WHEN The National’s digital team initially proposed launching a TikTok account for the newspaper, there were a few raised eyebrows over our Zoom call. The short-form video platform, despite being the fastest growing social media network in history, has been chiefly associated with dance trends and lip-sync clips – turning teenagers into overnight megastars and kickstarting entertainment careers. There are now one billion active users every month and endless creators vying for their attention. How would Scottish politics be received on an app like that?

Pretty well, it turned out. The indyref2 hashtag has 58 million views to date. The platform is full of clips of ­passionate grassroots campaigners making the case for independence, footage of Scottish MPs being talked down to in ­Westminster and cheeky media moments from pro-Yes Scots celebs. It’s not only Scots ­promoting self-determination either – there is an ­informal alliance between them and Welsh and Northern Irish ­TikTokers ­seeking to get out of the Union. It’s come a long way from the Blinding Lights ­challenge.

“I think one of the reasons it’s ­become so politicised is because it’s used ­primarily by the under-25s,” suggests Dr Catherine Happer, deputy director of the Glasgow University Media Group. “What we are seeing is a really highly politicised group of young people.”

The sociologist notes a recent study in Lancet Planetary Health, showing that 75% of people aged 16-25 are fearful of the future.

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“It’s worrying, I think, but very ­indicative of a group of young people who are frustrated, who are angry and have every right to be … because the ­nature of politics has reduced opportunities for young people. So if you’re looking at a platform used primarily by young ­people, then naturally it’s going to reflect the things they are interested in, in politics.”

With recent polls suggesting nearly three-quarters of 16 to 34-year-olds back independence, TikTok seems a natural space for them to discuss that support.

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Not only are young people hyper-politicised, explains Dr Happer (above), they’re also cynical about traditional media. Many are seeking places where their own voices can be heard and their views are ­reflected. Where better than an app where The ­Algorithm is king, serving users content it knows they’ll like and want to interact with based on “indications of interest” in an infinite stream of videos on the “For You” homepage. Effectively, the more you watch, comment and hit “like”, the more it feeds you that kind of specially curated content. Because of this system, accounts are more likely to go viral without already establishing a massive platform, unlike on Twitter or Facebook.

Dr Victoria Esteves (below), a creative ­industries lecturer at the University of Stirling with a focus on online culture, says Covid lockdowns played a huge role in TikTok’s fast cultural domination.

“Everyone’s stuck at home, with this deep desire for connection with fellow humans, and the only way to do it is through phones and being entertained,” she explains.

“Everyone’s going to do silly things and share it with other people just to be relatable … this is what I find interesting about TikTok content – a lot of it is about that desire to be relatable and to try and create this connection over everyday life situations.”

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MARCUS Mcluskey, 26, is a recognisable face on Scottish politics TikTok with nearly one million likes. The graduate started his account in the summer of 2020, months into the Covid-19 pandemic, having no previous experience in political campaigning.

“It was just a really silly video” that started it, he recalls. “And yet it kind of just grew from there.” Mcluskey clearly can’t quite believe the reach he’s achieved when I read out his own statistics to him. “Listening to this description, it’s like you’re talking about someone else,” he laughs.

So how has Mcluskey become such a key figure in Scottish Politics TikTok? Why have clips of him responding to anti-Gaelic sentiment, correcting myths about Scotland’s finances and poking fun at Scottish Conservative MSPs kept his ­engagement level so high?

“I haven’t really tried to get an ­audience,” he explains. “It was a ­community ­aspect that was really ­attractive in TikTok … ­being able to Duet and Stitch [with other users] that’s really effective for ­campaigning as it really amplifies that ­collective voice.” These features allow ­users to easily create videos based off and including someone else’s clip, resulting in collaborations and instant debate.

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Just like Dr Esteves, Mcluskey cites ­relatability and authenticity as key factors in gaining TikTok success: “I think what distinguishes TikTok from platforms like Twitter is you can’t garner support by operating on an ­anonymous troll profile. Those voices are practically absent on TikTok because viewers can suss out pretty quickly if you’re authentic or if it’s performative.”

Looking at the politicians with the most successful TikTok accounts, it’s ­immediately apparent that ­authenticity is the key to building a big audience. In America, Senator Ed Markey utilises memes to mock Republicans and promote Covid vaccination – racking up hundreds of thousands of likes in the process.

In the UK, Coventry South Labour MP Zarah Sultana (below) is way ahead in terms of TikTok clout. With nearly 2.5 ­million likes and 179.9k followers, she’s ­obviously ­doing something right. ­Sometimes she posts Insta-worthy clips of her ­attending political events in fashionable outfits, connecting with trade unionists and ­campaign groups, other times it’s BBC Parliament footage of her fighting for ­justice from the backbenches.

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Sultana’s boss Keir Starmer, like most UK political leaders, is not on the ­platform at all. Meanwhile, Boris ­Johnson has been making bizarre TikTok-style ­videos of him saying things like “Build Back ­Butter” while buttering toast for ­Instagram, but he’s not on the app ­himself.

The average voter might expect the SNP to be prolific on TikTok, especially with Nicola Sturgeon’s keen digital presence on Twitter and Instagram, plus their high levels of support among the young people who populate the platform.

The SNP do have a TikTok account, but it was mainly used for Holyrood election campaigning earlier this year. The First Minister is not on the app. Bar a ­Holyrood minister here and an MP there, they are not fully utilising the stunning potential reach at their fingertips.

Ross Colquhoun, the SNP’s head of ­digital, has worked in online ­campaigning for 10 years. He played a pivotal role in the National Collective project before the 2014 referendum, helped create the #YesBecause hashtag and later set the stage for the wildly popular SNP GIFs – which have been viewed more than 90 million times.

“People love sharing them, whether they are reactions, messages or more ­informative. They also like it when ­politicians seem down to earth, human and approachable,” he explains.

The strategist notes that one ­particularly “effective” GIF showing Nicola Sturgeon raising her eyebrows on a loop has been viewed more than eight million times. ­“Although at first this might seem trivial, this means that the leader of the SNP pops up in conversations across the ­nation and that she regularly enters the zeitgeist,” he points out.

At the same time, Colquhoun downplays the party's role on TikTok.

“TikTok is already a successful part of the SNP’s and the Yes digital ­campaigning strategy,” he tells me. “Political parties often make the mistake of thinking that their message can only be shared via their official social media channels, parliamentarians and staff. And although they are still extremely important in getting the message out there, at the last Scottish election the SNP’s message was seen ­millions of times by younger voters on the app in videos shared by TikTok influencers,” he recalls.

These videos included reminders to ­register to vote and explainers of key policy pledges, he says. Colquhoun adds that the party will “continue to develop how the SNP and Yes uses TikTok and ­innovate on how we use other digital ­platforms over the coming months as we campaign for Scottish independence”.

Dr Happer isn’t sure that going all in on the official SNP TikTok account would be beneficial for the party when compared to the kind of conversation that is generated organically about Scotland and its ­politics on the platform.

“At the end of the day, the [SNP] are the establishment,” the senior lecturer argues. “That is the way that any ­media and comms is going to be regarded, ­particularly by young people.”

Dr Happer points out that the ­vertical ­video format of TikTok suggests a ­distinction from traditional, mainstream sources. “You know where the media and comms is coming from, and ­professional outfits don’t sit there,” she adds. “It’s ­people sitting in their bedrooms. The more professionally produced stuff looks out of place.”

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Two TikTok videos on independence issues from indymarcus

WHILE the draw of TikTok is its ability to predict what you want to see and willingness to give you more of it, this is one of the concerns of its critics. The idea of an echo chamber is something Mcluskey keeps in mind when producing his regular content.

“A downside of the community aspect is you run the risk of the algorithm ­trapping you in this bubble, and you’re just preaching to the converted,” he explains.

Producing a passionate pro-independence TikTok that’s all guns blazing might be great for your support base, he says, but it’s unlikely to change undecided ­people’s minds.

Leaving behind the Scottish Greens, SNP or indyref2 hashtags might be a way to break out of the boundaries.

“The best part for me on TikTok is ­making connections with other UK ­creators – because there is a sense of ­solidarity and understanding among indyref2 creators, England’s left-wing, Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru, ­Northern Ireland creators. We don’t really see that reflected in ­political ­discourse,” the 26-year-old points out. “If you listen to ­politicians, especially of the Unionist ­variety, you’d think all of these ­conversations are inherently polarising and divisive. But we manage it.”

Even if TikTok is managing to connect groups with shared interests, the question remains as to whether being one of the world’s biggest social networks, with a highly politicised audience, means ­movements can easily transfer from the app to physical reality.

Stirling University’s Dr Esteves, who ­rejects using the term “real life” as it downplays the reality of online ­interactions, suggests the increasing global demonstrations and protests over climate change indicate ­social media campaigning really can be effective offline too.

“The green parties have been saying the same thing for years, if not decades. But it’s only when it took root in social media and gained that visibility that it ­really took off in the social consciousness of most people – even though we all in the back our minds knew that the world was probably on fire,” the lecturer argues.

Dr Happer agrees, pointing out that the first time she ever learned about ­international climate activist Greta ­Thunberg (below) was on Twitter, not in the print media. ­Thunberg’s online presence grew rapidly, leading to more traditional ­media coverage and eventually school pupils around the world being inspired to strike for climate justice.

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In the US, there was also the case of TikTokers causing havoc for the Trump campaign in the lead-up to the ­presidential election. The former president’s ­campaign chairman Brad Parscale had boasted that a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, had received more than a million ticket requests – but the true number of ­attendees turned out to be in the thousands by the time doors opened. It emerged that young anti-Trump TikTok users, spurred on by K-Pop fans, had been encouraging each other to sign up with no intention of going. Trump’s humiliation then became a mainstream news story, with additional media ­scrutiny placed on Parscale leading to his eventual resignation three months later.

The murder of George Floyd was ­another moment that sparked a major response on TikTok and Instagram, with social media helping to mobilise huge numbers of young people to march in ­protest and raise funds for black communities afflicted by police violence. Horror over the killing spread across the world, prompting people to think about racist violence through their own geographical lens and provoking localised pushes for change, argues Dr Estaves.

IN Scotland specifically, social media played a major role in the 2014 referendum. While apps were not as advanced as they are now, bloggers, Facebook and Twitter played a big part in spreading the arguments of the Yes campaign and Better Together. With the First Minister pledging to hold a second independence referendum by 2023, Covid permitting, how might a future campaign play out on TikTok?

Dr Happer has concerns. She is worried that because older and younger groups are getting their news and information from more disparate sources than ever before, there is a risk of social media causing generational divisions during indyref2. Although consistent polling shows big differences in how the generations feel about independence, she warns that blame should not be assigned to older people on these political issues.

“Most of the older generations care deeply about the younger generations ­because they’ll have members of their family in it. Let’s focus the blame where blame should lie, not on the older people.”

She also has fears that the emotional ­responses provoked by ­attention-grabbing, sometimes “superficial”, political ­TikTok videos might remove the nuance of ­political arguments on each side of the ­debate – leading to discussions being “flattened and simplified” in the same way as in the 2016 Brexit referendum.

“This is probably a personal plea – if indyref plays out like that I’d be ­really ­disappointed,” she says. “Because ­actually I think the first independence referendum … a lot of it was happening in the blogosphere, so you did get that more detailed analysis and then people would have the discussions. Independence is something that needs that detailed ­analysis actually, it’s not really about emotions. It’s about thinking through this huge decision which has impacts for how we’re going to live.”

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ULTIMATELY, TikTok is the current social media trend. It will be replaced by the next online fad, like all hyped-up platforms that have come before it. But the beliefs that drive its political micro-influencers will remain.

For now they will continue using this incredible tool to spread the word about self-determination, climate change or whatever other issue they care about deeply enough to want to film themselves talking about it every day.

I ask Mcluskey what motivates him to be so prolific, to have a digital ­representation of his face so closely ­ associated to a ­political movement, to risk the backlash that can come with being so visible.

“Because I want Scotland to be independent,” he says with a laugh. “I wouldn’t really do it for any other reason.”