What Is Social Justice In 2020, As Defined By TikTok

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TikTok has come under fire recently: the president is currently talks of banning the app entirely for being "Chinese spyware" and older generations accuse the app’s teenagers of promoting “ageism” with “OK Boomer” joke

While the app has always been a hit with Gen Z, the platform’s user base has become so big that it can no longer be defined by its earlier, supposedly “superficial” and “cringey” image. Since quarantine forced everyone to isolate, the app now has over 500 billion users, with a 27% increase in downloads from February to March. 

And all while TikTok grows bigger, and while quarantine grows longer, U.S. civil rights abuses only become more apparent.

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According to polls, the demonstrations incited by George Floyd’s murder are the largest protests in United States history, with nearly 15 million to 26 million participating in the marches against police brutality.

The ongoing protests have forced legislators, commissioners, and local government to become accountable for how they participate in upholding systemic racism. 

With how many people there are on the app, there is no denying the role TikTok, with its near-instantaneous and viral content platform, has played in redefining what social justice looks like today. 

What is social justice?

While the 60’s civil rights and anti-war movement is the most recent historical mass protest that comes to mind, social justice, of course, has changed to both the times and the circumstances. 

Social justice and activism are no longer confined to public demonstrations (which are still incredibly important), not because they aren’t effective, but because social media has changed the ways people can participate. 

The U.N. report “Social Justice in an Open World” describes social justice as a “recent and politically charged term.”

This may be because the U.N. notes how social justice has recently become more closely tied with not only in terms of the law but also in terms of distributive inequality. 

Distributive justice, or distributive inequality, attempts to redress social ills that put certain groups at a lower starting point than others. Social justice then specifically targets systemic issues: race-related poverty, police brutality, affirmative action. 

TikTok’s social presence, then, might actually be indicative of not only how Gen Z has grown more involved in politics, but the way they engage.

A lot of TikTok user activism focuses on righting inequality through re-examining social systems normally taken for granted: a popular tag on the app called #privilegecheck showcases that, in which users share instances in which the system worked in their favor and ways it actively targeted them. 

Social justice and redistributive justice has been framed by politicians as a “young person” issue.

Gen Z, while too new of a generation to tell, are largely characterized by what many older generations call their entitlement, their level of education. But more importantly, they are also identified by their diversity and commitment to social activism. 

How has social justice evolved with Gen Z?

Well, social media has become a powerful tool for many obvious reasons: it's a place where a majority of information gathering, organizing, and donation campaigning have taken place. 

But more importantly, social media has become the to-go place for crowdsourced social education. 

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Social justice efforts in 2020

The biggest demonstration by far was the Black Lives Matter Movement in response to the murder of Ahmad Arbury, George Floyd, Tony Mcdade, and Breonna Taylor, to name only a few. 

In addition to the protests, however, people on and offline talked about ways in which anti-Blackness exists in more insidious, and less noticeable ways. People have shared resources, experiences, and academic material to educate others on how racism has become ingrained in the very fabric of our culture. 

2020 especially forced us to look at what constitutes long-term activism.

Conde Nast and Bon Appetit’s scandal showed us how corporations will use diversity and activism as a way to sell a brand, yet also go out of their way to further cement systemic injustice into white-collar workplaces. 

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Additionally, long-term activism warrants drastic overhauls of bureaucratic systems that have run our lives. While police killed George Floyd July, racism and classism in healthcare have made themselves more than apparent much earlier on during the pandemic.

The virus disproportionately affects low-income Black and Latino communities, yet there have been countless times in which these communities have been denied care during times of need. 

Efforts such as Marsha P. Johnson Institute and Assata’s Daughters hope to address this issue by appealing for more crisis care, more relief funding, as well as community aid. 

RELATED: 10 Powerful Marsha P. Johnson Quotes That Remind Us To Keep Working Towards Justice For All

What social justice looks like on TikTok

So what does social justice look like on TikTok? While the platform always had politically active users, the app rose to prominence during the Black Lives Matter movement after the surge of socially-minded content made the public rethink the app’s image of dancing teenagers. 

TikTok users, after claiming to play a role in President Trump’s low attendance in the campaign rally in Tulsa Oklahoma, reflect how young adults are using TikTok’s almost instantaneous virality and inside language to quickly mobilize, educate, and spread awareness. 

Social justice in 2020 seems to be about fighting back against ingrained, oppressive ideas. User activism then doesn’t just capitalize on the app’s viral model, a lot of the activism is done often against the grain of the app itself. 

While TikTok itself has come out and claims that a lot of their denoted and detagged videos for the Black Lives Matter movement is a “technical glitch,” many users note how their socially charged content has often been taken down or “shadowbanned,” meaning TikTok prevents the video from showing up on a lot of user’s pages. 

This concern is backed with previous accusations of ByteDance, the China-owned company, censoring Tiktoks on anti-Beijing protests in Hong Kong on their app. 

So activism on TikTok is less about how the platform itself forwards social issues, but how the user has taken social awareness into their own hands.

Users have adapted and utilized the format of the app to spread a message, even when the platform itself seems to be working against them at times.

Tags such as #allyship, #blackownedbusinesses, and #BlackLivesMatter have become trending topics, and are popular ways people on the app share information. 

Many users have become incredibly popular for combining comedic and artistic content with what people see as “political” activism.

Jax James, or @fatraco0n on TikTok, has over 1.7 million TikTok followers and makes quick, funny, but incredibly articulate videos on key social issues. Many were shocked to find out she is 17 and still finishing up her last year of high school. 

@fatraco0n

This had me so tight, who’s mom do I look like? ##fyp ##foryou ##foryoupage ##foryourpage

♬ original sound - fatraco0n

Aisha Rae, or @arbacn on TikTok, has over 1.8 million followers, and also shows how TikTok’s short-form videos use humor to forward succinct messages on political activism.

@arbacn

we’re the generation of change

♬ original sound - arbacn

@naomiibrookk, or Naomi, has over 3.2 million followers, and in addition to beauty and lifestyle videos, comments on how race affects every aspect of society and influencer culture. She put out a video on George Floyd, saying: “Our skin is not a weapon.” 

RELATED: 5 Ways You Can Make A Difference In The Fight To Gain Justice For Victims Of Police Brutality And Systemic Racism

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Jessica is a writer who covers LGBT issues, books, media, and culture.