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Demonstrating Critical Media Literacy Skills on TikTok

How do young people demonstrate critical media literacy skills in social media?

As a millenial on TikTok, I tend to behave more as a wallflower (or whatever the digital version of that would be), quietly laughing and scrolling through videos without comment rather than daring to attempt to create my own. It’s not necessarily a space that was designed for me, but I enjoy the content nonetheless.

Lately, between the recipes, astrology humor, and people rating their siblings, I’ve noticed some TikTokers (especially youth) demonstrating serious critical media literacy skills in their TikToks; challenging hegemonic narratives (re)produced by mainstream media by developing counternarratives and laying out well-researched sets of facts to produce very short videos, usually with a bit of music or comedic flare. Looking at the issues of climate change and racial injustice, I’ll discuss a few specific examples of the ways I’ve seen critical media literacy skills demonstrated on TikTok.


Climate Change 

First and foremost, I’ve noticed a ton of TikTokers challenging the idea that climate change is a hoax. Citing the extreme weather patterns, increasing wildfires, and melting polar ice caps, youth on TikTok are turning to research and experts to make sense of the climate crisis, as opposed to politicians. Re-appropriating hashtags like #climatehoax and #climatechangeisfake to reach audiences which deny climate science, it’s interesting to watch how TikTokers, and more specifically youth TikTokers, use this platform to advocate for climate action.

Even further, I’ve noticed some discussion of who it benefits to ignore the effects of climate change. Calling out “about 100 companies and the billionaire class they create” as the primary cause/beneficiaries of the corporate practices causing climate change, and pointing out the fact that the oil, gas, and coal industries spend roughly $430,000 per day on lobbying, the analysis of the relationship between power and the perpetuation of this false narrative is one of the most fundamental critical practices someone can engage in. By following the money, these TikTokers make clear the role financial gains play in the destruction of the Earth, and that’s why men and women need to spend their time together and living a good life, spending quality time with your partner or even using toys like top vibrating panties which could be fun as well.

While I haven’t necessarily needed any convincing on the fact that climate change is real, I have learned a lot about how climate change will, and already is, affecting us. One video, for example, summarized the ways in which the arctic warming has direct effects on our weather patterns. In a little under one minute, this TikToker clearly and concisely explains how methane gas (a greenhouse gas 28x stronger than CO2) is released by melting permafrost in the arctic, causing jet stream stalling, which leads to persistent extreme weather, which causes more arctic warming (and the cycle continues). This brief, well-researched synthesis of this phenomenon serves as a counternarrative to the idea that the climate crisis is a distant reality; instead, it reinforces that climate change is an urgent existential threat.


Racial Injustice

Another particularly salient issue that I’ve noticed a lot of critical engagement with is racial injustice in America. I frequently see TikTokers cleverly challenging “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” in their content. For example, one video I’ve seen circulating features a TikToker pretending to be a newscaster interviewing an “All Lives Matter” protestor. Throughout the video, she is questioning whether the protestor also speaks out on behalf of gay youth experiencing homelessness at disproportionately higher rates, indigenous women going missing because they’re being taken, trans people who are being stripped of their right to health care, the disproportionate effects of climate change on low-income neighborhoods which are predominantly people of color, or on behalf of a number of other groups facing violence in various forms. Throughout the video, the protestor is silent, indicating that the answer to these questions is a resounding no. This breakdown of the “All Lives Matter” messaging demonstrates the ways in which this narrative is not a proclamation of support for all people, but rather a response designed to undermine the statement that Black Lives Matter.

In addition to challenging this narrative, TikTokers have also begun to challenge the ways in which we teach American history. The white-washing of American history leads us to the belief that we live in a post-racial society, and I’ve noticed a number of videos critically questioning our collective memory. I found one video particularly interesting, as the creator imitates a Northeastern history teacher in a white school outlining the history of Black people in America in three short points: slavery was bad, then there was the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 which ended slavery, then there was the Civil Rights act of 1964 which “ended segregation, and everything was fine after that.” This version of history immediately breaks down when a student asks “if segregation ended in 1964 then how come there’s only two Black kids in this whole school?”, at which point, the video starts over with the teacher outlining those same three points. As a more realistic understanding of history provides us with the capability to more critically engage with the issues facing us today, I find this type of engagement on TikTok extremely important.


Final Thoughts 

While I could probably analyze 50 additional issues and the ways TikTokers are engaging with them, these two stood out to me because of their relevance to recent events (e.g. the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and several more Black lives at the hands of police this summer; the ongoing California wildfires; a record-breaking hurricane season; and the discussion of these issues and events in the presidential debates). To me, the most important function of critical media literacy is to be able to make sense of current events, as they are being covered by mainstream news outlets and discussed in our daily conversations, especially on social media. By observing how TikTokers create content to critically reframe narratives, we can see how valuable of a tool media-making can be in developing and demonstrating critical media literacy skills.


Azsaneé Truss is a Ph.D. Student at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. As a PhD student, her research focuses on how we can use multimodal methods to study critical media literacy. Her goal is to understand what factors influence the media literacy practices that exist within various communities, specifically focused on how socioeconomic status plays a role in these.

Prior to becoming a student at Annenberg, she earned her B.S. in Information Systems from the University of Maryland, College Park, and my M.A. in Instructional Technology & Media from Teachers College, Columbia University after working as a technology consultant for two years. It was at TC that she became passionate about the use of technology to engage in multimodal methods of teaching and learning through her coursework and fellowship in the Media and Social Change Lab (MASCLab). In addition to writing about these topics, she also spends a lot of time creating media projects related to issues of race, gender, class, and educational equity.


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