Presidential Election of 2022: TikTok, new HQ of electoral influence?

Published on 08/03/2022

For a long time, the media have adapted to politicians (suggested formats, controlled airtime, subjects approved in advance by the ministerial teams…).

Today it is the opposite. We are witnessing a small revolution. The rise of new digital platforms is forcing politicians to be up to date. The objective? Avoid at all costs to look out of touch, or even worse, old-fashioned! First Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and now TikTok are imposing their rhythm. With the presidential election coming up, digital platforms are reshuffling the deck and TikTok is definitely leading the way!

TikTok, the goose that lays the golden eggs during the election period

Beyond being a content creation platform that invites to let go and to a freedom of tone, TikTok is also and above all the guarantee to reach a strategic audience. Last September, a study by the Montaigne Institute reported that 55% of 18-24 year olds could not indicate a partisan preference. In concrete terms, during the last regional and departmental elections in June 2021, 80% of young people abstained. 64% of young people showed « signs of political disaffiliation », much more than their parents (40%) and baby boomers (36%). In 2021, 70% of them considered that politicians « are corrupt ». At the same time, TikTok has largely won the day in terms of youth engagement! In two years, the billion-user platform has attracted 8 million subscribers in France, a quarter of whom are from « Gen Z ». With a public that spends on average a little more than an hour a day on the platform, it is understandable that the political class sees this as a big gamble.

Politicians or influencers?

Times are changing and so are our politicians. Since the beginning of the campaign and for our greatest pleasure we can see Marine Le Pen struggling with her cat to save her Christmas garland on a Mariah Carey tune, Valérie Pécresse offering us a facecam portrait of Molière and her legendary theatrical exits or Fabien Roussel swaying with spirit during a pre-meeting in Réunion.

But the one who certainly puts all his rivals to shame in this war over audiences is our Minister of Transport Jean-Baptiste Djebbari. He introduces us to the latest trends even before the biggest influencers and easily accumulates millions of views on each of his videos. He uses to his advantage all the codes of the platform: relaxed posture at the back of his chair, hands in pockets, sunglasses, selfies featuring his life as a minister, use of filters without fear of silliness all on the latest trendy sounds of the platform: « We could have been so good together », « okayyy lets go », « I will love you either way », are all music used in mass by Internet users. Each of them tells a story and today they tell the story of the political class too.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon has understood this. In 1 month, his audience has increased by more than 40%. After his media appearance on TPMP facing Eric Zemmour, the tiktok of the clash between the two presidents of parties went viral. From 1.1 million subscribers before the show, the candidate of France Insoumise went to 1.4 million. A spectacular increase that shows the right strategy to adopt to survive on the platform: that of alternating the content and form (technique also used by Marine Le Pen).

Politicians and TikTok, ransom of glory or fatal liaisons?

The interest of the Chinese platform for the political class is quite obvious. Beyond being a privileged way to reach the youth, the objective is broader: to respond to a crisis of confidence. And yes, by its fun aspect, TikTok content allows to create real connections with a community. Breaking out of the straitjacket of the politician who uses vertical communication has never been so easy (as long as you master the codes). The platform is the perfect place to restore one’s reputation with an electorate that is still very undecided in the run-up to the presidential election. It allows politicians to get out of their position of knowledge, to make themselves more accessible, to present themselves in a more authentic communication and especially to make themselves more sympathetic. Through self-mockery, they manage to spread messages to a public that would never have paid attention to their speech behind a desk!

Eric Zemmour recently revised his copy and made a 360° turn in his content strategy. Gone are the classic political formats of speeches and the reposts of capsules of his media interventions, the polemicist now opts for good vibe content! He’s moving away from content and putting the emphasis on form. Always smiling and often joking, he gives us access to the backstage of his campaign with tennis matches or videos filmed in the back of his car. And it works, the audience is reactive with several thousand viewers, even millions for each video.

« The interest of the Chinese platform (TikTok) for the political class is quite obvious. Beyond being a privileged way to reach the youth, the objective is broader: to respond to a crisis of confidence. »

For Fabien Roussel or Nathalie Arthaud the transition to TikTok is a little less smooth. It’s « can do better ». The contents remain rather classic, too institutional and do not really manage to find their place in this universe of derision, lightness and proximity within which you have less than 8 short seconds to seduce your audience. They are pretty much identical to what you can see on a classic Twitter account and have nothing innovative. The wow effect is not there and views are capped. Emmanuel Macron (one of the first politicians on the platform), despite his somewhat classic content, manages to escape this curse by capitalizing on his presidential popularity. As an exception to the rule, he focuses on the content and not on the form and evokes subjects that affect the young people present on the platform such as school bullying or endometriosis. His publications are rare, but still gather a very significant audience with each new publication!

It is interesting to note that not all candidates are present on the app. Anne Hidalgo, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan or Jean Lassalle are for the moment absent. Some of them are obviously still rather cautious and prefer to keep their distance from this new way of communicating which they obviously do not want to risk. Indeed, if the time is human in theory on TikTok it can quickly become « the big red stain ». Marlène Schiappa has learned this the hard way. From its first publication, the Minister Delegate for Citizenship has tried to parody JP Fanguin. A bright idea that came back to her in boomerang. His now famous « Hi young entrepreneur » has not been able to convince and the minister has finally wiped a lot of ridicule.

The beginning of the end of thought?

But then what is it that mobilizes the youth in this? Does the political fame of TikTok mechanically translate into an electoral success story? Is the platform really a way to involve and politicize young people? Nothing is less sure. In any case, the politicians gain at least on one level, that of visibility with a new public. But at what price?

The duration of a TikTok is between 10 seconds and three minutes, so the window of opportunity is quite slim to reach the grail: #Goviral. The shorter and more incisive the content, the better it works. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s a bit borderline, but always light. It’s not really the easiest way to express yourself if you want to defend ideas. So can political speech really adapt to these standards without losing credibility, without losing substance? For a few years, politicians have been competing in good words, in short sentences. The little phrase marks, imprints and is sometimes transformed into a gimmick or even an advertising slogan, but does not allow to get into the essence of a subject.

Catchphrases and staging are precious tools in the race for likes: they allow to multiply the social media impact – but from a political credibility point of view, it is more risky. Public speech is undoubtedly giving way more and more to communication, to the art of the spectacular, to entertainment. The little phrases come little by little to depoliticize the discourse and often stop any argumentation. Gone is the confrontation of ideas, public opinion is now built on the culture of the punchline, it is the domination of form over content. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 marked the consecration of the politics of entertainment.

So, what weight will Tiktok have in this French presidential election? See you on April 10, 2022 to know if a follower/voter transition will take place.

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