The Doorstep: TikTok & the Normalization of Protests Around the World, with Dr. Tia C. M. Tyree

Jan 29, 2021

Howard University's Professor Tia Tyree joins "Doorstep" hosts Tatiana Serafin and Nick Gvosdev to discuss social media and youth activism in 2021 and beyond. The digital native generation is taking its online activism offline more swiftly and easily than ever with TikTok as the platform of choice. What responsibilities do tech giants and governments have to support this mobilization? How will global societies be reshaped as Gen Z takes power?

TATIANA SERAFIN: Welcome to issue three of The Doorstep in 2021. Since we spoke and over the last week we have a new administration. We have lots to talk about. I am Tatiana Serafin, senior fellow at Carnegie Council.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: And I'm Nick Gvosdev, also a senior fellow here at Carnegie Council and part of the U.S. Global Engagement program.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Today we welcome Dr. Tia Tyree to speak with us about her expertise and what all has been going on in the world over the last few weeks—social media, youth activism.

Thank you so much for joining us, Dr. Tyree. We so look forward to hearing you tell us what we need to know about the new TikTok, or is it all about TikTok? What is going on?

One of the things that got us looking over this past week is that there seems to be in this new administration a little bit, my journalism friends tell me, a normalcy to how announcements are made, the nine-to-five aspect of the jobs again as opposed to 2:00 am tweets. As they are looking at the new administration and all the policies that are coming out of it, they are responding to social media in a new way and telling different kinds of stories. All of a sudden, in some of these stories that are being told now we are looking out at the world.

Yesterday was a big look out at the world because there were so many announcementsby the Biden administration on climate, announcing an April climate summit, which brings us to our movement and social media. Did that start with Greta Thunberg? Can we say, "Thank you, Greta, for bringing us our April conference on climate change here in the United States and getting us back into the Paris accord"? Is it all Greta? How did we get here? Can you lead us through a little bit of this? We will start with climate as the big issue, I think, Dr. Tyree. What do you think?

TIA TYREE: Just in terms of social media and its ability to be such an impactful part of our life, especially for youth—there is a term of them being "digital natives."

When we grew up we grew up with traditional media. We didn't expect to do anything other than absorb it. We watched television. We were happy with what came at us. We listened to the radio. We were just as pleased at that. Many of us sat Saturday mornings watching cartoons. We were comfortable with the two hours we had that morning, and then we fluttered off outside. Same with the newspapers. I grew up in Baltimore, so we had the morning Sun, the evening Sun, and our media was fed to us.

That is not the way youth today or many of us even in older generations are comfortable with being learned. We want to be a part of it. We want to see what we want to see, read what we want to see, watch what we want to see, and that has totally changed the manner in which we operate.

Even a small young girl in a country far, far away has the ability to impact and influence us because of social media. We don't have to wait for just that one block of our evening news to tell us about world happenings because now we can see it all day long on our newsfeeds. We can see her YouTube clips. We can tap into her social media feeds and know what she is thinking. It is one more example of how social media, youth, and activism can really make not just local but global changes.

TATIANA SERAFIN: That's so interesting. I do think in terms of getting the message out, especially when you are looking at—one of the feeds my daughter watches is Bindi Irwin and all the Australians and what's going on in Australia. She knows more about Australia here sitting in New York City than I ever did growing up at that age. It is so interesting that you are saying that.

But how do you see this actually coming into action? I said a little facetiously: "Can we thank Greta for our new climate change policy?" Do you see a connect between these movements, between walking in a protest and policy? How does that resonate?

TIA TYREE: We can take the Me Too movement. I have done some research on the Me Too movement. We saw a tweet come out by Alyssa Milano. Within 24 hours there were millions of comments of "Me too." Of course, we learned later on that Tarana Burke was the true owner of that movement or that slogan, but nonetheless you saw what were some very immediate changes with Me Too, people willing the say the words "me too," people willing to suddenly name their abusers, which we really haven't seen in that massive supportive way in the United States in a very long time. You began to see people in power toppled, CEOs, people who had been oppressive and abusive for decades, begin to be named and shamed and moved to the side. You saw efforts and people trying to say: "Okay, we need to really diversify. We can't have all white men in these boardrooms making decisions."

You saw other policy changes. There were changes to nondisclosure agreements that started to say, "Well, if you have been sexually abused, you can't hide that in a nondisclosure." Rape kits that had gone untested, you saw many states going back in and starting to look at them.

The Me Too movement is just one example of policies that started to change as people began to say: "Time's up. We're not going to stand for this anymore." That is just one example.

TATIANA SERAFIN: That truly also became a global movement. One of the things we look at here at The Doorstep is bringing the world to Main Street, USA, and explaining what is going on in the world and how it impacts us. This was definitely something that began here but then spread globally. You see this interconnectedness in the idea of hashtag activism because it is borderless.

There are positives to it. As you say, you can be anywhere and see the message and the note, but what do you see as some of the negatives, some of the downsides? It can be a celebrity saying, "I'm going to stay off Instagram one day"—I'm not going to name the celebrity because I refuse to say their name. Does that really work? Is that more performative? How can we move more to your example of when policy is changed and change does happen as opposed to this, "Oh, I feel good about doing this"?

TIA TYREE: There are lots of names for it. It's "clicktivism, slacktivism, armchair activism"—there are tons of names for it.

Yes, it is extremely easy for people to sit literally in an armchair, literally lying in bed, literally unfortunately in their cars hashtagging and feeling I would think very empowered: "I did this. I retweeted. I commented on this." Engagement is big.

Engagement and hashtag activism works. We cannot deny that today's world is fueled by what's trending and happening on social media. Ten years ago we could have made light of that. Five years ago we could have made light of that. In 2021, especially seeing what happened in 2020, we no longer have the ability to minimize that.

However, again, it is not enough to just sign some petition online. It's not enough to just retweet something. You do have to take online activism offline, whether that is making a telephone call, whether that is coming into the streets and making a statement that way, whether it's writing an email—which can be just as powerful—to your local representative asking for change, or whether that is joining a local civic group that is trying to do something. Or more importantly, sometimes it's a donation to an organization that might be doing something supportive of your activities.

So, yes, the black boxes on Instagram might have been a hit for a day, but that type of one-and-done activity does not do much in terms of long-term impact. You have to do more. You really do.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Building on that, can I ask from the work that you have been doing, the research, and other things about that connectivity? Going from something that is done on social media to activism to running for office, supporting candidates, and getting involved in the process—are you seeing more of that as a generating force, that people who might have otherwise stayed out of the political process are drawn into it through social media, through digital activism? Is that enough of a force for change in a way that will get the "establishment" to react differently than they might have in the past? Are you seeing that this is a kind of gateway if it is followed up? Again, I'm thinking of your point there of it can't be one and done.

But for those who don't do it as one and done, are they making step two, step three, and step four, and are we beginning to see that connectivity where we can say, "It started here on an Instagram post" or something on Twitter, and then we can say at step four we see it with someone being sworn into office, someone being elected, or a policy change? Or is it still too soon to really see these linkages?

TIA TYREE: I can't give you one example, but I will take it back again to our generation. You know how hard it was to break through in anything—break through in acting, break through in music, break through in television. It was nearly impossible for an everyday average Joe or Jane—with talent nonetheless—to bubble up to a point where you actually could garner the attention of someone who had the ability to make something happen for you. Social media has flattened nearly every industry in a way that you can, of course—and we grew up with our parents saying, "Don't watch that boob tube."

Then YouTube came along, and then I have my own channel. Forget sitting around waiting for that thing to come on television. I'll make my own content. I don't have to wait.

I tell my students this all the time. When we wanted to have an impact—you went to the barber shop, and then you had an audience of 10. You went to the basement at church on Sunday, you waited seven days to do that, and maybe you stood up and you had an audience of 20 or 30. You're having Sunday dinner, and now, oh, my gosh, there's your next audience of 10. You go to school or the office, the water cooler, my goodness, you've got another audience of five. You cobble that altogether, and you have talked to 50 people in an entire week?

Now there are regular people with hundreds of thousands. You could be a micro-influencer like that if you just go viral. Forget the Kardashians and the movie industry folks and the music folks, the politicians with millions of followers. Their audiences are incredible, and they can swing the pendulum of someone's attitudes and opinions. The influence that someone can have now over millions is something that you can never really have imagined.

Forget 20, forget 10 years ago. Now you can say someone like a little girl on TikTok loves to go to Dunkin' Donuts and get an iced coffee. Well, so do I. But nobody's naming a drink after me. But again, because she's cool, she's hip, now we're drinking the Charli. All right. Okay.

I think that there are some people who when they begin to turn, when they begin to think more poignantly about making some political decisions we might see that rising social media star being sworn in in some capitol somewhere. But for now I think you see a lot of people on social media with opinions and really influencing the actions of others.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think that's true based on what happened in Russia, Nick. The galvanizing force was TikTok because so much of the media is state-controlled in Russia, so they went on social media, thousands of people around the country protesting the dissident Navalny's arrest and prison sentence. He and his followers have a YouTube channel, so his words reached the people that way, speaking of YouTube.

But there are pitfalls to using these channels, aren't there? What kills me are two things: First, access. Not everybody has access, so not everybody is getting the word.

Second, what happens when—what happened yesterday as Zuckerberg said: "Eh, I don't think politics is going to be in your newsfeed anymore. I'm changing the algorithm." Because we are dictated to by algorithms that are not controlled by us, and it worries me that somehow in there there is light and positivity in the groundswell movements, but there is this opportunity for tech giants to shut it off and for the government too to shut it off. In India, for example, the government shut down the Internet when the farmers were protesting in Delhi and it got out of control. That scares me.

Two ideas, and maybe you can dress this up. This access idea. Not everybody is on here, so not everybody knows what is going on. There has also been a splintering of the Internet. Point two, which is totally separate but also important I think, the idea that it is being controlled not by us, even though we feel that it is our speech.

TIA TYREE: I will tell you that there is the push and the pull. Social media technically is a pull media. I technically have to put something in to get something out. I can turn on the television, and I will absorb TV all day. That is perfect. The Internet, I have to usually put something in the Google search feed. I have to go on to Facebook and usually see what's trending or see what's trending on Twitter.

The idea here is that, yes, we are being fed that which we often love to see or read, but the idea that we don't have the ability to still search for things is what's upsetting, that we have now become so dependent on our feeds that we are now too lazy to then search out and seek out information on our own.

I remember the library. Remember that place? I tell my sons all the time that we were in a constant state of unknown in my childhood: "How many polar bears are in the world?" No clue. Now you just Google how many polar bears.

"How many countries are there in the world?" "I don't know. You have to go to the library."

There is no sense of unknowing now, so the idea that Facebook is going to stop giving me political content—guess what? You can still get it on your own. There is no one stopping you.

We teach about digital media literacy. You have to be digital media literate. You can't always be in what we call "cognitive consonance and cognitive dissonance." You have to be willing to read things that are against the ideas that you have stuffed in your brain. You have to be able to see the other side, know the other side, absorb the other side, and appreciate the other side.

I think we have to be mindful that the algorithms are real, what is being fed to us in our newsfeeds is real, but we have to take the extra step always to search, to seek out information that is relevant to us and not be as, again, lazy enough to only accept what we see. That's the problem.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Do you think, though, in a moment, especially coming out of the 2020 election, we are not seeking that diversity? If that's happening here in the United States and then multiply that by all the countries in the world, where does that leave us on a global scale? Do the tech giants then have to take on more responsibility to feed us better information? I hear you saying that it's the consumer's responsibility, and yet the consumer is lazy.

TIA TYREE: Yes. And that is exactly why there was a big pushback to Facebook again during summer 2020, where they were saying, "You're monetizing the hate." We can see, and we might be able to make a connection between that hate that was being talked about in the summer and magnified and showed itself in the Capitol riot, but people said: "You can't continue to accept ads from them. You can't continue to allow those groups to exist on your platform anymore." You have to be more conscious of what you're offering to users, because they are not going to be as savvy as some other people in the world.

So, yes, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and YouTube all have policies. But when things are out of alignment we have to be as users willing to say, "That's not right." You have to call someone, the lawmakers, the legislators, to be able to say: "This powerful giant"—

It's problematic. I remember we used to yell about the television and how all of those television conglomerates were owned by two or three people. Facebook is just as bad. So they have a responsibility, 100 percent, and people have been calling them out constantly. They are consistently dropping groups that are problematic.

But again, back to the user. Many of the people who were rioting were celebrating after and before on social media. They left a trail of breadcrumbs for us to know who they were, what they were thinking, and what they were doing. So just as it is important to watch what Facebook is doing, it is important for us to be mindful of what users are doing and how we handle those users.

TATIANA SERAFIN: We are talking a lot about Facebook and Twitter. I mentioned TikTok. Do you see any new platforms on the rise being used, especially when some groups are taken off certain platforms and are finding different homes in different places? Parler was a big one, and now they don't exist anymore, or maybe they will. Do you have any sense or do you see as you look out in the field any new things coming up, any new services?

TIA TYREE: No. Twitter used to be the activism mobilizer of choice, and TikTok has kind of taken that over because again youth activism is really what is pushing much of this, and most of the youth are now on TikTok. Again, you could see some of their work in the summertime with Trump's rally that was poorly attended because that was their effort to go ahead and purchase tickets, which they knew they were not going to use. That is just one example.

Again, so far TikTok has been the way to go. And because it is such a shareable platform. The idea of share—you can retweet, you can repost, but the nature of TikTok, being able to engage with someone else's content, being able to share someone else's content, and being able to side-by-side participate in someone's content is something that right now isn't very well matched in other places. So things can go more viral there because the ability to take, use, and reuse is teed up in an amazing way on TikTok.

Think about Snapchat. The idea of Snapchat is "I'm going to put this crazy thing out, and it's going to disappear." That's never going to work for activism. We need to build on something, and that is why TikTok is so incredible right now.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: One of the things about the platforms. You talk about TikTok being a platform of choice, and we saw efforts by the previous administration to try to invoke national security as a reason to get TikTok removed as a platform within U.S. jurisdictions, saying, "Well, this is connected to the Chinese state." We have seen obviously in other, particularly authoritarian, countries where YouTube gets banned, Twitter gets turned off. Even though Chinese government officials are on Twitter to speak to the rest of the world, Twitter is not allowed for use inside China.

Is there a concern that a platform becomes a platform of choice for activists and that power structures will then find a way to deprive people trying to organize access to that platform and then leaving movements high and dry? Or do you think that in this case if one platform gets shut down people will discover or create another one, and therefore you really can't stop—shutting a TikTok down, shutting Twitter down, suspending YouTube—as Turkey has done from time to time—doesn't overall impact the direction because as you shut down one digital source, another one can come up in its place? Do you have a sense there of the vulnerability of social activist movements to disruption of their tech platforms by, say, government action trying to deprive them of those connections?

TIA TYREE: A long time ago, state censorship was talking about television, radio, and newspapers. That was the extent to which we thought mass media censorship—that was the box. Again, because mass media has lost its total control over individuals and social media has taken that space, state censorship now has to move to the platform of choice of the people, and the platforms of choice are all social media. Then it almost becomes the target.

Do I believe that it is effective? Absolutely. We have seen time and time again where closures of platforms have made a difference in people's abilities to mobilize. You have to restart, or you have to refocus. So, yes, it matters.

But what I will say to you is that human beings are resilient. Human beings with a purpose are often unstoppable, and, yes, people who are thriving to make a change, who are dedicated to make a change, will find a new way to do it. So while it might stifle the moment, while it might change the date of a protest, eventually most people who are "sick and tired," as they say, will find a new way.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think what you also said earlier, circling back to an earlier point about the generational differences but also not just in terms of generational differences among news consumers and activists but also among officials, tying it back to what has happened in Russia over the last week. For years the Russian government pulled out all the stops to make sure that broadcast television was firmly under state control, and it turns out that Alexei Navalny's documentary, which would never see airtime on television channels, has had 70 million views on social media platforms.

The point that you raised earlier, which I think is also extremely critical, that all the way through Gen X perhaps we were told that there were steps you had to do, there were gateways, you had to go step one to step two to step three, and there were points where you could be segmented off. Now again, opposition movements and social movements can develop with leaders and activists who don't have to go through all of those same steps.

And governments I think, to the extent that—even in this country. We still have a Baby Boomer president who first entered the Senate in the early 1970s. As you said, older generations may adopt, but this isn't their natural place for where they think of media and engagement.

Again, tying all that with your students, with the movements both that you study but also that you are involved with, are you seeing the prospects in the next number of years for a significant generational change in politics and leadership, where we will say: "Look, the new generation will in fact be something different. It won't be a carbon copy of what came before" in American political parties and parties overseas? The Democratic Party, say, of 2030 is going to look a lot different precisely because of the generational and technological changes. It will not just look like the Democrats of 1970, 1980, 1990, or even 2000 or 2010.

TIA TYREE: I'll give you one example. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in the middle of one of her moments to talk about politics, went onto a gaming platform, played a game, and talked politics because that is a different place to reach a different audience. Years ago you would only see that happen on the six o'clock news or the evening news.

People are being addressed where they are. People are being energized politically in different places. Before it was: "My dad was a politician. I'm a politician." "My uncle was—" very much in the family. You had to know someone to know someone. That name got you elected, maybe not necessarily your politics.

I think now we are getting to a point where everyone feels like they can do it because they are being exposed to politics much younger. They are being exposed to this idea that I can make a difference through legislation, not just in the textbooks that we close up, but because we see it, we can appreciate it, and we can participate in it, again something social media allows the younger generation to do in a way that we couldn't do.

Our ability was that we voted when were 18. If we had one of those types of parents that marched, we might have gone. But we weren't political under the age of 18. That is different now.

What is also different is the smartphone. I love looking at this RadioShack ad every time it bubbles up on my computer. RadioShack had televisions, camcorders, smartphones, tape recorders, and CD players. That is all in this magical thing that is in our smartphone.

So these youth have computers in their hands. African Americans have captured things that we have long said existed in our country that no one wanted to believe. We have proof now of the political, social, and all types of issues that have plagued black folks in this world. We can prove it now easily.

Because now it is my experience, because now I can show it to you, and because of social media and the support I might gain now from this exposure, I feel more empowered. I feel like I can make a difference. And most of them are going to start leaning towards politics.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I do think it is not just Democrats—I know you mentioned that, Nick—but I think it is also Republicans. I think the empowerment comes across the board to, as you say, these digital natives, where you can find information. You have a problem or a question, you just ask Google. You ask Alexa, and you know the answer. Hopefully you fact-check the answer—I just have to throw that word out there, "fact-check"—but you feel knowledgeable as you said, which is such an interesting way to look at it.

So this generation that feels empowered and knowledgeable, then the next step is action. I think that is what we have been seeing. I called 2019 the "great year of protest." Never mind 2020.

What do you think we are going to see this year? Are we going to see more of it? What's your prediction? We are sitting here. January is almost over. What a January it has been. It has been one week of a new administration, as we started this podcast today talking about all of the changes in policy. What do you think? More protests? More of this?

Already in the new year we are seeing continuation in Belarus, in Poland protests against policies that we can see on our smartphones as they happen, even though there is a six, seven, eight-hour time difference. Is this going to continue? What do you see for 2021? A year of more protesting? The year that Gen Z takes political power? What is your 2021 prediction?

TIA TYREE: I never make predictions ever. I will never make a prediction.

What I will say is that social media has allowed, at least in the United States I think, the normalization of protest, the normalization of walking out of your house and saying, "I'm going to go down to this rally," something that we did not say five years ago. We were never comfortable putting on jeans, a backpack, a hat, and walking down some street with a sign. It wasn't our culture. Social media has taught us that this is a way that people make a difference.

Well, prior to the Civil Rights Movement, when was the last time you saw this many people in the United States taking to the streets for any reason? It's almost as if we have gone back in time and realized that there is a way to peacefully make a difference, and that has become very much the way things are done now. We are comfortable now protesting. We are comfortable now expressing our frustrations, not just at home, but publicly. And more importantly, because of social media our public outcries can be heard more than they ever were when we were in the 1960s, and we had to wait for a news camera or a reporter to come over, record, and possibly get through a gatekeeper to mass media.

So I would say again that with the context of social media, with the ability for us to mobilize so easily on social media, and the normalization of us taking to the streets I think that this is the new normal for us now in the United States and of course abroad.

TATIANA SERAFIN: That's so interesting. I was listening to some of the protesters in Russia say that they—more even so than here, where our freedoms are protected under the First Amendment right of assembly. There you are just not allowed to assemble. You are just not. You can get thrown into jail.

You had not just the youth there, but I think they averaged out that the 35-year-olds were also there. I think—in my positivity, Nick—that the youth are truly mobilizing older generations, the Millennials, the Gen Xers, to move with them so that there is this kind of reversal. Everything has always been top-down.

Now, because of social media, because of this empowerment, this is a bottom-up movement. I am almost, to your point, shamed. Why am I not out there? Why are you sitting at home? You need to be out there as well. I think that is what is really interesting, and we saw that happening. It's happening all around the world. Latin America as well.

In previous Doorsteps we spoke about all the youth movements. They are not always covered in the news here as much as they should be in The New York Times and on CNN. Yet I feel like there are connections on social media being made that we are not seeing or reporting on.

Do you think that's true? I'm curious about what you think about the global connections and global youth activism.

TIA TYREE: It's a matter of where you are looking. Something like BBC, or some other organization whose job is to make that global connection for us, is making those global connections. I think CNN World will look at that and say: "I see. I can connect the dots."

But again, it is where we are looking. Our local news, it is not their job to do that. If we are just in the CNN app, and we are looking at our U.S. homepage, we are not going to see that either.

I think it is going back to the point of you are going to only be fed on your smartphone that which the algorithm says we know you are going to like. So we have to then continuously fight to free our minds and take a moment to go outside of our comfort zone and watch or seek out information that we are not going to be force-fed. And we have to see our newsfeeds, our social media feeds, as something that is force-fed to us because it is exactly what we like, and we have to be mindful of that.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I am going to bring up one point, which I always bring up when talking about TikTok, global connections, and youth. We say in our Doorstep mandate that there is this borderless Internet that allows us to feel like we are truly global citizens. I know it sounds like a catchphrase, but I genuinely think that the digital native generation does not see a border wall. My 13-year-old Girl Scouts are learning Korean because they love K-pop. I brought this up a couple of times on The Doorstep, but I really believe it is that kind of borderless thinking that is going to lead to what we are seeing today.

Just yesterday, climate change policy, a reengagement of the United States with the world because we recognize that we can't go it alone. I think this absolutely has a connection from this bubbling up of this idea that there is no wall there. Yes, you can see a line on a map, but it's not really there because I am everywhere all at once. I'm in Australia. I'm in South Korea. I'm in Poland. I'm everywhere. I'm not just sitting here in my chair on Zoom.

TIA TYREE: It's so true. You never thought the penetration of an everyday person could happen in the way that it happens now—whether I thought I would share and do something silly and I go viral, whether I am a beautiful young poet laureate and I say some magical words out of my mouth, and I am memed and sent across the world, whether I am just having a moment, a very personal moment, that I share online and I transform someone's life, or I am a celebrity and being my performative self and making sense of my breakfast in a way that only other people can then suddenly want to eat.

The idea here is that we as individuals have the ability—within sometimes 280 characters, sometimes in one minute—to impact others, to inspire others, to enrage others, and to bring out all sorts of emotions. That is just an amazing place to be and live.

It was hard to break some type of language barrier in our music in the United States. It's English or it's nothing. But again, because of the nature of where we are, K-pop is big. So your daughter wants to be a part of that. She wants to understand that. And she can do it easily by downloading an app, things that just didn't happen for other generations.

So their ability to get information and to be a part of this global society is just astonishing compared to where we were decades ago, and that is something that will forever change how they act and interact. Hearing a foreign song won't be foreign to them. The idea of a foreign song is a concept that they won't even probably speak of.

So again, it's all the social media, the flattening of communication, the ability to make change in seconds, and the ability to see and understand other cultures in seconds is not something that we were able to do years ago.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think this has been a wonderful conversation. Thank you so much, Dr. Tyree. I think that we are going to be seeing more changes over the course of the year, and hopefully we will have you back to understand some of these changes as they happen.

TIA TYREE: Sounds wonderful.

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