As a new generation of workers, voters and leaders come of age in a world that increasingly relies on technology to provide ease of access to information, so comes a need for change in the way that information is presented. The early 2000’s and 2010’s brought Millennials a new way to consume news. Websites like Buzzfeed and Vice made news cool again—presenting it to us in palatable, share-worthy blog posts that were both edgy and visually appealing. Other websites followed suit, catering to niche interests like technology or fashion without the price tag that came with something like a physical magazine subscription. News was affordable, easy to access, easy to share, and aesthetically reflective of the millennial identity. Today those same websites still dominate the ways in which Millennials get their news, but Generation Z is increasingly depending on alternative sources to stay informed—like on TikTok.
A study on media consumer trends from the Creative Digital Agency on Generation Z revealed that roughly 80% of Gen Z’s population of 67 million Americans gets its news through a mobile device—either on social media or through a news app like Apple news, as well as through word of mouth discussion with friends and family. The study also revealed that less than 20% of Generation Z catches up with the news through traditional mediums like radio or newspaper—and only 2% don’t stay informed at all.
What this information tells is that Generation Z, though young (its youngest members are between 8 and 12 this year), are some of the most informed media consumers in the country—and with a media literacy education reflective of the problems we’re often faced with today. While the fake news epidemic plagues our baby boomer parents, Gen Z is proving to have the critical thinking skills necessary to understand how misinformation and manipulated media circulates the web in 2020, and they’re curating their TikTok feeds to cater to that. “TikTok is useful because young people are already on it,” says Robert Ross, the creator behind TikStocks, one of the most popular financial literacy accounts on TikTok. “You don’t need to silo them into a financial education website or get them to follow you (re. Instagram, Twitter). They’re already on TikTok with their friends, and if they’re interested in financial content the algorithm will feed it to them,” says Ross.
“I try to explain to people all the time, TikTok isn’t just dancing teenagers,” says Lisa Remillard, a longtime television news journalist that recently found major success after treating TikTok like a news outlet with her account, The News Girl. “There is a legit educational component to it as well. I spend hours watching other creators give really insightful business hacks, finance tips, and cooking how to’s. If you’re looking to build something, fix something, learn something new, guaranteed, after a quick search, you’ll have hundreds of quality videos to answer your questions or teach you something. Plus, watching videos will always be easier than reading an article,” she says.
TikTok was created in 2016 but did not see a significant rise in popularity until 2018 when it merged with the popular karaoke video app, Musical.ly. The app quickly took off among young social media users—ones that enjoyed the camaraderie of socializing with their friends through the internet, but wanted to escape the platforms that their parents were on like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The New York Times‘ Taylor Lorenz (who was with The Atlantic at the time) reported in 2019 that TikTok would soon become Generation Z’s preferred social media app. Back then the app had procured an impressive 1.2 billion monthly users around the globe, placing it within the ranks of YouTube (arguably its biggest competitor), Instagram and Twitter long before the COVID-19 pandemic shot it into the mainstream zeitgeist.
Today there is no question that TikTok is one of the most successful social media apps in the world, all thanks to its “For You” page algorithm that feeds users new content based on their interests in a way that other social media apps have not done before. “I think the TikTok ‘for you’ page design is a very powerful advantage,” says Dr. Katrine “Kat” Wallace, the creator behind Epidemiologist Kat on TikTok. “The ‘for you’ page constantly pushes out your successful content to new viewers and this helps you to consistently accumulate more views and more new followers. This helps you constantly reach more people with your messages. For me, a big message of my platform is combating COVID-19 misinformation, and the ‘for you’ page has enabled me to get the correct epidemiology information about COVID-19 to more people, faster. Instagram and Facebook do not have a feature like this,” Dr. Wallace says.
In fact, TikTok’s ‘for you’ page algorithm is precisely what makes the app so valuable.
When President Trump threatened to ban TikTok over the summer citing data privacy concerns with China, TikTok scrambled to find an American company that would purchase a majority stake in the company in order to save it from being forced to cease operations in the United States. The “For You” algorithm, though, was not for sale. This created an entirely new threat to how the app would operate in the future, and whether it would remain as popular if the purchasing company could not work out a deal with TikTok’s developer, ByteDance, to continue to use the algorithm after its acquisition.
“The curated content features on TikTok is definitely the next generation,” says Ross. “The number of followers is almost irrelevant on TikTok, as the algorithm decides what gets pushed out. I’d like to see more social media companies follow this trend, as it’s the best way for good ideas to spread… as opposed to the person with the biggest microphone/following controlling the message,” Ross says. The algorithm is, almost entirely, what allows a new generation of creators to find success in the over-saturated world of social media fame. But the very nature of TikTok as a short-form video sharing platform provides an outlet for creators to venture into new beats—like cooking, the news or education. Instagram, even in its early days, was largely a visual platform ideal for artists, photographers and models. Where the Instagram created what, today, is essentially a shopping mall, TikTok is a place to learn or laugh.
On TikTok, users are able to keep up with the news in a way that feels organic to their current media habits. The “For You” page serves them content that it thinks they want to see, helping them stay informed on current events like the COVID-19 pandemic, the election, and even how the stock market works in between viral videos of funny pets or memes. In this regard, some of TikTok’s youngest users are being fed invaluable information about how to financially prepare for their futures, what the electoral college is or even how to interpret scientific information about COVID-19 studies.
“As a professional scientist/university-level teacher, I am inspired by the platform because there is a real knowledge gap between laypeople and scientists,” says Dr. Wallace.
“During this pandemic there is information that people want to understand but they aren’t going to read the scientific literature. I boil down the complex concepts in language that they understand. TikTok enables me to put a message in a 60 second video that thousands of people will see, who would not otherwise be reading the dense scientific article, says Dr. Wallace of her content.
Where figures like Dr. Fauci are largely inaccessible for questioning from the general public, let alone Generation Z—Dr. Wallace uses her platform to answer questions or clarify scientific findings simply by communicating with (often young) TikTok users on the platform they’re spending their time on already. “I am actually genuinely impressed with most of my young followers,” says Dr. Wallace. “They are, for the most part, very interested in science and ask a lot of excellent questions. I sometimes forget that they are so young because the discussions are so interesting and thoughtful. A lot of then ask about my academic journey and express interest in studying public health. It makes me very proud and humbled to inspire people in that way,” Dr. Wallace says.
The same sentiments ring true for both Remillard and Ross, who find that their younger audiences are surprisingly educated due to the ease of access to information. “My experience is unique because I worked in traditional news long before there was social media,” says Remillard. “Television viewers consume news much differently than social media viewers consume news. To make it more complicated, viewers on each social platform consume news differently too. GenZ is SUPER specific in the way they want to consume news and super specific about the way you deliver news to them. I find their attention spans are much, much shorter than older generations. That’s why grabbing attention and delivering news in the format they are comfortable with is so critical,” she says.
“I’m always shocked by how young some of these investors are,” says Ross. “I’ve had messages from people as young as 13 who are already obsessed with investing. These kids are going to be far ahead of my generation when it comes to investing knowledge. My goal is to hone this enthusiasm and teach them good habits when they’re young so that when they’re adults and making real money they can make better investment decisions… and hopefully avoid many of the pitfalls that plague new investors,” he says.
But the ease of access to information is not always a good thing—as we’ve seen demonstrated time and time again with things like QAnon and some of the viral misinformation plaguing the internet today. With conspiracy theories and coordinated disinformation in particular, social media poses a unique threat to Generation Z—a young, open-minded group of social media users. “I worry sometimes about young people getting information from social media because of the “echo chambers” that inevitably arise due to algorithm-driven platforms,” says Dr. Wallace. “But as I mentioned my generation Z followers seem very thoughtful and intelligent. I see them doing and planning exciting things. Maybe if enough high-quality evidence-based news accounts end up on social media that will be the wave of the future. I just (as always) hope people will be able to discern the true information from the misinformation,” she says.
Remillard agrees, and adds that this is where journalists can leverage their dedication to ethical reporting to help educate younger audiences on social media. If the misinformation circulates on platforms like TikTok or other social media apps, it’s likely best to meet media consumers there with the correct information rather than expect them to fact check on their own.
“I find the [young audiences] are sponges for information, but they lack the life experience and wherewithal to spot what’s inaccurate or obviously biased information,” says Remillard.
“As a journalist, that’s scary to me,” Remillard says. “This generation is informed about what’s happening around them but the information they have usually reinforces their existing the perspective. I find that I am always educating my younger community members about the role of a journalist and why I cover some things and don’t cover others and why I never share an opinion on any of my stories,” she says.
Ross, who finds that even the youngest TikTok users are open to financial and investment advice, adds that many of them are simply in need of guidance. “The younger generation is full of new investors with no direction. They want to ‘panic sell’ or buy the latest ‘fad’ stock. What I try and do is not only show people what to buy and sell, but how to ‘think’ about investing. And that starts with controlling emotions and learning good habits,” Ross says.
For creators and journalists alike, TikTok was simply the perfect outlet for what many were already trying to do. It allows users to mindlessly scroll—something that makes Twitter, Instagram and Facebook so successful—but also combines the informational aspect of YouTube with the short-form success we saw with Vine. “I’d had the idea for ‘bite sized’ financial content for years but never really had the platform to execute it,” Ross says. “Gave it a try on TikTok and the initial results and feedback were fantastic so I kept at it … Attention spans are extremely short these days, so packing in a ton of analysis into bite-sized content is far superior to long-form,” he says.
Remillard urges the importance of social media apps like TikTok and warns that media companies should not overlook the importance of understanding how these apps work, but adds that they don’t have to completely rethink their editorial strategy in order to take advantage of these opportunities. “I don’t know if TikTok or any social platform will ever ‘dictate’ how big media companies approach news coverage,” says Remillard. “However, I do believe if they don’t have at least one person on staff dedicated to translating traditional news into the TikTok generation (and beyond), they’re missing out, not only on HUGE viewership potential but eventually, huge buying power too,” she adds.
For Remillard, TikTok gave her the creative outlet that she needed in between segments on television and allowed her to connect with a new generation of news consumers—something that is especially important during a time when social media serves to amplify misinformation. “I know it sounds so old school of me, but I am on a mission to bring the traditional way of reporting the news to the TikTok generation. So far, they seem to be accepting it.”
TikTok is at-risk of being banned in the United States on November 12th. Should that happen, we encourage you to find Robert Ross, Lisa Remillard and Dr. Katrine Wallace on other social media platforms: