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How young TikTok users are making their activism go viral

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(NEW YORK) — For almost a year now, Taylor Cassidy has been creating TikToks. However, her short, creatively edited videos have been so much more than viral dance challenges.

One of Cassidy’s latest videos posted to her nearly two million followers is an explainer on “Blaxploitation.” In the video, which racked up nearly 400,000 views in one day, she teaches viewers that the genre emerged in the 1970s as films made by Black creators featured Black characters at the forefront. She also notes the characters often played into negative stereotypes.

At 17 years old, Cassidy’s account has been verified on the social platform and her videos have amassed over 38 million likes.

“Hundreds of thousands of people started coming to this little Black girl’s channel just to support her,” Cassidy told “Nightline.” “I still can’t fully fathom it, but I’m so thankful that I have an audience that I can educate and they want to be educated.”

Cassidy quickly realized the platform’s potential as a megaphone for social issues.

“I had started doing these little motivational pep talks on Instagram,” she said. “Whenever I was on TikTok, I was like, ‘I’m just going to see what happens and put it on here, too.’ And then people really loved it.”

She’s covered a range of topics on her page, from figures in Black history to speaking out about the killing of Breonna Taylor to the history of the United States’ two-party system.

One story she shared with her followers that really caught her attention was that of the Black American creator of the famous Playboy bunny costume.

“I had found out about Zelda Wynn Valdés a few months prior,” Cassidy said. “I was really captivated that this Black woman created such an iconic costume. I was like, ‘I need to share this woman.’”

Cassidy said it was especially important to make her voice heard during this time of reckoning for generations of racial inequality in the United States.

“I think that the representation of Black creators on this app really proves how important this is, that we provide authentic information and real information so that people don’t mistake the Black Lives Matter movement as something that it’s not,” she said.

TikTok, best known as a launch pad for chart-topping hits, eye-popping stunts and endless dance crazes, is now becoming a go-to space for young people itching to voice their opinions and enact change.

Kudzi Chikumbu, the director of TikTok’s creator community, says the new role the app has taken on is an organic progression for the platform.

“People have really been opened up to be able to express their authentic voice and things that they also care about … not just only having fun, but inspiring people, educating people, informing people,” Chikumbu told “Nightline.”

On TikTok, the Black Lives Matter hashtag has racked up more than 17 billion views, pride hashtags have surpassed seven billion views and posts about safe quarantining have amassed more than 21 billion views.

“TikTok is a place where teenagers go to post information about how to protest, where protests are happening, what’s happening on the ground,” Taylor Lorenz, a tech reporter for The New York Times, told “Nightline.” “TikTok is the real time news platform for Gen Z.”

The platform is also a hotbed of political commentary, most notably from the conservative end of the political spectrum. Among the conservative voices is Cam Higby.

“There was a period of time where I posted, like, just normal TikTok. I tried to be funny or whatever on my personal account, but it didn’t really work out,” he told “Nightline.” “But then I noticed I would start making like Trump-related videos or something, talking about what I agree with or disagree with. … They just were massively successful.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called TikTok a national security threat because it’s a Chinese-owned company. And White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said last week that a ban could come in “weeks, not months.”

“I would be upset if it gets banned. I really don’t think it’s going to get banned,” Higby said. “I think there’s very little likelihood of it. But I would also understand why he’s doing it.”

In a statement to “Nightline,” TikTok refuted the White House’s claim saying in a statement, “There’s a lot of misinformation about TikTok out there. TikTok has an American CEO … and a U.S. team that works diligently to develop a best-in-class security infrastructure. TikTok U.S. user data is stored in the U.S. and Singapore, with strict controls on employee access. These are the facts.”

Both Higby and Cassidy find that TikTok is an important place for people to express their ideologies.

“It’s better that people both on the right and left start getting into politics when they’re younger,” Higby said. “Because then by the time they’re an adult, maybe they’ll actually know what’s happening.”

Still a minor and unable to vote in a presidential election until 2024, Cassidy uses the platform to amplify her voice.

“If I can’t vote, I can influence others to vote for the candidate that best suits their beliefs and what can really improve our society,” she said. “If you can vote, you can help spark that change.”

Cassidy also offered advice to other young activists.

“If you’re going to go on TikTok to use your voice to make a change, make sure that your heart is in the right place to make [an] impact first,” she said. “That’s how you’re going to reach people. That’s how you’re going to make an impact.”

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