When Raisha Doumbia, a 20-year-old swimming instructor in Roswell, Ga., first downloaded the video-sharing app TikTok, she made lighthearted posts, like her lip-syncing and dancing to a song by the British girl group Little Mix.
But Doumbia paused the playful routines after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis. Now she is using her TikTok feed to urge followers to march for racial justice.
"I was just so disgusted that I felt like I needed to say something, so I started to speak out, even though I had like 13 followers," she said.
Soon, she had more than 60,000 followers as her videos in support of the protests gained traction.
"So many had a blind eye to racial injustice, especially young people who aren't even being taught about it and their parents aren't talking about it," Doumbia said. "So it's really beneficial for the next generation to be experiencing it on TikTok."
Advocating for racial justice, 30 seconds at a time
Doumbia is far from alone. Videos with the #blacklivesmatter hashtag have skyrocketed to a top spot on TikTok, accruing more than 6 billion views in recent days. Other popular hashtags include #blackvoices and #blackmusic.
Some prominent white TikTok users are contributing to the movement, like Charli D'Amelio, a 16-year-old TikTok superstar who lives in Norwalk, Conn. She normally posts dance videos. But in the wake of George Floyd's death, she told her 60 million fans that she was having a somber moment of reflection.
"As a person who has been given the platform to be an influencer, I realized that with that title, I have a job to inform people about the racial inequalities in the world right now," she said in a recent video.
Analyst Deborah Aho Williamson of eMarketer, who studies social media trends, said many TikTok users are so young that they have yet to reckon with weighty issues like police brutality and racial bias.
"For the first time, they might be exploring how they feel about these issues and being able to do that on TikTok and see other young people who are expressing similar things, I think it's really valid and valuable," she said.
Teens and 20-somethings have flocked to TikTok in the two years that it has been available in the U.S. It gained an even bigger following as many people stayed at home because of the coronavirus pandemic. In recent months, TikTok has emerged as the most-downloaded app in the world, outpacing Zoom, WhatsApp and Facebook.
Something can go viral nearly instantaneously on many social media platforms, but TikTok stands out for how rapidly a user can acquire a large following after sharing just a single video that strikes a chord, Aho Williamson noted.
Short and breezy videos that are funny or feature animals or cooking trends typically dominate TikTok, yet national upheaval over systemic racism has tapped into raw emotion that is also deeply resonating.
All of a sudden, TikTok has become the go-to forum for burgeoning youth activism.
"Anger, dismay, disgust and unhappiness are all feelings that can be easily transmitted on a video on Tik Tok," Aho Williamson said.
Black creators accuse TikTok of suppression
Activism arrived on TikTok just as scrutiny of its parent company, the Chinese-owned ByteDance, intensified.
As protests began to sweep the nation, black creators noticed that videos tagged #GeorgeFloyd or #BlackLivesMatter were hard to find, or looked as though no one had watched them despite a torrent of views.
To some users, it was a suspicious development, considering that ByteDance has been accused of censoring videos of anti-Beijing protests in Hong Kong, in addition to having been exposed for previously suppressing posts from users deemed too unattractive or undesirable for the platform.
TikTok insists that is not what happened in posts related to Black Lives Matter. In an about-face, the company apologized and blamed the problem on a "technical glitch."
"Nevertheless, we understand that many assumed this bug to be an intentional act to suppress the experiences and invalidate the emotions felt by the black community. And we know we have work to do to regain and repair that trust," said Vanessa Pappas, TikTok's general manager for the U.S.
Many black TikTok users still remain skeptical of the company's intentions, said Kadisha Phillips, a social media strategist with Carbon Clutch, Inc.
"This caused some real reputational damage in the black TikTok creator community," Phillips said. "And making matters worse is that users are still reporting that videos are being removed or suppressed."
Doumbia said she is good exapmle of this. She had gained a sizable following from her videos related to the George Floyd protests, although many of her recent posts about police brutality and street demonstrators are being seen by just a sliver of her audience.
It's a practice that has become known as shadow banning, when TikTok quietly demotes someone's videos, and black creators like Doumbia feel like the app is targeting them. It is an accusation that has been lodged by many on TikTok, with the hashtag #shadowbanned having received more than 127 million views on the platform.
"It just doesn't make sense that I have tens of thousands of new followers who came to me for videos about the protests, but I only get like 500 views on the posts," she said. "It just doesn't make any sense to me."
Doumbia also points to the main feed on the app, known as the For You page. It's a personalized mix of accounts that a user chooses to follow and videos TikTok thinks they will enjoy based on other videos they've liked or watched.
Lately, though, Doumbia said a curious thing has been happening.
"I only like Black Lives Matter posts, but I don't see any posts on my For You about Black Lives Matter, so it seems like they are still covering it up because it's too political for them," Doumbia said.
She has begun doing videos explaining why she distrusts the app.
A TikTok spokesperson denied to NPR that the company engages in shadow banning.
"Like virtually all social platforms, our recommendations take into account users' preferences based on things like the creators they follow and the videos they engage with," the TikTok spokesperson said. "TikTok's systems also work to intersperse recommendations that might fall outside these expressed preferences to give an opportunity to discover new categories of content."
Black creators face racism on TikTok
For some black creators, TikTok is not problem, but rather other users, as unwelcome comments have at times greeted videos about racial inequality and police brutality.
When 17-year-old Kai Harris of Mount Laurel, N.J. posted a video about going to a Black Lives Matter protest, some viewers responded with racist and other offensive comments.
"They're like, 'I came here for a good time. I came here to laugh and dance, and you're bringing me down with all this stuff,'" Harris said. "And I'm like, 'The fact that this is happening is bringing me down.'"
Harris, whos is active in high school theater and has grown her TikTok following of more than 260,000, cannot imagine going back to only making dance videos now. George Floyd's death has her thinking nonstop about the way police treat black people.
"I do not want to grow up in a world where this keeps happening, so I decided, 'You know what? I've been silent on these issues sometimes. I don't share my opinions, but I need to share them now,'" she said.
Harris said she remembers when Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012. But back then, she did not grasp the full weight of that moment because she was just 10 years old. Now that she is 17, she's ready to change some minds — one 30-second TikTok video at a time.
"People are telling me that they're talking to and calling out their relatives and friends on these issues," Harris said. "And that's what I want: for people to understand our emotions and why this is a movement, because we want change and we want the harm to stop."
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
TikTok has become the most downloaded app in the United States since the coronavirus pandemic struck. People use it to record and share short videos of themselves doing viral dance challenges or lip-syncing routines to songs like "Savage," featuring Beyonce.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAVAGE")
MEGAN THEE STALLION: (Singing) I'm a savage, yeah, classy, bougie, ratchet, yeah. Sassy, moody, nasty, yeah.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: TikTok is also becoming the go-to platform for young people to create and share videos about racial justice, as NPR's technology reporter Bobby Allyn reports.
BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Raisha Doumbia is a 20-year-old swimming instructor in the Atlanta area. She downloaded TikTok about a year ago, mostly to post fun videos, like her lip-syncing and dancing to songs from the British girl group Little Mix. But after protests swept the nation over George Floyd's death, Doumbia switched it up with messages like this.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
RAISHA DOUMBIA: The Black Lives Matter movement is not a photo-op. This is not a chance for you to just take photo shoots. If you really wanted to stand up for our rights as an ally, you would be out there marching.
ALLYN: Doumbia admits it was a drastic change in tone.
DOUMBIA: I was just so disgusted that I felt like I needed to say something. So I started to speak out even though I had, like, 13 followers.
ALLYN: She has more than 60,000 now, though, because some of her videos went viral. Doumbia is far from alone. Videos with the Black Lives Matter hashtag have skyrocketed to the top spot on the platform. The so-called queen of TikTok, Charli D'Amelio, has taken a break from posting dance videos. The 16-year-old, who is white, told her 60 million followers recently she was having a moment of reflection.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CHARLI D'AMELIO: As a person who has been given the platform to be an influencer, I realize that with that title, I have a job - to inform people on the racial inequalities in the world right now.
ALLYN: Debra Aho Williamson of eMarketer studies social media trends. She says TikTok videos that are funny or full of raw emotions can reach huge audiences and quickly, so it makes sense that TikTok is what teens are using to address police brutality and racial inequality.
DEBRA AHO WILLIAMSON: For the first time, they might be exploring how they feel about these issues. And being able to do that on TikTok and see other young people who are maybe expressing similar things - I think it's really valid and valuable.
ALLYN: But TikTok is being forced to grow up with its users. Black creators noticed early on that videos that referenced George Floyd and Black Lives Matter were being hidden. And the Chinese company that owns TikTok does have a history of censoring videos in places like Hong Kong. TikTok says that's not what's happening here. It blames a technical glitch and says it stands with the black community.
Not all of the app's users do, though. When 17-year-old Kai Harris (ph) in New Jersey posted about going to a protest, some viewers responded with racist and mean comments.
KAI HARRIS: They're, like, I came here for a good time. I came here to laugh and dance. And you're bringing me down with all this stuff. And I'm, like, the fact that this is happening is bringing me down.
ALLYN: Harris doesn't see herself going back to making videos of her dancing in wigs or lip-syncing because she can't stop thinking about black people dying at the hands of police.
HARRIS: I do not want to grow up in a world where this just keeps happening. So I decided, you know what? I've been silent on these issues. Sometimes, I don't share my opinions. But I need to share them now.
ALLYN: Harris says she remembers when Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012, but she didn't fully grasp it at the time because she was just 10 years old. Now she is 17, and she says she's ready to change some minds one 30-second video at a time. Bobby Allyn, NPR News, San Francisco.
(SOUNDBITE OF DJ MITSU THE BEATS' "NIGHTFALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.