Two months into trying to understand why a mob of angry protesters violently stormed the US Capitol, a significant influence remains overlooked: TikTok.
In the search for accountability, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube—the perennial havens for disinformation and radicalization—were joined on center stage by a younger fringe platform: Parler. At its apex, the temporarily deprovisioned Parler had fewer than 20 million accounts and peaked at just under 3 million daily active users. TikTok has more than 800 million active users across the world and 50 million in the US who log in every single day.
Our team at the National Conference on Citizenship has been monitoring content on Parler continuously for the past few months, and what we saw generally mirrors what others have reported: The platform was a hotbed of misinformation, conspiracy theories, hate, and incitements to violence. There was also a lot of spam and junk. Parler was, and is, a dirty, disgusting place, but in terms of volume and reach, it was just a drop in the ocean.
We’ve also been monitoring TikTok for the past two years, as it grew from an entertaining novelty into a significant player capturing online attention share. Practical jokes and dance memes might be the dominant content, but just below the surface lurks a darker current infused with violence and hate that mirrors what we see on Parler, except here it has a much wider committed following. While Parler prided itself on having little to no moderation, TikTok has moved aggressively to enforce community guidelines and take down content. Still, a large and growing segment of the platform creates and shares problematic messages that risk radicalizing users. Many of these videos fall into a gray area that makes them difficult for moderation to address.
To understand this challenge, let me give you a brief tour of conservative memes on TikTok.
The song I’ve been hearing on the platform for months is a snippet of "Go to War," by the band Nothin More:
I don’t know what you had in mind, but here we stand on opposing sides.
Let’s go to war!
Let’s go to war!
Released in 2017, the song has since been used as the soundtrack for more than 16,000 videos on TikTok. Many are accompanied by clips from the Capitol riots, supporters waving Trump flags, or screenshots of Trump’s tweets containing false claims about voter fraud. The most popular of these has nearly 2 million views alone. It depicts a map of the US made up of a smattering of small blue dots surrounded by a sea of red, and a caption: “THERE ARE NO ‘BLUE STATES’ NOT ONE!” Although the image is factual—it’s a county-by-county map of the 2020 election results—it lacks critical context. Those blue dots are the cities, where most of the population lives. The creator alleges he made the video to troll liberals, not to mislead. Nonetheless, this image circulates widely online and is held up as evidence to fuel the voter fraud conspiracy organized under the banner #stopthesteal.
The creator’s intent doesn’t matter; the result is the same: The audience is misled. Worse, when paired with the lyrics “Let’s go to war!” the video serves as a galvanizing force potentially inciting violence.
Another popular video set to “Go to War” features a Trump tweet: “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!” A TikToker added “WHO’S GOING????” below. Many, including the House impeachment managers, have pointed to this tweet as evidence of Trump inciting violence. Adding the “Let’s go to war” lyrics certainly can’t have helped.
“Go to War” became one of the unofficial anthems of the StopTheSteal and MAGA movements more broadly, in part due to TikTok’s unique “use this sound” button.
Making new videos from other people’s audio has been key to TikTok’s success. It’s why “Old Town Road” became a number one hit. It’s why so many were delighted by the sudden resurgence of the sea shanty. But this feature also underpins the viral growth of messages that normalize violent ideas and images.
It doesn’t need to be a song. This parody video (now removed) by conservative TikTok creator Austin Marshall, labeled “Actual footage of the start of Civil Wâr 2,” garnered 1.7 million views on TikTok since it was released on October 12, 2020. In it, Marshall plays both sides of a conversation between “Liberals” and “Conservatives.” “If you guys reelect the orange man,” the liberal lectures, “we’ll be forced to start a civil war!” The deadpan conservative responds calmly: “OK, we accept.” After a back and forth, eventually the conservative declares, “We have most of the guns, we can get started right now if you want.”
The video could seem humorous and benign in isolation. But on the world’s largest karaoke machine, something more sinister happened. The audio of Marshall’s parody was lip-synched 871 times at last count, totaling nearly 7 million views—by police officers, militia, Trump supporters young and old, male and female, Black and white, many displaying patriotic, militaristic, and sometimes violent iconography. Today, the idea lives on in hundreds of clips, even though the original has been taken down.
The MAGA-Tok community didn’t start out as violent. One of the earliest conservative memes that blossomed on the platform demonstrates how another unique feature of the app serves to build a shared identity with some troubling properties. The song “Still Counting” by Volbeat is featured in countless videos using TikTok’s “duet” feature. Dueting allows a user to take any existing video found on the platform and create their own rendition, which is then presented side by side, as though the two strangers are performing a musical duet. In the “Still Counting” meme, we see thousands of Trump supporters wearing MAGA hats with their heads tilted down, obscuring their faces while the singer intones, “Counting all the assholes in the room.” At this point each person tilts their head up revealing a grin to the lyric, “I’m definitely not alone.” This effect is magnified by the infinite loop made possible by the duet feature: Each person dueting with someone else’s duet, producing an eerie hall of mirrors of grinning MAGA acolytes.
To understand this platform and observe the MAGA-Tok community, we’ve spent the last two years developing “red-pilled” feeds. By bookmarking problematic content, clicking follow on notable accounts, and continuously scrolling through the platform, we’ve trained the recommendation algorithm to share a story with us about the evolution of this community from political to violent.
Several key features distinguish TikTok from almost every other social platform. On Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and WhatsApp, users make active decisions about who to friend, who to follow, and what groups to join, which define and limit content’s reach.
TikTok is different. The “For You Page” is a personalized feed of videos from users you follow, but it also includes videos from accounts you have never heard of that have characteristics the algorithm thinks will match your taste. The effect is similar to YouTube’s much maligned recommendation algorithm, which notoriously leads users to more and more extreme content. Of course, on YouTube you can deactivate auto-play, ignore recommendations, and use the service just like Netflix to view specific videos you came to watch.
With TikTok the recommendation system is the interface. From the minute you enter the platform, you’re riding through the wormhole. It isn’t doom-scrolling, it’s a rollercoaster ride that shifts and swerves in response to your decisions to bring you ever more engaging content. The serendipity of the next video is what makes TikTok special—but unchecked it may also serve to radicalize audiences more effectively than YouTube ever has.
TikTok’s karaoke feature, where you can make a new video from someone else’s sound, is another powerful mechanism for increasing user participation. The feature lowers the bar for creating content, so that you no longer need to think of something to do or say when you’re making a video. You can just imitate what someone else has already done, and in doing so, you can ride on 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 messages. Once you like one version of the assholes meme or the civil war parody, you will likely be treated to more versions of these videos over time. Each new iteration of the meme helps the earworm grow inside your head. Eventually you can recite the lines or perform the moves from memory. After the message is reinforced enough times, you can acquire the confidence to stand up at the virtual karaoke bar yourself and perform for the crowd. No other social media is designed for this kind of consistent, persistent repetition.
What makes a TikTok video more potent than a hyperpartisan meme shared on Facebook or a retweeted #MAGA slogan? It’s the intimacy. When you make a video on the platform, you’re staring at a mirror image of yourself. You’re having a personal conversation, just like FaceTiming a friend. The result is a video diary broadcast to the world. The audience has a similar experience. This personal connection helps make real what can otherwise be much more abstract. Instead of reading a text bubble sprouting from a virtual avatar on Facebook or Twitter, TikTok lets you connect directly to a real person, face to face. When you look at that human being on the other side of the glass and listen to them share their anxieties and anger, their patriotism and hope, it helps to establish a shared reality. The misinformation and half-truths that justify extreme actions are much more believable when they come from a regular person just like you.
How could asshole pride and jokes about a civil war evolve into the seeds of a violent insurrection? In the MAGA-Tok For You feed, the stream of recommended videos was constantly overflowing with new content in response to the news and events of the day. After the murder of George Floyd, sleuths on TikTok shared “evidence” that the video of his death was staged, and argued it was a “false flag.” Videos about the ensuing protests and civil unrest prompted “patriots” to make TikToks of themselves cleaning and loading their weapons, promising to defend their communities from BLM and Antifa. When Kyle Rittenhouse killed protesters in Kenosha, the feed was awash in videos dissecting the scene and searching for ways to justify his actions. The feed was continuously interlaced with paranoia and conspiracy, as the violent imagery and rhetoric escalated. One version after another reused a sound clip from the horror movie The Purge, where murder is legal once a year so the public can find an outlet for violent urges. A disturbing siren screeches, a digital voice chants “Blessed be our New Founding Fathers,” and a gunshot rings out. Over and over again the same sound, the same disturbing voice, set to everything from waving Trump flags, QAnon iconography, images of liberal politicians, anything that raises the ire or fuels the outrage for this community.
And then, finally, came the election itself. The stream of content became a rapidly growing flood of clips detailing the vain search for evidence of voter fraud. Recordings from network news were scrutinized for suspicious changes in the vote tally, clip after clip alleged that sharpies wouldn’t register votes, and then anywhere they could be found, images of poll workers became proof of a coordinated plot to illegally swing the election. This flood continued to surge after Biden was declared victorious. Each new 60-second video formed another piece of a giant conspiratorial tapestry linking together Dominion voting machines, ballots watermarked by the CIA, dead voters and armchair statisticians frequently set to Tech 9’s “Red Kingdom” a song originally associated with the Kansas City Chiefs football team, and increasingly Bryson Gray’s HipHop ode to the movement “Donald Trump is Your President.”
As the year drew to a close, the conspiracy themes faded. Denial gave way to anger. On December 21st a new track from conservative TikTok star Topher and The Marine Rapper crystallized the mood in Hip Hop lyrics:
Tens of thousands on my right, thousands by my side / War between good and evil, watchin' our fists collide / Battle for our freedom now, to the streets we ride / Flags waving all around, patriots full of pride / This is where we make a stand, no more give or take / March around the Capitol, storm the city gates / Putting pressure on their necks until the truth breaks / All walls of corruption, take out all the snakes
“The Patriot” shot to number one on the iTunes hip hop chart. As new videos backed by the song flowed through MAGA-Tok, hype for the January 6 protest grew. Topher and The Marine Rapper were actually in DC for the rally and performed the song at a separate event that day. In the wake of the violence, Spotify removed the track from their platform and online distributors initiated takedowns. “The Patriot” did not instigate the violence at the Capitol, but its metaphors clearly captured the growing frustration and resentment with an eerie prescience.
MAGA-Tok was always a little mean, a little hateful, and seeded with conspiracy and lies, but after the election that toxicity consumed the feed. Social media marketers often think of audience engagement as a funnel. At the top of the funnel is a wide opening where you capture the largest possible audience. As users progress from awareness to advocacy the funnel narrows. Not everyone travels all the way to the bottom of the funnel, but the most fervent supporters stick with you and come out the other side converted into die-hard evangelists. We can’t say for certain that TikTok meme warriors inspired the attacks on the Capitol, but it is becoming painfully clear that TikTok’s massive reach has the potential to radicalize an audience.
WIRED Opinion publishes articles by outside contributors representing a wide range of viewpoints. Read more opinions here, and see our submission guidelines here. Submit an op-ed at email@example.com.