'A way for everything to seem less hopeless': Teens are using humor on TikTok to meme the news

“Unlike Facebook, Twitter or even Instagram, TikTok is a platform where we ... can express our stances and identities confidently," one teen said.
Image: Teens are using humor to meme their views on current events.
Teens are using humor to meme their views on current events.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; TikTok

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By Kalhan Rosenblatt

When Ilana Beloborodov, 17, was creating her sign for last month's youth-led climate strike in Boston, she knew she wanted to come up with a slogan other teenagers would understand.

So, naturally, she turned to the language of TikTok.

After spending the morning mulling exactly what reference she'd use, she landed on the phrase "e-girl" — a term for the colorful yet goth-inspired teens on the short-form video app.

Her final product read, “The only e-girl that matters is the earth.”

At the strike, countless people wanted a picture of Beloborodov's poster. Later, when she posted a video of the strike and her sign to TikTok, it exploded with more than 187,000 views.

“On TikTok, everybody gets their 15 minutes of fame,” Beloborodov told NBC News. “This system encourages people to express their opinions because their ideas can easily get across to thousands of people at a time at any moment.”

Beloborodov is just one of a number of teens and young adults on TikTok who are making funny videos and memes about politics, the environment and a host of other current events. TikTok, the short-form video app formerly known as Musical.ly until it was acquired by the Chinese tech company ByteDance in 2017 and rebranded, is typically known for ever-evolving in-jokes, lip syncs, dance trends and challenges.

In some corners of the internet, the app has become synonymous with cringe comedy, but the platform has grown so ubiquitous, young people on TikTok have begun confessing that while they once downloaded it as a joke, they now can’t put it down. The content is frequently too good not to permeate other platforms like Twitter. And, like Beloborodov, some young people on TikTok are using the app's specific brand of humor to discuss important world issues.

The half dozen teens and young adults who spoke with NBC News about posting current events content on TikTok said the platform gives them an avenue to use humor to cope with serious issues and share their points of view. It’s also a place where adults have yet to infiltrate en masse — something that is rare elsewhere in the world of social media.

“Unlike Facebook, Twitter or even Instagram, TikTok is a platform where we, as young people, can express our stances and identities confidently because we know that the community of young people supporting each other is stronger than the insecurity that comes from older generations telling us we are invalid,” TikTok user Jackie Mack, 17, said.

Shane Tilton, assistant professor of multimedia journalism at Ohio Northern University, said TikTok is a unique place for young people to share their views on current events because the app melds the creative aspects of various other social media sites while allowing young people the space to be performative with the platform’s own in-jokes and humor, feeding them a constant flow of content that can inspire a new riff on a topic.

“They can simply take what they have seen, re-perform it, put a different twist on it, and therefore give it a different message or give it a different voice. I think that’s useful,” Tilton said. “It gives them a chance to give their own interpretation of the issue at hand.”

Meme-ing the news

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The popularity of current events on TikTok is apparent just by looking at the massive number of views certain hashtags have accrued.

An event like Hurricane Dorian in early September earned more than 76 million views as of mid-October, according to a search of the hashtag on the app. The hashtag for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s name has nearly 8 million views, a portion of which mock his blackface scandal with videos sardonically calling him a “melanin goddess” or showing pictures of him set to the song “Brown Skin Girl.” The hashtag “politics” has more than 123 million views, according to the same metric, and more specific tags like “impeachment” have more than a million views.

While not all of those views and tags are coming exclusively from teens and young adults, videos created by Gen Z and younger millennials inspired by current events have frequently found their way onto the “For You” page, TikTok’s infinite scroll homepage.

Gun violence, vaping and the American education system are all topics that have been memed on TikTok — but among the most talked about issues that teens are using humor to address on the app are climate change and politics.

Finding ways to tie TikTok culture to current events has become a popular way to incorporate news stories with humor on the app. In a recent TikTok Mack made about the environment, she, like Beloborodov, referred to e-boys and e-girls as a segue to talking about the environment.

“Everyone’s talking about e-girl this and e-boy that, but no one is talking about emissions,” Mack said as she deadpanned into the camera. She then launched into a longer diatribe about corporate responsibility for emissions before the video intentionally cut out midsentence.

“My primary intention with posting that specific TikTok was to be funny,” Mack said. “However, with the videos I make on current issues that I find important, there is also an intention to inform my audience.”

While some teens are using the app to share their stance on a particular topic, others are using TikTok to settle arguments.

At the University of Connecticut, TikTok user Mehdi Namazi, 19, said he recently debated with another student over the issue of impeachment.

Namazi, a Democrat, and his classmate, a Republican, were on opposite sides of an argument about whether there was support for removing President Donald Trump from office. So when it was reported that a majority of the House of Representatives supports some kind of impeachment inquiry and some polls reflected similar findings among Americans, Namazi made a TikTok.

In the 15-second TikTok, Namazi danced in front of news articles reporting that there was support for an impeachment inquiry as a deafening version of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” played poorly on a recorder.

“Politics is notorious for being dragged out endlessly by long speeches with no substance,” Namazi said. “TikTok is the complete opposite, making it the perfect breeding ground for political comedy.”

Tilton said that ability to turn around a quick response to breaking news and current events is part of why TikTok has become so prolific among young people trying to get their points of view across.

“In terms of the barriers to entry that TikTok has, it’s virtually none. As long as you have a device that is accessible to the web, that has a camera, that has a microphone, you can produce this very simple content,” Tilton said. “It’s a way of getting a message out to a larger audience.”

Making commentary accessible to Gen Z

That also holds true when young people decide on a whim to make a video about current events, like Sofi Mandil, 20, who said she has only been on TikTok for about a month.

Mandil posted a video of herself doing the “pen challenge,” a trend in which the person making a TikTok throws pens or other items into a jar while saying a true or false statement. If the item lands in the jar, the statement is true. If the item doesn’t make it in, the statement is false.

“I didn’t have a huge moment where I was coming up with the idea or thinking about how to do it, but political subjects are constantly swirling through my mind and I just also happened to be doing the pen challenge at the time,” Mandil said.

In her TikTok, Mandil missed the jar while making a dozen statements like, “We should have more guns,” and “Reverse racism is real.” The only time her throw landed in the jar is when she said, “The American education system is broken.”

TikTok’s nature of accessible content creation means that young people who want to make a statement on current events don’t have to act as an authority on a topic for it to get reception. Users don’t have to declare themselves as “political” or “news” accounts. The app’s format gives users like Mandil the space to express a point of view while not relegating her content to a specific corner of the app.

“I’ve not made any other political videos aside from this one. I like to keep my page more comedic and lighthearted,” Mandil said. “Even the political pen challenge was just poking a bit of fun, but I knew it would get the reactions it’s been getting.”

TikTok is a product of the internet, which means there will still be some degree of trolls and vitriol in the comment section of videos that decide to tread into contested subjects.

However, young people on both sides of an argument often have a chosen weapon when it comes to rebuking the occasional adult who makes a bad faith argument about a news event on TikTok.

When an adult on TikTok recently used a goofy face filter while mockingly lip syncing teen environmental activist Greta Thunberg’s speech before the United Nations Climate Action Summit, the video’s comment section, with more than 200 responses, was almost exclusive one phrase: “OK boomer.”

The teens who spoke with NBC News said there are many heavy issues facing their generation, and injecting levity into those subjects have allowed them to engage with those topics while still making them laugh.

“I am exploring my identity and role in society at a time when current issues are violence against people and the environment. … It gets depressing to say the least,” Mack said. “I’m a teen and I would like to have fun. And talking about current issues with humor, to an extent, is a way for everything to seem less hopeless.”