that have features that the algorithm says match your tastes. . The effect is similar to YouTube’s much-maligned recommendation algorithm, which notoriously drives users to increasingly extreme content. Of course, on YouTube you can turn off autoplay, ignore recommendations, and use the service like Netflix to view specific videos you’ve come to watch.
With TikTok, the recommendation system is The interface. As soon as you enter the platform, you cross the wormhole. It’s not a deadly scroll, it’s a roller coaster ride that changes and deviates in response to your decisions to bring you ever more engaging content. The coincidence of the next video is what makes TikTok special – but without control it can also be used to radicalize audiences more effectively than YouTube ever has.
TikTok’s karaoke feature, where you can create a new video from someone else’s sound, is another powerful mechanism to increase user participation. The feature lowers the content creation bar, so you no longer have to think about something to do or say when creating a video. You can just emulate what someone else has done before, and in doing so, you can ride the wave of their popularity. Combined with the recommendation engine, this feature makes the platform a powerful engine for spreading pop culture memes and radicalizing posts. Once you like one version of the asshole meme or Civil War parody, you’ll likely get treated to more versions of these videos over time. Each new iteration of the meme helps the earworm grow in your head. Finally, you can recite the lines or perform the movements from memory. Once the message is reinforced enough, you can gain the confidence to stand yourself at the virtual karaoke bar and perform for the crowd. No other social media outlet is designed for this type of consistent and persistent repetition.
What makes a TikTok video more powerful than a hyperpartisan meme shared on Facebook or a retweeted #MAGA tagline? It’s intimacy. When you make a video on the platform, you are watching a mirror image of yourself. You have a personal conversation, just like FaceTiming a friend. The result is a video diary distributed around the world. The public has a similar experience. This personal connection helps make what might otherwise be much more abstract come true. Instead of reading a text bubble bursting from a virtual avatar on Facebook or Twitter, TikTok lets you connect directly with a real person, face to face. When you look at this human being from the other side of the glass and listen to him share his anxieties and anger, his patriotism and his hope, it helps establish a shared reality. Misinformation and half-truths that justify extreme actions are much more believable when they come from an ordinary person like you.
How could the pride and jokes about a civil war evolve into the seeds of a violent insurgency? In the MAGA-Tok For You feed, the recommended video feed was constantly overflowing with new content in response to the news and events of the day. After George Floyd’s murder, detectives on TikTok shared “evidence” that the video of his death was staged and claimed it was a “false flag.” Videos of the protests and the civil unrest that followed prompted the “Patriots” to make TikToks themselves clean up and load their weapons, promising to defend their communities against BLM and Antifa. When Kyle Rittenhouse killed protesters in Kenosha, the thread was inundated with videos dissecting the scene and looking for ways to justify his actions. The flow was continually interwoven with paranoia and conspiracy, as violent imagery and rhetoric intensified. One version after another reused a sound clip from the horror film The purge, where murder is legal once a year so the public can find an outlet for violent urges. An ominous siren screams, a digital voice sings “Blessed are our new founding fathers” and a gunshot rings out. Over and over again, the same sound, the same ominous voice, put to everything from the waving of Trump flags, the iconography of QAnon, images of liberal politicians, anything that arouses anger or fuels outrage from this community.