Jagmeet Singh is a TikTok superstar. Here’s what that means for the next election


OTTAWA—It started at the back of a campaign bus.

In the final days of the 2019 federal election, New Democrat Leader Jagmeet Singh and his then-digital director Nader Mohamed sat inside a tour bus bound for somewhere in southwestern Ontario and shot Singh’s first political TikTok.

The 15-second video depicts Singh capitalizing on what was then a viral trend: lip syncing to the song Choices (Yup) by American rapper E-40. Each time the artist says “yup”, Singh points to text on the screen listing the kinds of people he joined politics to serve. When the rapper says “nope”, the leader points to all the things he’s fighting against: polluters, the wealthy, the pharmaceutical industry.

“We were just in the back of the bus doing a bunch of takes. Nobody understood what we were doing,” Mohamed told the Star. “We posted it. And obviously it went pretty viral.”

The video, which was Singh’s idea, became one of three TikToks the leader posted to his account during the 2019 campaign. Even Lisa Raitt, who was then the Conservative party’s deputy leader, had to hand it to him: “Gotta tell ya — it’s an effective 15 seconds. And fun to watch,” she wrote on Twitter.

Today, the clip has nearly 4 million views.

Singh boasts more than 625,000 followers on the video-sharing app, where users typically post short clips featuring popular songs, dances and trends. In less than two years, the leader has amassed a following that took him eight years to achieve on Instagram. He has yet to reach the same level of support on Twitter, despite launching that account a decade ago.

And his videos, just over 80 of them, have been “liked” more than 5 million times.

That means that as the NDP prepares for a possible federal contest later this year, the party will have a key edge it didn’t have before: a leader armed with the biggest TikTok presence of any politician in the country.

“We’re going to run the largest digital campaign we’ve ever run, so TikTok becomes a part of this larger campaign of things that we’re doing,” said Amneet Singh Bali, who will be leading the party’s digital strategy the next time Canada heads to the polls.

The NDP isn’t developing any kind of magic formula over how they’ll deploy the app during the campaign. Collaborating with influential users will factor into the strategy — something that shouldn’t be much of a problem, given that several TikTok celebrities can already be found hyping the leader in the comments of his posts.

Both Singh and the party’s digital team also take a surprisingly organic approach to how they use the app; there isn’t a posting schedule, and most of the time, the leader is pitching, recording and editing videos entirely by himself.

“The formula isn’t, ‘How do we try to push content today because we need to,’” Bali said. “It’s really…what are people feeling right now? What is the trend? What are people talking about? And how do we meet them where they are?”

In some ways, the NDP got lucky.

The people and ideas the party attracts dovetail with the app’s user-base, who tend to be teenagers and younger adults. While young people turn up to the polls in smaller numbers than older voters, millennials still made up the largest group of eligible voters in 2019.

“It was a platform that heavily favoured young people,” the NDP leader told the Star in a phone interview.

“So then we thought, ‘OK, this makes a lot of sense.’ This is a perfect place to connect with people that are open to our message of thinking, ‘Do we have to settle for things the way they are, or can we dream of things being better?’”

But Singh, and his digital team, mostly attribute the leader’s success to his genuine fondness for the app.

“TikTok requires a lot of authenticity and realness. It’s kind of very well suited to me,” Singh said.

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On the app, where trends move at a relentless pace and reinvent themselves week after week, Singh has a knack for choosing ones he can use to highlight his progressive platform.

He’s posted videos about paid sick leave and climate justice, and stacked his policies up against those of the Liberals. It’s also a place where Singh can get at more difficult topics, like systemic racism and the legacy of residential schools.

In other cases, the videos have nothing to do with the political issues of the day. Singh has demonstrated, in English and in French, the traditional method he uses to tie up his hair. He’s also taken his followers on hikes and bike rides, and sometimes ropes in his wife, Gurkiran Kaur, to jump in on popular dance trends.

It all sets the stage for an election where speaking to young people matters, but reaching them during a time of uncertain pandemic restrictions poses a challenge.

“The last campaign, we didn’t have to think about it in this way,” Bali said. “Can we show up to events or not? Can we be in public spaces or not? And so, this has become a part of the new reality, and TikTok is, for sure, important.”

Election or not, even the app itself is getting prepared. TikTok Canada will be using election strategies employed during the 2020 U.S. presidential race, attempting to keep disinformation and malicious actors at bay, and ensuring accurate voting information is shared.

The app doesn’t run paid political ads, nor does it actively recruit elected officials to join the platform.

While some MPs use the app, Singh is the only major federal party leader with an account.

The Liberal Party, which takes digital election tactics very seriously, doesn’t have an official presence on TikTok. But the party does plan on leveraging supporters from the platform to promote the Liberals during the next campaign, using the content distribution app Greenfly.

The Star has also reported that the Conservatives have hired digital consultancy firm Topham Guerin to boost the party’s social media presence.

But when it comes to TikTok, it’s clear Singh has the home advantage.

“On a platform where a lot of people are doing fun dances, you wouldn’t think that me doing a post about politics would get any views,” the leader said. “But some of my most popular posts are very political, showing me that you can make politics interesting and engaging to young people.”

RP

Raisa Patel is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @R_SPatel





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