NEW YORK (Reuters) - Just a few months ago, 17-year-old Taylor Cassidy was spending hours flailing her arms in an attempt to pick up the latest dance move the “Renegade.”
That all changed as Cassidy watched videos by Black Lives Matter (BLM) and eventually began creating video skits on TikTok to illustrate the racial injustice she and her friends face on a daily basis.
“Because the BLM movement has been present in society for such a long time, my generation has been able to use TikTok to spread awareness through the lens of a young person’s mindset,” Cassidy, who is black, told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday.
Cassidy, who has amassed 1.6 million followers on TikTok since joining last November, is among the millions of users who are helping to turn the go-to destination for short-form viral music videos and pranks into a first stop for youth activism as protests against police brutality spread across America.
“The movement will be shaped to not only spread awareness about the injustice in society, but it will go further, teaching about the importance of voice and calls to action to stop the brutality,” Cassidy said.
The hashtag #blacklivesmatter has shot up TikTok’s trending list with 3 billion views as of Tuesday morning. TikTok superstars like Charli D’Amelio, whose 60 million followers is nearly twice the number of HBO’s U.S. subscribers, hit pause on showing off dance moves to discuss George Floyd, a black man in Minnesota whose death as a white police officer knelt on his neck has sparked a national debate on race and power.
“I will continue to spread these messages and be an ally,” said D’Amelio, who is white, in a post which garnered more than 47.7 million views and 12 million likes over the weekend.
TikTok’s emergence as a platform for political discourse for teens follow a tradition of media platforms evolving beyond their founders’ initial designs such as Twitter’s role in the Arab Spring protests in 2011 and the MTV cable TV network’s role galvanizing young voters in the early 1990s.
“Arab Spring was able to mobilize on Twitter. Now we’re seeing something similar on TikTok,” said Kadisha Phillips, a social media strategist, who pointed to how rapidly content spread on TikTok.
“Even though it became a place for viral dances, TikTok also became a storytelling platform,” said Phillips. “TikTok has taken on an interesting space because it’s letting people tell stories in a very quick way.”
The expansion of TikTok’s role from place for cute dance routines to platform for civil disobedience comes at a complicated moment at the company which has been accused by the black community for marginalizing African American creators.
On Monday evening, TikTok, published a blog entry here written by Vanessa Pappas, TikTok U.S. general manager, and Kudzi Chikumbu, director of creator community, that apologized to the African American community and vowed to make changes. It also said it will donate $3 million to unspecified non-profit organizations that help the black community.
TikTok came under fire last week for a glitch that made hashtags such as #BlackLivesMatter and #GeorgeFloyd appear as if they received zero views.
“We understand that many assumed this bug to be an intentional act to suppress the experiences and invalidate the emotions felt by the Black community,” the company said in a blog post on Monday. “We know we have work to do to regain and repair that trust.”
TikTok’s big moment also comes as its high-profile new hire, Walt Disney Co’s Kevin Mayer took over as CEO of the Chinese-owned company on Monday.
The new leadership comes at tensions flare between the United States and China over trade, technology and the COVID-19 pandemic. Because TikTok is owned by China-based ByteDance Technology Co and widely popular among American teens, U.S. regulators have questioned the safety of the personal data it handles and if its Chinese ownership poses a national security risk.
The company has also faced accusations of suppressing political content, including a Guardian report here last September that the company instructed moderators to censor videos pertaining to topics sensitive to the Chinese government such as the Tiananmen Square protest, based on leaked internal documents.
"TikTok does not remove content based on sensitivities related to China," the company said in a blog post here on October 24, 2019, responding to reports. "We have never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and we would not do so if asked. Period."
Lex Scott, the founder the Utah chapter of Black Lives Matter, said that she has been using TikTok to organize since March when she joined TikTok and prefers it over Facebook Inc (FB.O) as content spreads much more quickly on TikTok.
“The younger crowd does not want to be on Facebook and they are not on Facebook. They are on SnapChat and TikTok,” Scott said.
Scott, who boasts nearly 90,000 followers on TikTok compared to her hundreds of followers on Facebook, said that she is now using TikTok to inform audiences about police brutality and to get at least 150,000 signatures on a petition bit.ly/2XRjISw for a police reform bill.
The petition on Change.org has been signed at least 148,000 times because of Scott’s following on TikTok.
Other TikTokkers have posted first aid tips for protests, filmed demonstrations and acted out skits to highlight their experiences with inequality.
Activists have enjoyed getting a boost from the superstars of TikTok who have brought attention to protests and directed followers to calls to action.
On Monday, TikTok star Loren Gray said that she would stop posting her typical content out of respect for the protests and urged her 44 million followers to donate and sign petitions. Gray also pushed for other TikTok influencers to donate to the cause.
“To my peers, please don’t stay silent right now,” Gray said in her post. “Y’all have so much influence over this generation and it is important for you to use your voice aside from using a hashtag and calling yourself an ally.”
By Monday, TikTok appeared to embrace its new role as a forum for political expression.
“TikTok is an outlet for users to express themselves. This expression is often joyful, but our community is going through a time of particularly deep anguish and even outrage, and much of the content on the app this week clearly reflects those experiences,” said TikTok’s Pappas in a statement. “Now more than ever, we stand with the Black community.”
Reporting by Arriana McLymore and Echo Wang; editing by Kenneth Li and Lisa Shumaker