Weekly Wrap #8: TikTok, Trump and Conspiracy Theories

Welcome to our Weekly Wrap, where we cut through the noise to bring you our favourite insights from the technology and startup world.

Trump punked - TikTok teen style

Have you pondered recently - if a global pandemic had hit while you were a teen, how would you have passed the time? Prank phone calls? Egging houses? Toilet papering trees (maybe not in Melbourne, where panic buying is sadly back in full force)?

Well, Gen Z (a.k.a. Zoomers) have outdone themselves by pranking none other than President Trump this week. Hitting him right where it hurts (his ego), they coordinated hundreds of thousands of people via TikTok, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat to register for his Tulsa rally last Saturday - and then not show up.

In the lead up to Trump's Tulsa campaign rally, the chair of Trump’s campaign bragged on Twitter that the rally had received more than a million ticket requests. Trump's team made grand plans for overflow attendees, including outdoor stages in addition to a 19,000 seat stadium… only to have 6,200 people attend.

This amazing Trump prank hints to the generational divide that we touched on a few weeks ago. Gen Z are more involved in politics than any other teenage generation before them. The fact that most of them cannot vote does not deter them from acting. They have access to the world at their fingertips, and they know how to use social media as their platform to elevate causes they care about.

The place where retail brands date

One of the places teens used to spread the anti-rally word was what’s known as Elite or Alt TikTok - a space where they pretend to be mainstream retail brands who date each other. Wait, what? Say that again? We’ll let Gen Z explain:

Megan, 14, who runs @walmart.department.store, said that acting out scenarios as a multinational corporation is a fun creative exercise. “Some stores date,” she said. “They make fake things happen between them. I know Goldfish and Fruit Gushers are dating. I’m pretty sure In-N-Out Burger and some other restaurants are a couple too.”

Elite/Alt TikTok is also where they use their creativity to “cancel” brands like Dasani “because no one likes Dasani”, as Eleanor, 14, who runs @Swiffer_Official explained.

Confused? Yes so are we. But what is clear from all this, is that if you want to gain a Gen Z following, your brand must not conflict with their shared ideologies - like stopping Trump and climate change. Oh and, pro tip - don’t dare put them in the same bucket as ‘avocado toast, coffee and wine-obsessed adulting’ millennials:

Hidden in plain sight

The fact that Gen Z were able to coordinate the prank without the Trump administration catching wind, is incredible. It also reminds us that we live in a bubble on social media.

The ads and content we are shown is generated by algorithms whose sole purpose is to keep our eyeballs on the screen. Last week TikTok shared a post explaining how its ‘For You’ algorithm works - perhaps partly to distance itself and allay concerns about its connection to the Chinese government and because transparency is what its politically active, socially and digitally-aware Gen Z target audience demands.

And so, just as Gen Z was able to coordinate anti-Trump efforts using social media while flying under the US Government radar, pro-Trump rhetoric and misinformation continues to spread like wildfire in right leaning ends of social media.

There is mounting pressure on social media platforms to prevent the spread of misinformation and hate speech. In a world-first this month, we saw Twitter limit the reach of Trump’s tweets, labelling them as misleading, and prompting users to read links before sharing them.

Twitter's first fact-check on Trump's voting tweets was misleading ...

Facebook, on the other hand, considers itself ‘just a platform’ (not a political regulator) and refused to moderate Trump’s posts, despite protests from its own employees. But its hand may now become forced as major customers like North Face, Patagonia, Verizon, and Ben and Jerrys pull their ads and boycott Facebook as a result of its recent inaction.

Verizon, which spent nearly $2 million on Facebook and Instagram from 22 May - 20 June 2020, pulled its ads after finding they were being displayed next to QAnon videos.

QAnon, if you aren’t familiar, is a cult-like far-right conspiracy movement revolved around an anonymous figure, “Q”. Q implies they have access to Top Secret information and releases posts detailing a secret plot by an alleged "deep state" against Trump. Amongst the theories are that Hillary Clinton and other Democrats are part of an international child sex trafficking ring, and that Kim Jong-un is a CIA puppet.

As this excellent new Guardian investigation explains, QAnon started life in the dark corners of the internet (4chan), but has now worryingly grown mainstream thanks to platforms like Facebook.

QAnon content creators use Facebook’s algorithms to their advantage so that their posts are actively recommended to millions of people. This isn’t a new problem. Facebook’s own internal research in 2016 found that “64% of all extremist group joins are due to our recommendation tools”, admitting “our recommendation systems grow the problem”. Yet, nothing has changed.

So now big brands are taking things into their own hands with a good old fashioned standoff. Who knows how long they will hold out. However, unlike years before, brands now have an increasingly attractive advertising option beyond Facebook and Alphabet - TikTok. Meanwhile, it doesn’t seem likely that Zuckerberg will step down - partly because his inaction could see him gain Republican allies and, therefore, highly valuable regulatory protection. Or maybe that’s yet another conspiracy theory...

Regardless, it’s becoming clear that the lines of business and values are becoming increasingly blurred. Is it time you reviewed how you use your spending power for the causes you and your customers value?

If you want to dive deeper to understand how social media is polarising our information exposure and beliefs, we highly recommend you read the above Guardian piece above and check out the NY Times podcast, Rabbit Hole.

The next generation of philanthropy

Canva closed a HUGE US$60 million raise this week, doubling its valuation to $6 billion (AU$8.7 billion)!

If you want the inside word on how Canva achieved such phenomenal growth, check out Cliff Obrecht’s chat with Craig Blair at AirTree’s Founder Meetup (password: 5m^=79+k).

The raise also means that founders, Melanie Perkins and Cliff Obrecht have a new combined wealth on paper of $2.5 billion, and Cameron Adams edged into the billionaire’s club. They’re amongst a growing list of tech billionaires committed using their wealth towards improving the world. As Obrecht explained to The Australian this week, they want to use that wealth to “bring a little more equality to the world”, hinting they’ll start with the US political system.

Continuing Mike Cannon-Brookes’s commitment to renewable energy, this week Atlassian revealed its grand plans for the tallest “commercial hybrid timber” building in the world that will operate on 100 per cent renewable energy.

In the last few days, Cannon-Brookes’ fund Grok Ventures also:

  1. led a AU$8 million investment in Goterra, a start-up combining robotics with fly larvae to tackle waste management; and

  2. participated in a AU$10 million investment in agritech Soil Carbon Company, which aims to improve the drought resilience of farming land, increase productivity and remove carbon from the atmosphere.

You don’t need an official or political title to drive change (although a few billion $ doesn’t hurt).

In breaking news this morning, confirming weeks of rumours Amazon has announced it will acquire Australian-founded self-driving car startup Zoox for over US$1 billion. In July 2018 Zoox was valued at US$3.2 billion. Australian investors include Blackbird Ventures and Mike Cannon-Brookes.

That’s a wrap! We hope you enjoyed it.

Watch Gavin live on AusBiz at 2pm on Mondays, when he opens the Startup Hour of Power.

The team at Ignition Lane


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p.p.s. please share with your friends and reach out if you want to continue the conversation of any themes in this week’s wrap.