Joshua Collins is using TikTok to propel his political campaign — and it's working.
The 26-year-old from Tacoma, Washington, is many things: a truck driver with a penchant for lip syncing; a Socialist who supports Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders; and a candidate for Washington’s 10th congressional district, which is centered on the state capital, Olympia, and includes portions of Thurston, Pierce, and Mason counties. He’s also big on TikTok, the video app most commonly known for viral lip sync videos and various visual jokes and pranks. And he’s one of a burgeoning number of candidates who are using the platform to talk about the issues that matter to them.
TikTok initially launched in April 2014 as Musical.ly, an app that allowed users to lip sync along to an endless number of songs in a given library library. It was already mega-popular when it was acquired by the Chinese company ByteDance and rebranded as TikTok in 2017, after which its ubiquity exploded: It has been downloaded a whopping 1.5 billion times, outperforming even Instagram, according to Business Insider.
While many people think of dog videos and memes when they hear the app’s name, the platform is seeing an increase in all content, including political videos. (A company representative confirmed the boom to MTV News.) The Washington Post’s Dave Jorgenson makes videos with presidential candidates and staff reporters, and any number of the #Trump2020 videos on the platform that have collectively garnered more than 786.2 million views. But not one of the leading 2020 presidential candidates has their own account, according to USA Today, and few established congresspeople or senators are on the app, either. There’s also the matter of ads: In October 2019, the social media giant joined Twitter in refusing to allow paid political advertisements on the platform, citing a belief that TikTok is meant to be “a fun place to spend time.”
Collins and other activist-minded creators haven’t let that supposed binary stop them. In early January, he uploaded his own version of a video trend on the platform, in which users compare two things to the beat of “Griztronics,” the song by GRiz x Subtronics that begins, “Oh this shit be hittin’ different.” A fan-created remix of the song features the line “oh this shit be hitting the exact fucking same," allowing creators to make salient points about the homogeny in our everyday lives. In his video, Collins compared the political talking points justifying the 2003 American invasion of Iraq and the decision to strike and kill an Iranian general in 2020.
He made the video in his laundry room, with a total budget of zero dollars. He also got the idea for the video from TikTok itself: “I was scrolling through my For You page [when] I saw the audio being used for something completely different, and then I was like, ‘oh, this is perfect,’” he told MTV News. Shortly after he hit upload, his own clip was shared on TikTok’s landing page. As of publish time, it has over 494,000 views.
“It just blew up after,” he adds. “That's how my most viral videos have gone: I ran into ideas really suddenly, and they were just kind of perfect and everything fit.”
And Collins believes memes like that one are already helping his campaign. He uploaded his first video on October 10, 2019; in January, he tweeted that his campaign had raised $79,000 in the fourth quarter of the year — nearly four times the $20,000 he raised in the third quarter. And now, as the top Democrat in a likely Democrat-held district, he’s the leading candidate in his race. (The incumbent who currently holds the seat, Democrat Denny Heck, announced in December that he wouldn’t seek re-election.) Not every stroke of good luck or hard work can be attributed to his TikTok, of course, but Collins believes the platform has uniquely affected his attempt to get other young people involved in his campaign.
“Recently, I had five young people [offer to volunteer and] specifically mentioned my TikTok,” he said. “And all of them said the same thing — that they weren't part of any Democratic party organization or [the Democratic Socialists of America]. None of them were politically active, but they had seen my stuff and had gotten politically engaged because of it.”
A recent YouGov/MTV News poll found that young people are more likely than any other age group to view candidates appearing on TikTok as pandering: 55 percent of Gen Z and 42 percent of millenials are wary of the digital tour stop. But as the internet continues to democratize politics, more and more candidates are finding ways to proliferate the web right back, in an easy-to-understand way. And using TikTok to elevate a candidate’s profile among the platform’s users, the majority of whom are millennials and gen z, is an easy and cost-efficient option — especially if the people running are young themselves.
“When I decided to run for office, I realized [I needed] to be creative,” Solomon Rajput, a 27-year-old medical student running for Congress in Michigan’s 12th congressional district, told MTV News. “You need to be innovative, because the establishment runs campaigns in a very specific kind of way that takes tons and tons of money.” TikTok, he said, provided an opportunity to talk about issues that were important to him and voters in his area in low-lift way.
His most-viewed video features audio of someone counting from 2001 to 2020 playing over a screen split into two sides: “Years U.S. at war” on the left and “Years U.S. not at war” on the right. Rajput stands on the left side during the entire video.
“We want to end the forever wars in this country,” Rajput said, echoing data that shows most young people view the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was “definitely” a mistake. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is a really great way to make this same point, but using a TikTok format.’ Because if you're able to make a point in a new, innovative way, it will catch people's attention, and people will start talking about it.”
It’s impossible to overstate the power of social media on today’s elections — for better or for worse. Twitter factored heavily into the first election after its conception in 2008 when then-candidate Barack Obama became known for his innovative campaigning on the platform; Instagram, in its first election year of 2012, helped campaigns reach a whole new demographic of voters by virtually bringing fans along the campaign trail through photos and, later, videos. Now, it’s common to see Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez log onto Instagram Stories to take followers through a cooking session or her beauty routine. Some congresspeople have multiple Twitter accounts: often, one for official business as representatives, another for personal musings, and a third for their campaigns. And it would be unreasonable to talk about social media without mentioning the national roller coaster ride known as President Donald Trump’s Twitter account.
According to Martín Diego Garcia, who trains politicians how to run digital and message-driven campaigns with the consulting firm The Campaign Workshop, candidates need to use the platforms they’re already on to seem authentic — but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s ready to recommend every political hopeful download TikTok.
“The only way I would recommend a candidate use it is if they have some qualitative or quantitative data that shows there are people within my district that are on there who need to turn out to vote, because if you're doing it just for the sake of doing it, I'm sure there are better ways for you to spend your time,” Garcia told MTV News. “But, if you are doing it because it's strategic to raising money, starting a conversation in your community, getting votes, then absolutely a campaign can consider it.”
There’s also the fact that TikTok’s platform isn’t inherently location-specific; the For You page tabulates popular videos from all over, and plenty of local candidates would prefer connecting with people in their districts directly over a national, or even global, audience. But young candidates are finding savvy workarounds: They hashtag their cities to drive voters in their specific areas to their videos, and they are also using the platform to more broadly connect with other young people and encourage them to vote, period, no matter where they live.
When 19-year-old Skyler Johnson started hashtagging his videos with New York and Long Island, people began reaching out to him and asking how to get involved. “It's helping me be a part of a larger conversation,” the Democrat running for New York State Senate said. “We actually had a family friend in New Jersey who had no idea I was running [before they saw my videos].”
And while the gold star of TikTok visibility is making a viral video that TikTok features on its For You page, young candidates are also targeting folks who can become directly involved in their campaign. “I've gotten more volunteer sign up from TikTok that I have every other platform combined within the district,” Collins said, adding that volunteers have pitched in from Olympia, Tacoma, and Seattle, just to name a few.
They’re in a unique position where they can both spread their message nationally and locally, an important trait in today’s political economy, in which gain national attention even in local races can bring easier name recognition, more donations, and a better ability to reach out directly to voters. “We are now starting to become part of the conversation nationwide. “spread some of our positive values across the country,” Core to his campaign are pushes for prison reform, affordable housing, accessible education, and increased water quality; traits he literally points to in one of his recent TikToks.
Rajput echoed Johnson’s point, adding that TikTok provides a unique avenue to “actually engage with people.”
“It allows [voters] to trust you and know you as a candidate and person, on a level that is deeper than just seeing an ad,” he said. “They can interact with your content, and you can interact back with them, and people really appreciate that.”
This story was updated with the number of views Joshua Collins' video received, as well as the amount his campaign has raised.