Election 2024: the fight for Gen Z's vote is closing in on TikTok — but could the platform really swing it?

 (ES Composite)
(ES Composite)

TikTok could definitely sway an election,” says social media expert and former Conservative Party campaign strategist Sean Topham. He would know. During the last election campaign in 2019, Topham was described as a “digital mastermind” after his team at creative agency Topham Guerin came up with the idea to rename the Conservative Party’s press Twitter account to “Fact Check UK” and use it to dispute claims and campaign promises made by Jeremy Corbyn.

Many didn’t initially realise it was the Conservatives behind the account, so took Fact Check UK’s word as unbiased gospel. Regardless of the moral element — which sparked plenty of debate — it was a smart and completely novel technique, and clearly the work of a person born into the internet age.

Now, in 2024, Twitter techniques have gone out of the window, and social media managers in their 20s sit and make TikToks in campaign offices, hoping to swing an election. The three main parties, Labour, Conservative and the Liberal Democrats, joined TikTok within a week of Rishi Sunak announcing a general election, while others — including Nigel Farage’s Reform UK party — have existed on the platform for longer.

The content these social media teams produce ranges from informative to ridiculous. The Conservatives have largely taken the informative approach, launching their TikTok with a straightforward video of Rishi Sunak speaking to the camera about his plans to enforce national service. It was followed by a trio of response videos where Sunak replied to TikTokkers’ comments and answered their questions (i.e Will I go to prison if I refuse to do national service? Will I get paid for it?). The launch video remains the Conservatives’ most popular video, with 4.5 million views and 282k likes.

Meanwhile, Labour tends towards the ridiculous, hitting out at the Conservatives using viral meme formats and reaction videos. In contrast to the Conservatives, Labour’s most popular TikTok video is a clip of Cilla Black singing “Surprise! Surprise!” alongside the caption “POV: Rishi Sunak turning up on your 18th birthday to send you to war”, racking up an impressive 5.1 million views and 731k likes, though many of Labour’s videos regularly reach over a million views. A comment below the Cilla Black video reads: “Whoever is in charge of the labour social media acc should be PM actually.”

Meanwhile, the Lib Dems are taking a mixed bag approach, with videos from both categories mentioned above. In general, the memes and attacks on the Conservative party perform best for them. The main difference is their use of Ed Davey’s personal life, with a clip of Davey’s “day in the life” caring for his disabled son being among their most liked and viewed videos.

Elsewhere, Reform UK are going almost entirely campaign-focused, using the platform to broadcast their potential policies and repost speeches made by Reform’s leader, Nigel Farage.

The parties are also posting at vastly different rates: Labour has 159 videos, while the Conservatives only have 45. The Lib Dems have 133, while the long-standing TikTok regulars Reform have a whopping 439. This is perhaps indicative of who’s ploughing more time and money into their TikTok strategy, and who’s failing to keep up.

Among the social media teams cutting, stitching and splicing together these campaign videos is 23-year-old Jack Anderton, a right wing social media whiz who’s responsible for Nigel Farage’s TikTok strategy, and 26-year-old Abby Tomlinson, a digital content manager for Labour who created the viral Ed Miliband fandom, also known as #Milifandom on Twitter, while at university.

“TikTok wasn’t even in consideration last time,” says Topham, “which is a real indication of how fast tech and communication methods can change in just five years.” While he never used the platform for his 2019 election efforts, Topham did go heavy on the TikTok campaigning for New Zealand’s 2023 general election, where he was working for opposition candidate Christopher Luxon. The result? A win. And a total wipeout, with Luxon’s National Party becoming the largest party in the new parliament.

“In the first week [of this UK general election] alone, you've already seen UK parties racking up 10s of millions of views combined. Now, that sort of reach is unrivalled compared to other platforms, like Facebook and Instagram,” Topham says. “You just won't really see those results organically on most platforms.”

But do the TikTok generation even have that much say? According to ONS statistics, 18-24 year olds only make up 8.2 per cent of the population. And that’s if they even turn up. At the last general election, youth voter turnout was only 47 per cent among 18 to 24-year‑olds, according to polling by Ipsos Mori.

However, Topham notes that we’re now reaching a point where a wider demographic uses TikTok now. “I think TikTok is increasingly more representative of the wider population demographically. It does still skew younger but recently it’s become a place where older demographics are coming online and getting engaged in it.” And the next age range up, 25-39 year olds, make up 20.2 per cent of the population. When you combine that with the Gen Zs, it’s a pretty sizeable voter chunk — more than the 60+ voting block (24.4 per cent).

TikTok doesn’t allow paid political adverts, so parties have had to get inventive. While the general posts are still raking in the views, what really performs well is individuals. “Vertical video is about individuals,” says TikTok expert and content creator Sophia Smith-Galer. “Just like we want to see people rather than brands on there, TikTok is where personality cult thrives.” For this reason, Galer advises that politicians who show their faces or make their own accounts can reap the rewards.

She reckons that Labour are currently winning the TikTok war based on their engagement metrics — the total number of views, likes and comments. Some of their most effective content is simple Tory-bashing, such as a fake dating app profile of Rishi Sunak with the caption “It’s a no from me”. Or a video of a pothole that leads to Rishi Sunak’s face, captioned “POV: You ask why there are so many potholes in the UK”.

But Smith-Galer also warns against cheap tactics that don’t exactly translate to real life efficacy. “Labour have won the engagement and output race so far, but an over-reliance on memes is a brand strategy from the early 2020s,” Galer says. “It works for awareness raising about a brand name, and works less well for direct action and impact outside of the app. Ultimately, that’s what they are after — votes.”

The person most closely following Galer’s advice is Nigel Farage, whose Reform UK party account has been active on the app for months, with his face at the forefront. Seán Hickey, a content editor at online outlet PoliticsJoe, has been watching ReformUK’s TikTok presence closely, and reckons they could be a legitimately dangerous opponent. “Their content is just very straight, very focused on talking policy and talking shop, rather than making a laugh and a joke of the opposition parties,” he says. “It's very basic. Some of it isn't even in the right format. Longer videos, talk-heavy, not subtitled. So it's kind of atypical for this kind of stuff to be reaching a lot of people on TikTok, and yet they seem to be doing well.”

If Reform continues to grow in this way, Hickey says, “I think it could eat into that conservative audience that is on TikTok [...] There's a real gap there, it could potentially become an even worse election for the Conservatives because of an awareness of an alternative right wing party.”

The underdog overperforming on TikTok, which is made up of a user base Reform would typically struggle to reach, is exactly why people think it could swing an election. That, and because it’s been done before with other social media platforms. Although that wasn’t organic.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal — where data was improperly obtained from Facebook to build voter profiles during the 2016 US Presidential election and Brexit referendum — has led many to worry about the role of TikTok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, in this election.

However, much has been learned since 2016. Politicians within the UK government already face restrictions over TikTok usage, with the app being banned on work phones. Some have claimed this is merely proof of its influence. “TikTok is a data harvester,” Sir Iain Duncan Smith told The Spectator this March, “the Chinese know it, the Americans know it [...] Yes, the government has gone as far as saying it must be taken off government phones, but that’s an easy ask because it’s probably not been on government phones at all. Where it is, is on the private telephones of government ministers.”

Sir Duncan Smith’s words fell on unwilling ears, with politicians such as Grant Shapps continuing to post and build an audience on the app. Now, months later, TikTok is on the phone of every political campaign manager in the UK.

“Good content and a good commitment to the platform could seriously result in an effective persuasion of voters,” Topham says definitively. So keep an eye on your For You Page. Chances are the person you’re seeing the most, and watching the longest, has a good shot at being our next Prime Minister.