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.