These TikTok influencers exploit trending topics and hashtags to get political

Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Valeria Shashenok posted a TikTok reel with a caption reading, 'My Typical Day in a Bomb Shelter.' It has been viewed 51.8 million times. (valerisssh/TikTok - image credit)
Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Valeria Shashenok posted a TikTok reel with a caption reading, 'My Typical Day in a Bomb Shelter.' It has been viewed 51.8 million times. (valerisssh/TikTok - image credit)

A young woman with enviable dark lashes looks straight into the camera, holds a pink lash curler and offers her viewers a makeup tutorial.

"Hi guys, I'm going to teach you how to get long lashes," says Feroza Aziz.

But the TikTok video includes a plot twist.

"So, the first thing you need to do is grab your lash curler, curl your lashes, obviously. Then, you're going to put [it] down and use your phone that you're using right now to search up what's happening in China," Aziz says. "They're getting concentration camps, throwing innocent Muslims in there."

Aziz, 19, is referring to the reported internment of Uyghur Muslims in China. The video summarizes some of the alleged human rights violations China has committed against Uyghurs, and Aziz tells her viewers to spread awareness about the issue.

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She disguised her activism in a makeup tutorial in order to attract viewers. And it worked: in two years, the video has amassed more than three million views on TikTok. (CBC News previously reported that the platform had temporarily removed the video for political reasons, but ultimately reinstated it.)

Aziz's reel was also circulated across other platforms, including X.

Aziz isn't the only social media influencer relying on trending hashtags and video formats across social media platforms to discuss otherwise serious issues such as war, LGBTQ rights and abortion access. In fact, it's become a popular strategy to entice people to watch political content they might not otherwise see.

Bait and switch

In another TikTok example, Emira D'Spain, the first Black transgender woman to walk in a Victoria's Secret fashion show, stares into the camera and says, "I'm in the middle of filming a 'get ready with me,' but I also want to tell you about a really important charity I'm working with for Pride."

Perlita Stroh/CBC
Perlita Stroh/CBC

D'Spain then explains that she is raising money for the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, an advocacy group for Black trans people, and tells viewers how they can pitch in.

Brianna Wiens, an English professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario who studies online activism, says this bait-and-switch technique is all about "using the thing that's already popular and then using that popularity to redirect [attention]."

Valeria Shashenok, a 22-year-old woman living in Ukraine, makes "day in the life" reels — a popular trend that takes viewers through a content creator's typical day — to share tongue-in-cheek content about the war.

"It's the most clever way to spread information," she said over Zoom from the city of Chernihiv.

Capitalizing on trends

Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Shashenok posted a TikTok reel with a caption reading, "My Typical Day in a Bomb Shelter." In it, viewers are introduced to Shashenok's parents and dog in their bunker, as well as the wreckage above ground.

It has been viewed 51.8 million times.

"I like videos … like, 'my daily routine in Mariupol now that it's occupied,'" Shashenok said, referring to the Ukrainian coastal city occupied by Russia. "That's so interesting."

A similar vlog posted by creator and viewed almost 400,000 times offers a day in the life in Gaza.

"Unfortunately, it's not a very pretty, relaxing influencer 'day in the life,'" the narrator says.

Politically motivated influencers have also woven their activism into viral content about the Barbie movie as well as trending dances and recipes.

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Evading restrictions

At times, influencers have to creatively package their content so it gets around restrictions set by the individual social media platforms.

TikTok and Meta (which owns Facebook and Instagram) ban content considered inappropriate, including sexually explicit content and graphic images. That can make it difficult to post about difficult themes such as abortion and war.

Multiple human rights groups have also warned that Meta has stifled pro-Palestine content since the war in Gaza broke out in October. CBC News also found isolated incidents of Israelis alleging that platforms have silenced them.

"There is no truth to the suggestion that we are deliberately suppressing voices," a Meta spokesperson told CBC News in an email.

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Joey Siu, a pro-democracy activist from Hong Kong currently living in exile in the U.S., says she and her colleagues stay off TikTok because they believe the Beijing-owned company restricts posts that are critical of the Chinese government.

Both platforms told CBC News their guidelines are meant to keep users safe—and that they don't arbitrarily block content. Meta and TikTok also linked to their respective community guidelines.

"Our principles are centered on balancing expression with harm prevention, embracing human dignity and ensuring our actions are fair," says TikTok's community guidelines site.

Some activists maintain some of their content has been "shadowbanned" — that is, put into a kind of invisible mode where only they, and not their audience, can see the content they post.

'A chilling effect'

Creators have to be strategic so they can get their content in front of as many viewers as possible, said Deja Foxx, a digital strategist based in Arizona who worked on U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris's Democratic nomination campaign in 2020.


Foxx, who posts a lot of content about reproductive justice, says she believes users who disagree with her posts have taken advantage of TikTok's algorithm to flag her content.

She said shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion decision in June 2022, "I had all of these complaints from TikTok the app, flagging my videos for things like grooming, for things like the sale of illegal goods — when the content I had made was about reproductive care."

She said "it really had a chilling effect on what I was able to make and create and share at a time when people needed that information more than ever."

That hasn't stopped her and other influencers from getting creative in order to circumvent censors, real or perceived. Foxx says she will use a zero and an exclamation mark to replace the letters "o" and "i" in her TikTok reels. (Think "ab0rt!on" instead of "abortion.")

The point is to fly under the algorithm's radar.

Duets and 'hashbaiting'

Wiens has found other tactics that allow influencers to keep producing this content, including "duets."

In a duet, a content creator splits the screen so that two videos play simultaneously. In the politically minded version of this trend, one clip is uncontroversial — hands making a cake, for example — while the other could be a rant about current events or a human rights crisis.

Then there's what's known as "hashbaiting," in which creators post political content with unrelated but trending hashtags (e.g. #taylorswift and #GRWM) to confuse the algorithm and get their posts in front of more viewers.

Wiens says these tactics seem to be working in bringing political issues to the fore on social media.

According to Reach3, a market research consultancy, 77 per cent of TikTok users say the platform helps them stay up-to-date on politics and social justice. The same report found more than one-quarter of TikTok users attended a Black Lives Matter rally in person, compared to only 13 per cent of non-users.

Online activism is "one part of the kind of protest rhetoric that we see in the protest action — social media is a key way for learning more," said Wiens, who admitted she enjoys a lot of this sneaky content herself.

She said her favourite trend across social media is the "girlhood aesthetic."

"They're drawing people into their TikToks by saying, 'Let's talk about the bare face trend,' and then say, 'Now that I've got your attention, we riot at midnight.'"