Gun Violence and Global Warming: Teens Are Using TikTok to Fight Back
When no one will listen to your impassioned pleas, the next best thing is to make a funny video containing your concerns go viral
Shrill synth bleeps of British electro-pop duo La Roux’s 2009 hit ‘Bulletproof’ ring out as a tousle-haired teenager in a green Adidas t-shirt looks off-camera. He searches for a bulletproof vest on Google. Then, the chorus kicks in: the video reverts into disco mode — neon lights flash and protective vests scroll across the screen — as our protagonist gyrates and theatrically sings the lyrics: “This time baby, I’ll be bulletproof”.
The subtext is grim. On the morning of 3 August 2019, a lone gunman walked into a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, killing 22 people and injuring 24 others. The following day nine others were killed at another shooting in Dayton, Ohio. According to a database compiled by Mother Jones, this year alone at least 57 people have been killed and 78 wounded in mass shootings in the US.
One reaction might be to retreat into hushed silence and to avoid talking about the elephant in the room. But instead, teenagers are taking to TikTok to grab the elephant by the trunk and — flamboyantly, creatively, and sometimes unblinkingly seriously — use the platform it provides to address issues like gun violence to a mass audience.
“I had no intentions other than kind of spreading awareness of the fact that we have come to the level of making bulletproof backpacks for school,” says Joshua Mannila, the 15-year-old from Oregon who made the Bulletproof video, which has been liked more than 300,000 times.
More than five million combined views have been racked up under the #darkhumour and #schoolshooting hashtags. One meme plays out to the lighthearted, funk rock track ‘Come And Get Your Love’ by Redbone as shooters interrupt a maths class or workers in the Twin Towers during 9/11.
Another mocks the dubious claims that video games are behind gun violence as one user pulls out a pistol after a simulated trade deal with Thailand goes awry. Others critique dramatic reactions to how girls dress themselves compared with those to shootings, and institutionalised Islamophobia in the US.
“Memes are political participation — that’s what’s happening here,” says Dr Jemma Gilboy, a senior lecturer Nottingham Trent University who has carried out research into meme theory. “Visual memes especially allow a greater integration between politics and popular culture. With TikTok, the ability to add pop music reinforces this self-ownership, another route by which they can make their voices, but, like with shitposting, it adds new levels of relatability for others.”
“In the context of gun violence, these TikTok users may be feeling that they can see and hear it happening but don’t otherwise have any power to stop it”
According to Arielle Baskin-Sommers, assistant professor of psychology at Yale University, the humor in these videos doesn’t detract from how serious the issues are being taken.
“For some people, humor is an effective coping strategy — not to get rid of negative feelings but to be able to express them in a way that doesn’t feel as intense,” she says. “Humor can also be a way to disarm other people, particularly when you’re talking about a serious issue.”
At its core, these young TikTok users are grasping the chance to have their voices heard where in the past they wouldn’t have the opportunity.
“You saw, for example, after the Parkland shootings, that the kids used their platform and publicity to talk about those issues even though they weren’t of voting age yet,” adds Baskin-Sommers. “They talked about how it was good to express themselves, and perhaps influence the next generation of voters. In the context of gun violence, these TikTok users may be feeling that they can see and hear it happening but don’t otherwise have any power to stop it.”
Climate activism, too, has become a meme, highlighting the gaping disjuncture that has emerged between the actions of national governments and the beliefs of younger generations — as personified by Greta Thunberg. Under the #globalwarning hashtag, which has already received more than 30 million views, TikTok users are spreading awareness for global warming and its grim impact on the planet
Most follow a simple format: fast-cut, decade-by-decade segments show the likely effects of global warming such as the gradual death of flowers or animals, people choking on plastic waste, and water supplies running out.
“Younger people are more likely to listen to other younger people, not politicians who they can’t relate to”
“I filmed this video to raise awareness about the gravity of the situation that we are facing and encourage people to take action,” says Anna Bogomolova, a 21-year-old from Russia, whose climate TikTok has received more than two million likes. “The planet was polluted by our ancestors but it is our generation’s job to fix this.”
Hana Martin, a 16-year-old student from South Wales, painted a make-up design on her face and neck showing an ocean teaming with sealife, before it transforms and becomes overwhelmed with toxic waste. “I feel that younger people are more likely to listen to other younger people, not politicians who they can’t relate to,” she says.
But if TikTok is the sincere medium, whose users like to sing and dance and speak about the problems of the world, the onus is also on it to help those same users who are struggling with issues of violence or mental health. “There needs to be a more efficient response from these platforms when there are warning signs,” says Baskin-Sommers. “We know these platforms are already pushing adverts based on what we’re writing, so why not use that approach to detect those who need help?”
TikTok declined to comment on the record for this story when contacted but said that it was encouraged to see users raising positive awareness on certain topics and that, pointing to its Community Guidelines, promoting a safe and positive platform is a priority.
Yet although the app is currently under investigation in the UK over whether it prioritises the safety of children, it continues to be an invaluable outlet for some of its young users in one of the more turbulent periods of history.
“It’s so easy to go viral on TikTok compared to other platforms,” says Joshua Mannila, of Bulletproof fame. “The platform has a majority of teens, like me, who find it relatable and are using TikTok to respond to these serious issues themselves.”