Oct. 1, WASHINGTON – As TikTok continues growing in the United States, hundreds of thousands of users have found their niche. These groups, affectionately titled for their content — #FrogTok for frog content, as an example – provide a place for creators to voice their opinions and spotlight the things they care about most. #PoliTikTok (Political TikTok) is no different.
Mahala Howard, 18, is an undergraduate in Columbus, Ohio, who lives on Political TikTok, and devoted her presence to discussing police brutality, systemic racism, and the coming election. Her page recently saw a spike in views as she said she noticed that the protests against police brutality and support of black lives were a trend.
“Now, my point of being on TikTok is trying to help educate and spread awareness,” Howard said. “And just talk about things that I don’t feel like some people are talking about anymore.”
Howard has focused on creating a presence on the app centered around megaphoning the protests and their purpose. She has also been creating viral moments – some of which were removed by the company for violating community guidelines. Most recently, a TikTok about a local police officer accrued over 2 million views on the platform.
“I had gotten more comments saying, ‘hey, I feel like the police are watching everything that you post,’” Howard said, “and that’s not a lie.”
Howard noticed that the video of that conversation, and videos she uploaded of other gatherings with the consent of those filmed, were being discussed in investigations. These videos, according to those contacted by the Columbus Police Department were included in interviews.
Once Howard was made aware, she began publicizing Detective R. Schueler’s actions on her growing platform. Howard published his public desk phone number, alongside her description of why she knows that officers are on her platform.
“I just – I know that Columbus plays dirty,” Howard said. “And so since then, I’ve been trying to post videos like that”
According to the department, Columbus officers have been clear about their growing social media presence, shifting their officers to investigate social media in search of individuals linked to crimes. However, individuals at the Columbus Police Department have been under fire as recently as June of this year for their use of TikTok. In one instance, these officers were reportedly brandishing weapons on their personal TikTok account. Accompanying that post was a caption that said: “when looters and rioters threaten to come into the suburbs.”
Now, the platform seats budding creators of various ages and political factions. Conservatives and liberals make the platform their own, sharing content with a growing number of audience members. A point that Howard is clear to make.
“But it’s kind of like a cultural thing like it unites us. And if it does, well it already has been sold, but if it does change,” Howard said, “I feel like will lose something that connects all of us and it will definitely change my platform, being a political one will definitely disappear.”
Nevertheless, Howard’s concern is not only for herself. Several friends and fellow protestors report several antagonistic conversations between young women and Schueler. In one recording, Schueler was recorded telling a friend of Howard that she will have any potential charges upgraded to a felony charge. The condition to avoid the increased charge was attending an interview with the detective. At the time of the recording, she was not in police custody, investigation, served a warrant, subpoena, or under arrest.
Howard said that these stories highlight a second purpose for TikTok – citizen journalism. Users who populate the political areas of TikTok use every tool at their disposal, promoting their activism one video at a time. Stories that may be lost to other media outlets find a home on the social media platform. That, Howard says, is the core of their action. Especially the actions of fellow white political TikTokers.
“I want to speak out because I’m white, and I have privileged that is a fact that is indisputable,” Howard said, “I have white privilege and if I use my privilege to speak out on the lack of other people’s privilege. I feel as though it helps in a way if that makes sense.”
The Columbus Police Department did not respond to a request for comment before this story could be produced.
This story was produced in pursuit of a Masters of Professional Studies in Journalism from Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies.