TikTok has provided its 800 million monthly users some much-needed moments of levity throughout the global lockdown. But as the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has surged globally, we’ve seen the events offline shape the content online, giving rise to a new brand of TikTokers using the platform to teach their viewers about racial justice, from quick-fire history lessons to barbershop quarter-inspired skits dispelling crime rate myths.
As support for the BLM movement grew after George Floyd's death, 19-year-old Naomi began to notice people in the UK claiming racism here isn't as bad as it is in the US.
"It occurred to me that many people are so unaware of the reality of people of colour in this country," she says. "The UK's presentation of ourselves is very whitewashed and very glossy. We're very good at masking our own terrible past, and so I felt like it was really important to actually teach people about this country's past of racism and colonialism, and how it still has an impact on life today."
Taking to TikTok to vent her initial frustration led to a rise in follower numbers and an appetite to learn about our history. "Over two days I gained 7,000 new followers, and people were asking for more and more of this."
Although Naomi is a history student, in teaching others through her TikTok videos she's had to fill the gaps of our whitewashed curriculum. Now with a growing following, she's using her platform to share the Black British history we don't learn about in school. "A lot of it I have to look up myself, because even though I'm a history student, I've never been taught it. Just the amount of people of all ages that have been like, 'I've never known about this in my life,' I feel like it's important people know, because once people have that education, there will be less ignorance."
Kei, 18, has just graduated high school, but rather than taking a break before starting college, the BLM movement has prompted her to educate herself and others on issues of race on TikTok. "When I made my first video on anything racial justice-wise, I had maybe like 200 followers," she explains. Now with over 40,000 and counting, Kei almost exclusively uses her platform to speak on US-related matters, such as slavery, the school to prison pipeline and the flag code.
Accessibility is the key, as Kei explains: "I try to make my videos so that no matter who you are or what educational background you have, what your age is, you should be able to understand and digest what I'm saying." In response to one video, a viewer commented: "I'm learning more from TikTok then I ever did when I was in school. That says a lot about how our country is. Thank you, we need to know this!!"
Like Naomi, Kei originally took to TikTok to voice her views, but as the popularity of her videos grew, she discovered it could be a vital tool for activism: "Honestly, that first video was just me giving an opinion, and people really seemed to like it. So I figured that with the amount of people that were seeing the videos, I could actually use my voice and make some change."
The viral nature of TikTok is part of the blueprint. The app's algorithm means users don't necessarily need a huge following to garner a lot of views, making it the perfect place for rapid information spreading – a positive, in this context. However, it's somewhat ironic that an app with a history of racism is now being used to educate on an issue that is rife on the same platform. Accusations range from shadow-banning Black creators and associated hashtags, the stealing of original content from Black creators, and the app allowing trends that include racism or racist tropes.
A TikTok spokesperson told VICE, "Our strength as a platform comes from our diverse community of users, creators, partners, artists and employees. We want everyone to feel welcome, heard and safe on TikTok." The app's community guidelines also state: "We do not tolerate content that attacks or incites violence against others based on protected attributes, and we do not allow content that includes hate speech."
But for Black creators like Kei and Naomi – who, since making racial justice videos, have both been the target of racist abuse – their experiences with TikTok say otherwise. "Anytime people make racist videos about me, or post racist comments, I report them, but it's only actually worked once," says Kei. "It was the only time TikTok ever sent me a message saying, 'Yes, we agree it’s racist, and if he does it again then we’ll step in.'" Naomi agrees: "I've had to remove some videos because of the racial abuse I've gotten from them," adding, "There are people that advocate racism, homophobia, transphobia on there, and they are quite big accounts, but TikTok does nothing about it. But if you’re speaking up against it, you have to censor yourself."
For both of these creators, BLM is more than just a momentary trend or hashtag – each has vowed to continue educating through TikTok. As Kei says: "Black Lives Matter has never been a political movement, it is a social one. It shouldn't be political for Black people to matter."