Politics and the TikTok generation

The role that the TikTok algorithm—alarmingly characterised as the Weapon of the Century—plays in a national poll will have to be watched with interest.


(Image: IANS)

June 10, 2022

NEW DELHI – Even among the people born and living at about the same time, circumstances of birth, upbringing and education are not always similar. Family traditions often shape the cultural values of a person in the early years. Standards of behaviour are observed and absorbed from the conduct of seniors during the process of growing. Principles of life and work continue to be imbibed throughout adulthood. It will be thus audacious to associate any particular set of beliefs with an entire generation.

Some generalisation, however, is necessary to make sense of the socio-political messiness of one’s milieu. In the United States, generations have been grouped under various names. From the Lost Generation (born 1883-1900) of the past to the some yet to be born of the Generation Alpha (born 2013-25), Americans have been grouped to signify a pattern in their behaviour.

The use of terminology and the range of years sometimes vary. The last generation to be born entirely in the 20th century (1981-2000) is Generation Y, the Echo Boomers, the Millennium Generation, the Millennials, the Net Generation, the Nexters and the Digital Generation. Some researchers prefer to call the cohort born between 1981 and 1996 Millennials and put everyone born from 1997 onwards into different groups altogether.

I once came up with similar categorisations for Nepali politicos with the reckless characteristic of a know-all columnist. Born before the overthrow of Ranarchy, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba is one of the last politicos of the Veterans’ Generation, straddling the stallion of state power like a wild warrior.

The Lost Generation (born 1951- 60) grew up during the period of intensification of the Cold War in South Asia and confrontations between monarchists and democrats in Nepal. High on the absurdist cock- tail of Marxism-Leninism, Maoism and monarchism, politicos such as Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, Madhav Kumar Nepal, Jhala Nath Khanal and Pushpa Kamal Dahal became some of the most successful politicos of the post-1990 order primarily due to their ideological fluidity.

The Mahendramala Generation (born 1960-70) and the Referendum Generation (born 1970-80) grew up with daily doses of xenophobia, jingoism and chauvinism administered through school textbooks, repeated broadcasts of the state-controlled media and inciteful rants of politicos of the preceding generation.

The concerns of the Individualistic Generation or Generation I (born 1991-2000) are global such as climate change, conservation of heritage and issues of gender justice that are expressed through street protests. But the faith of the first digital cohort is often limited to #buddhawasborninNepal.

Generation Z, Gen Z or quite simply the Zoomers are categorised as those roughly born between 1997 and 2015. In the case of Nepal, most Zoomers—attending classes over the internet during the pandemic and making TikTok videos to express themselves—were born between 1997 and the turn of the century. Preliminary indications of their political preferences can be gauged from their craze for Balen Shah during the just concluded local elections.

Habits are formed through constant exposure and regular practice until they become an automatic reaction to a specific situation. The veterans of Prime Minister Deuba’s generation acquired their information from books, periodicals, lectures of scholars and life lessons from illustrious predecessors. The literate ones of Sharma Oli’s generation had begun to subconsciously consume the propaganda of Cold War rivals through multicoloured publications such as Soviet Bhoomi, Cheen Sachitra and Swatantra Vishwa of the Soviets, Chinese and Americans respectively. Indian newspapers and periodicals in Hindi and English supplemented by BBC Hindi Service offered the intellectual fare. The primary source of the official version remained the morning news of Radio Nepal.

Many adults of the Mahendra- mala Generation grew up to be rabid ethnonational because the cohort was made to survive on the constant diet of the monarchist propaganda disseminated through state-controlled media, several foreign-funded tabloids in the Nepali language and a plethora of jingoistic music cassettes. By the time the Referendum Generation began to consume the media, there were video cassettes of action movies in English on hire, the regular sermons of newly-established Nepal Television in full colour and the antennae on rooftops that caught and relayed satellite signals of mostly entertainment channels.

Youngsters of Generation I have grown up with cartoon channels played video games and listened to the music of their choice on portable media players. By the time they could read newspapers, internet portals had begun to update the latest events in real-time. They grew up with cellphones, grew out of emails to embrace social media platforms, and became voracious consumers of digital fare.

Figurative use of the term echo chamber has come to imply a closed space where only the information confirms one’s biases and filters out contradictory facts. In his classic tract “Medium is the message”, Marshall McLuhan talks of “hot” and “cold” media. The snugness of social media lulls its users into believing that “post, follow and share” are forms of activism.

Pre-2017 social media users of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and WhatsApp were large consumers of information and entertainment streamed to their pages or timeline. Participation in production on such platforms continues to be optional. TikTok prompts its users to produce short video shots with a smartphone and enables them to aim the self-created content to a distinctive audience.

The legacy media continues to shape opinions. The data mining and manipulation of social media algorithms for the dissemination of misinformation and disinformation has helped influential politicos engineer election victories. What TikTok often succeeds in doing is changing the narrative by influencing the very thought process of its “user-genera- tor”. Since the mid-2010s, the manipulative use of social media platforms has helped in the emergence of demagogic populists hawking authoritarianism in the name of order and stability. TikTok are likely to help ambitious individuals outgrow their shady past, as in the recent Philip- pines elections, and influence the outcome of the polls far in excess of their political weight.

Even though they didn’t encourage it, earlier social media platforms allowed users to go to the credible sources of a story through hyperlinks, podcast show notes and explanatory details in the description box. The new kid on the block — TikTok — tells its user buddies to jump on the bandwagon of fun and games, and receive instant gratification. Alarmed by the virality of the app, the ruling party in India banned it and facilitated the launch of copycats that have failed so far to emerge as credible alternatives.

Having been a popular rapper, Balendra Shah realised the viral potential of TikTok early in his campaign trail. The newly elected mayor of Kathmandu Metropolitan City is perhaps one of the pioneering users of TikTok to come on top without having any ideological moorings, firm organisational support or an extensive election campaign.

If nothing untoward happens between now and November, the provincial and federal elections will take place within this year. The role that the TikTok algorithm—alarmingly characterised as the Weapon of the Century—plays in a national poll will have to be watched with interest. It may herald the dawn of an era of Don Quixotes espousing political homilies.

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