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TikTok Is Shaping Politics. But How?

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As a place where millions of young Americans perform and explore their identities in public, TikTok has become a prominent venue for ideological formation, political activism and trolling. It has homegrown pundits, and despite its parent company’s reluctance to being involved with politics — the service does not allow political ads — it has attracted interest from campaigns. It is also a space where people can be gathered and pressed into action quickly.

TikTok was instrumental in the organization of a mass false-registration drive ahead of a Trump rally in Tulsa, Okla., where many seats were unfilled. It has amplified footage of police brutality as well as scenes and commentary from Black Lives Matter protests around the world, with videos created and shared on the platform frequently moving beyond it. They carry TikTok’s distinctive and wide-ranging audiovisual vernacular: often playfully disorienting, carefully edited, arch and musical. It has been suggested by many, including The New York Times, that TikTok teens will save the world.

The truth is more complicated. A team of researchers has been analyzing political expression on TikTok since, well, before it was TikTok. While nonusers of TikTok may think it’s bursting onto the political stage rather suddenly, and that it has something like a collective political identity, the research gives a different picture.

It depicts a diverse, diffuse and not nearly united community of millions of young people discovering the capabilities and limits of a platform that is, despite its many similarities with predecessors, a unique and strange place.

In an email exchange, Ioana Literat, an assistant professor of communication and media at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, an assistant professor of communication at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, discussed the characteristics of political expression on TikTok and why it feels like a novel phenomenon.

This interview has been edited.

The idea that TikTok is an engine for progressive young politics is gaining some currency among people who don’t use the platform. What might outsiders be surprised to find on TikTok, in terms of youth political expression? Is there anything resembling consensus?

Ioana Literat: I’ve noticed this tendency recently, not only on older social media like Twitter but also in the press. It plays into larger debates about youth civic attitudes — and especially youth civic attitudes online — which tend to verge between utopia and dystopia.

On the one hand, youth are hailed (or tokenized — think Greta Thunberg and the Parkland youth) as the future of democracy, for whom political expression comes easy. But on the other hand, people are worried about how they don’t show up at the polls, or fall prey to misinformation, or don’t care about newspapers anymore. And all of these are true; it’s not an either/or kind of situation.

Neta Kligler-Vilenchik: Extreme views, ranging from dystopian to utopian, are voiced not only in regard to youth, but also in regard to any media phenomenon that is significant and new. As early as Socrates’s concern that the written word would eradicate wisdom, every new technology has been believed to either be our savior (the internet will bring people around the world into one global community!) or our doom (robots will make us all unemployed!).

To me, this continuity is quite reassuring, because it shows us that our fears and hopes are not so much around the traits of the specific new technology, rather they are broad societal fears and hopes that are projected onto whatever technology is new and not yet understood. To most of its adult commenters, TikTok is a big unknown.

Dr. Literat: In terms of youth political expression, while there’s a dynamic and influential liberal activist community on TikTok, there’s actually plenty of conservative political expression, and pro-Trump voices definitely find an audience on the platform.

We found this to be true in our early research on Musical.ly, in the aftermath of the 2016 election, and it’s still true today on TikTok, as we’re gearing up for the 2020 election. On TikTok, you can find powerful political statements and activist organizing. You can find young people lip-syncing speeches by Trump or Obama (both earnestly and sarcastically). You can also find plenty of racist and sexist content, conspiracy theories and misinformation, and kids showing off their gun collections and posing with Confederate flags.

It’s hard to refer to what we see on the platform as consensus. Rather, we find that TikTok enables collective political expression for youth — that is, it allows them to deliberately connect to a like-minded audience by using shared symbolic resources.

Dr. Kligler-Vilenchik: Shared symbolic resources can be physical (MAGA hats), visual (the closed fist for the Black Lives Matter movement) or hashtags (#alllivesmatter). TikTok-specific elements like viral dances, popular soundtracks, etc. are also shared symbolic resources that help facilitate connections and foreground the collective aspects of youth political expression.

Are there novel ways in which political conflict unfolds on TikTok? It doesn’t seem to be especially well suited to the sorts of conflict we’re familiar with on some older platforms.

Dr. Literat: There’s relatively little crosscutting political talk (i.e. across partisan lines, with politically heterogeneous others). And when it does happen, it’s not very productive. It’s still a very polarized discussion of us v. them.

Something that’s pretty special about TikTok in terms of both political expression and political dialogue/conflict is that it’s all filtered through young people’s personal identities and experiences. Political dialogue on the platform is very personal, and youth will often state diverse social identities — e.g. Black, Mexican, L.G.B.T.Q., redneck, country — in direct relation to their political views.

Not to say that political talk on other social media platforms is not personal, but having done comparative analyses, we’re really struck by just how front-and-center youth identities are on TikTok.

Dr. Kligler-Vilenchik: If we return to the idea of collective political expression as the ability to speak to a like-minded audience through shared symbolic resources, we see that this enables at least the potential for a conversation across political views.

So, some users may choose to tag their video with #bluelivesmatter and speak to a certain audience. But they can also choose to tag their video with #blacklivesmatter, and that way reach a different audience, with a different view. Often this is done ironically, as a parody of others’ views (e.g., a video tagged #whitelivesmatter that goes on to explain the idea of white privilege), but it may also be a way to spark conversation between sides.

Lastly, if you’ve been able to check in, have you noticed anything surprising about youth expression on TikTok around BLM, racism and policing in the last few weeks?

Dr. Literat: The collective aspects of youth political expression — which materialize, for instance, in frequently used songs like Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” — are very salient in the context of BLM-related expression on TikTok.

Like hashtags, these songs function as connective threads among the videos. At the same time, there is such a wide variety in terms of style and ethos of expression, from anger to silliness to humor, from confessionals to original songs to footage of protests to memes to interviews or oral histories.

There’s also a sense of generational awareness and generational solidarity, which is connected to this concept of collective political expression. On footage of protests, you see a lot of comments like “Gen Z is changing the world,” “our generation is so powerful,” “I love our generation with all my heart” — which is really interesting because generations, and especially terms like Gen Z or Gen Alpha, are how outsiders (academics, commenters, brands, etc.) usually refer to youth.

It may be that youth are reclaiming these terms to assert their agency, or perhaps these larger societal discourses are seeping into youth discourse too.

Dr. Kligler-Vilenchik: Looking at what’s going on in the U.S. right now from outside (I’m in Israel), I’m struck by how these same hashtags are also used by people from outside the U.S. to support the Black Lives Matter movement and also connect it to localized instances of racism and anti-government protest.

In Israel, protests in solidarity with BLM were infused with the protest of Ethiopian-origin Israelis who suffer from racial discrimination and police brutality. This speaks to how TikTok enables young people to connect a personalized political message to a broader political moment.

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Can Facebook Ever Stop the Drama?

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This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it weekdays.

The words “crisis” and “Facebook” are practically joined at the hip. But the last month or two have been something else.

Facebook has dealt with an employee protest over how it handled inflammatory posts by President Trump, an advertiser boycott over hate speech in its online hangouts, and a scathing civil-rights audit that faulted Facebook for potentially deepening social polarization and fueling the harassment of vulnerable communities.

I spoke to Mike Isaac, who reports on Facebook for The New York Times, about the company’s decisions that helped set off the most recent drama, and what this crisis reveals about Facebook’s role in our lives.

Shira: How did this latest crisis start?

Mike: Beginning last fall, Facebook — and its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, in particular — made a series of decisions to give relatively free rein to posts by political figures, including President Trump, even if they said divisive or false things on Facebook.

That set of policy choices is the root of the advertising boycott of Facebook, and it was highlighted in the report that came out of a two-year civil rights audit of the company. Civil rights advocates and others believed that Facebook made a misguided choice to prioritize free expression of the powerful and ignore the harm that expression can cause for people with less power.

Facebook says it’s stuck between political conservatives who generally want the company to intervene less in what people say online, and those on the left who want it to intervene more. Do you agree?

I get that they’re in a no-win situation. But Facebook put itself in this position. It wants all the power and is doing all it can to keep it, and that means the company will have to make tough decisions and deal with the blowback — even if that blowback is inconsistent.

Are the criticisms now about Facebook actually misplaced anger from the left about Mr. Trump?

That’s an undercurrent, yes, but it doesn’t invalidate the structural problems that critics of Facebook have pointed out for a long time. Facebook has been completely inconsistent with how it referees politicians or other prominent people who say outrageous or misleading things, and it seems like they change their minds depending on the political moment.

Many of the popular, divisive Facebook posts aren’t from politicians. Is it misguided to focus on what elected officials post?

It isn’t, because what elected officials say has high-stakes consequences — if it makes people less likely to vote, for example.

Is Facebook a mirror on society, as the company says? Humans can be mean and divided, and that’s why Facebook is, too?

It’s not a one-to-one reflection of the world when one influential person — the political operative Roger Stone, for example, as we learned on Wednesday — can manipulate Facebook to spread a distorted view of the world to millions of people.

What might be the next drama for Facebook?

Private Facebook groups are a slow burning crisis in the making. Facebook and Zuckerberg have seen that people are gravitating more to these smaller, closed groups, where extremism can flourish in secret and it’s harder to monitor and moderate. Zuckerberg has said private groups are the future of Facebook, and that’s going to come with a host of problems.

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The great thing about Amazon is that it sells almost everything you might want. That’s also one of the most dangerous things about Amazon. And the company just showed that it knows this is a big risk for it and all of us.

You might not notice this when you’re shopping, but most of the stuff sold on Amazon doesn’t come from the company itself but from a sprawling network of merchants large and dinky that set up shop inside Amazon’s virtual mall. (This Crock-Pot for purchase on Amazon, for example, is sold by a merchant called Txvdeals. This one is sold by Amazon itself.)

These mostly unknown merchants give Amazon a larger variety of products than it could ever stock and sell on its own. They also create a dangerous Wild West.

Numerous investigations have found that these merchants have sold thousands of unsafe, sometimes illegal, products, including children’s toys containing lead. Companies complain that some of those sellers trick people into buying shoddy counterfeits, or manipulate Amazon reviews so we think products are better or more popular than they really are.

Amazon’s critics say the company has done far too little to protect shoppers from the rogue merchants. It’s a good bet that Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, will be asked about risky merchants when he and other big tech bosses testify at a congressional hearing later this month.

Amazon this week took a notable (and overdue) step that should slightly reduce the risk.

Merchants will soon be required to show their names and addresses on their Amazon profile pages. I know this doesn’t seem like a big deal, but until now merchants who sold on Amazon in the United States — although not in some other countries — were able to shield their business information from the public. That made it harder to hold those merchants accountable for bad behavior.

Some merchants will still find ways to stay anonymous, but this is a good and necessary baby step.

The question is whether Amazon can keep the best elements of its sprawling merchant network, while reining in the abuses that threaten to erode our trust in what we buy there. It’s a tall order.


  • “They encourage people to go from training wheels to driving motorcycles.” The trading app Robinhood says it wants to make financial investing available to a broad group of people. But my colleague Nathaniel Popper also found that compared to similar services, people on Robinhood make riskier investments at a faster pace — which exposes them to more losses. The structure of Robinhood, combined with technical glitches and a difficulty in getting help, has resulted in some heartbreaking consequences, Nathaniel writes.

  • People. Went. Wild. Tyler Blevins — known as Ninja, one of the world’s most popular video gamers — streamed himself playing the Fortnite game on YouTube, and video game fans lost their collective minds. If you needed proof that big-name video gamers can rival the popularity of stars from Hollywood or sports, Ninja just provided it, as my colleague Kellen Browning wrote.

  • A 73-year-old prophecy of our smartphone-addicted lives: A 1947 French film imagined how we would be glued to watching tiny screens as we drove our cars and walked around the world. This premise, posted by the blogger Jason Kottke, was based on the then-emerging technology of television, but it sure … seems familiar.

Please find a moment today to park yourself in the coolest spot in the house, as Feline Dion (!!!!) does in this video.


We want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this newsletter and what else you’d like us to explore. You can reach us at ontech@nytimes.com.

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Why Hollywood needs computer games tech more than ever

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Kim Libreri, an award-winning visual effects artistImage copyright
Getty Images

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The technology used in computer games is changing the way films are made, says Kim Libreri

Kim Libreri, an award-winning visual effects artist based in Northern California, has worked on movies including Artificial Intelligence and War of the Planet of the Apes.

For nine years he has been working with a piece of technology better known for computer games, in particular the smash-hit Fortnite.

The Unreal Engine, owned by Epic Games, provides the building blocks and tools that a computer game developer needs, but is increasingly an attractive technology for TV and film producers.

The latest version of technology, Unreal Engine 5, is coming out next year, and Epic has been heavily trailing its features.

It should allow visual effects artists like Mr Libreri to slot graphics and images straight into a scene, with little fuss.

“With traditional filmmaking, a director and cinematographer might shoot a scene on set -then down the line, hand footage and creative direction off to a team of virtual reality artists and designers, who enhance that material with visual effects and computer-generated imagery in a separate phase of production, Mr Libreri says.

Image copyright
Epic Games

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Directors can play with lighting and other effects inside a games engine

With Unreal Engine collaboration between the director, cinematographer, production designer and virtual reality teams can occur simultaneously as an interactive process on set.

“Unreal Engine 5 promises to further free the artistic process by making it easier to take virtual worlds developed for feature film and television, and run them in the game engine in real time,” says Mr Libreri.

Anthony Hunt, is the chief executive of Cinesite, a multinational digital entertainment group, whose visual effects film work includes blockbusters such as Avengers: Endgame, Independence Day: Resurgence, Iron Man 3 and more.

His company recently used Unreal Engine on a live stunt show for a theme park, which includes chase scenes, punishing fistfights, and death-defying leaps.

“It all happens right in front of you with live performers, interactive props and an immense LED screen – making it impossible to determine where the live-action ends and the screen begins,” says Mr Hunt.

The film industry has long borrowed tech from the computer games industry.

Games production processes like mapping out scenes in 3D through photography, storyboards and animatics run on similar systems to those used to build games.

But the challenges of producing films and television under lockdown restrictions is likely to accelerate the use of games technology.

Image copyright
PARAMOUNT PICTURES

Image caption

Dodger Stadium was recreated for Rocketman

For example game engines are particularly good for generating big crowd scenes.

“An extra has to be fed and clothed and housed on a film set. We can replicate huge crowd scenes with computer technology now and just have our main actors in the foreground,” says Mr Hunt.

A good example of this a scene in Rocketman, the musical fantasy about Elton John’s breakthrough years.

One scene was set in Dodger Stadium, but in reality actor Taron Egerton performed the scene at Shepperton Studios. The crowds used were 3D graphics designed to be parts of a larger scene.

Computer-generated scenery can be combined with LED walls – giant screens made up of individual displays.

“LED walls are becoming more popular in film and television production because they allow filmmakers to capture visual effects in camera, and manipulate digital objects in a scene in real time,” says Mr Libreri.

“LED panels as those we’ve seen with Disney’s The Mandalorian (a science fiction TV series and part of the Star Wars family) will be a huge benefit to on-set production once restrictions start to lift, as filmmakers can reduce travel by creating photorealistic digital backgrounds to mimic any location,” he continues.

Image copyright
Disney/Lucasfilms

Image caption

Disney’s Mandalorian used a games engine and LED walls

“When the physical filming restrictions are lifted, directors will have a clear plan of what and how to shoot their film/TV series because they will have done so in the computer already,” says Mr Hunt.

What will all this mean to the actors, crew and support staff who work in the industry?

“There is a possibility that production crew needs will alter somewhat. Some roles may change with the ongoing use of CGI, perhaps other roles will be created,” Daniel Green, director of the Master of Entertainment Industry Management Program at Carnegie Mellon University says.

When production returns to normal, the industry will need to be unified and make changes to assure that safety is paramount says Dr Green.

Studio executives and producers will no longer be making decisions solely based on artistic vision and production costs.

“They will now be in close consultation with public health officials to make sure that crews, actors, and staff can have a work environment that is safe and secure,” he says.

Mr Green also points out that CGI creates realistic worlds which are fun, but good story-telling is still the key.

“The use of CGI and virtual production as in The Lion King remake can augment what can be shown on the screen, but at the end of the day, audiences are still going to want to be entertained by a story that captivates them.”

Image copyright
Getty Images

Image caption

James Dean on the set of Giant

Travis Cloyd, chief technology officer of CMG Worldwide, a company that represents 1,700 celebrities, athletes, musicians, brands and historical figures, sees another use for games engines.

A great business opportunity lies in “resurrecting” historical figures and famous people of the past like James Dean or Rosa Parks via digital twins, according to Mr Cloyd.

“These famous people have a prebuilt awareness,” he says. “They will always resonate with the audiences and the expansion of new platforms amidst the pandemic will bring new opportunities to use them in a plethora of media,” Mr Cloyd says.

Technology like the Unreal Engine is likely to be used in that process.

Movie making is of course a business, so the hope will be that new technology will save time and money.

“Fewer things will need to be worked out on set and in post-production, and there will be less need for travel and expensive location shoots,” says Mr Libreri.

“Once people experience this new way of working,” Mr Libreri continues, “they will find that it is much more efficient and cost-effective”.

“It is safe to say that virtual production is here to stay,” he says.

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Harley-Davidson’s ‘Rewire’ plan starts with 700 jobs cuts, ousted CFO

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Questions remain about its future electric lineup

Harley-Davidson, the storied and struggling Milwaukee-based company that last year launched its first production electric motorcycle in an effort to reboot sales and appeal to a younger customer base, is cutting 700 jobs from its global operations. About 500 workers will be laid off before the end of the year, the company said Thursday.

The company’s CFO John Olin is also out, effective immediately. Harley-Davidson’s current VP Treasurer Darrell Thomas has taken over as interim CFO until a successor is appointed. “Significant changes are necessary, and we must move in new directions,” Harley Davidson Chairman, president and CEO Jochen Zeitz said in a statement.

Harley-Davidson has branded its job cuts and restructuring plan “The Rewire,” which Zeitz spoke about in the company’s first-quarter earnings call back in April. At the time, Zeitz said the company was still committed to its other strategic plan known as “More Roads” that aimed to make the manufacturer an accessible, global brand through marketing and dealership initiatives and a series of new products that included small displacement motorcycles for Asia markets and EVs starting with the LiveWire.

Still, Zeitz declared back in April it was time for a change.

“As a result of my observations and assessment, I’ve concluded that we need to take significant actions and rewire the company now in terms of priorities, execution, operating model and strategy to drive sustained profit and long-term growth,” he said in April. “We are calling it The Rewire. And it’s our playbook for the next few months, leading to a new five-year strategic plan, which we will share when visibility to the future returns.”

Visibility into the future has apparently returned, and in Harley-Davidson’s view it’s time to cut costs and possibly get back to its core products. Initial Rewire actions are expected to result in restructuring costs of about $42 million in second quarter of 2020, Harley-Davidson said in its announcement Thursday. The company plans to share a summary of The Rewire, including additional costs and expected savings, when it releases its Q2 results. The Rewire will set the foundation for a new 2021-2025 strategic plan which is expected to be shared in the fourth quarter.

Harley-Davidson has seen its sales drop in recent years in the U.S., its largest market as its core Baby Boomer customers have gotten older. The COVID-19 pandemic dampened sales further and the company has already cut back production, which resulted in dozens of job cuts last month at its factories in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. The push into EVs and products for Asian countries aimed to expand into new markets and breath new life into Harley-Davidson.

It’s unclear is how “The Rewire” might affect the company’s push into EVs. The LiveWire, which launched last fall, was supposed to lead a future line-up of EVs planned by Harley-Davidson — spanning motorcycles, bicycles and scooters. Harley-Davidson has not responded to a request for comment; TechCrunch will update the article if the company responds.

The statement from HD makes no specific mention of EVs. It only said the key elements of its restructuring plan was to enhance core strengths and better balance expansion into new spaces, prioritize the markets that matter, reset product launches and build up its accessories and merchandising businesses.

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