Robert Jackman

Labour’s TikTok paranoia

Labour's TikTok paranoia
Image: Getty
Text settings

As if the Labour party didn’t have enough to worry about with its withering opinion poll ratings, yesterday’s Times reveals that party officials are warning MPs of another potential danger: malicious TikTok parodies.

The paper reports that Sir Keir himself is one of several Labour MPs whose names have been used by hard-left TikTok pranksters keen to cause trouble for the party’s Leadership. One user is apparently impersonating a shadow cabinet minister while using the antifa-linked slogan ACAB (all cops are bastards). Labour is now apparently lobbying the Chinese-owned video giant to remove the false accounts to avoid confusion.

Well, quelle surprise really. For all its runaway viral success (with some estimates that the platform has more than one billion users worldwide), TikTok has long been a bit of a hotbed for a certain kind of antagonistic teenage leftism that doesn’t take too kindly to Keir Starmer - the man who expelled Magic Grandpa. Or indeed 99 per cent of other politicians.

As with many of these things, the rise of performatory lefty TikTok is largely an import from the United States. It was there that the platform became beloved by junior Bernie Bros, seeking to savage the campaign of a similarly centrist politician - former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg - whose rise, at one point, made him the favourite to win the Democratic nomination.

In order to try prevent this centrist takeover, the leftists of TikTok turned ‘Mayor Pete’ into ‘Mayo Pete’, a nickname intended to highlight Buttigieg’s ‘whiteness’ and generally gauche demeanor (whilst presumably contrasting him unfavourably with Bernie: a man who no-one would ever call white, gauche or out-of-touch). To the delight of users, the meme eventually reached the real world media, even getting a response from the man himself.

Since then, emboldened lefty poseurs have used TikTok to sing the praises of Karl Marx, bop along to the Soviet Union anthem, and generally call out anyone perceived to be part of the oppressive bourgeois classes. The latter usually including anyone from privileged LA influencers and greedy student landlords to the man they’ve come to call ‘Keith’ Starmer.

Are the TikTok agitators seriously looking to impersonate centrist Labour MPs and hold them up to ridicule? I doubt any of their fellow users - most of whom are in their teens and highly internet-savvy - would seriously believe the accounts were run by shadow cabinet ministers. The aim, I suspect, is to get a laugh of the process itself.

Indeed, what’s fascinating about this whole thing is how closely it resembles the original ‘alt right’ at the time of its 2015 peak. Just like the leftist TikTokkers, the original alt-righters carved out territory on an upcoming internet platform (in their case, Reddit) and used it to incubate deliberately-inflammatory memes to rile their political enemies. And with plenty of success.

Even accounting for the particular idiosyncrasies of TikTok, the parallels are uncanny. It was the original alt-righters, for example, who came to call Donald Trump ‘Daddy’: a term now used by the TikTokkers to describe Karl Marx. And just as the alt-righters tried to ‘trigger’ their enemies by praising Augusto Pinochet, the TikTokkers gleefully extol the virtues of obscure thugs from the Soviet era. It’s the ideological equivalent of schoolkids Tippexing Satanic symbols on their school rucksacks.

The New York-based social scientist Joshua Citerella summarised the phenomenon perfectly. Writing in the Guardian, he notes how a new wave of meme-driven online polarisation has been ‘magnified by impressionable teenagers trying out new and transgressive political identities’. Teens who, in his words, ‘often signal-boost content that they themselves may not fully understand’.

That last point might be putting it lightly. Some TikTokkers have attracted a blowback, for example, for mocking ‘imperialist’ news reports about events in Xinjiang. In last week’s Spectator, Jenny McCartney revealed the rise of IRA TikTok, in which impressionable teens film themselves hurling rucksacks under empty cars and ‘signal-boosting’ the kind of slogans that would get you a lifetime ban from a Glasgow football stadium.

All that said, I suspect there’s a big difference between distasteful attention seeking and actual leftist fandom. On the latter, it's true that, more than a year since his whopping election defeat, Jeremy Corbyn remains a figure of reverence for a large number of gen-Y users on social media. And given that he enjoyed a 42 per cent (!) lead amongst under 24s at the last general election, that’s perhaps no surprise.

Is it all part of a secret plot to topple Keir Starmer and revive the glory years of free broadband, women-only train carriages and mealy-mouthed apologies about ‘all forms of racism’? I highly doubt it. Like a lot of things on TikTok, it’s probably best not to take it seriously. If indeed you bother with it at all.