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")
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