What is opposition leader Bernard Grech doing dancing on TikTok, a social media platform hugely popular with the young and best known for people moving to catchy music?

The Nationalist Party set up a TikTok account last month and its first video shows Grech taking part in a ‘dance’ alongside young party members.

The dancers choose between two options, shifting to one side to make their choice: ‘personal greed’ or ‘common good’; ‘change or status quo’ and, at the end, PL or PN.

Grech and the teenagers, of course, all shift to the PN side.

According to international figures, TikTok has 800 million active users worldwide, with 41 per cent of users aged between 16 and 24.

The PN’s TikTok account, @pn_tok, has been picking up its own following, with more than 1,600 followers and over 5,000 likes so far. The video itself has garnered 87,000 views and 3,000 likes.

Locally, the social media platform started becoming popular in 2019. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, more users flocked to it to post videos during lockdown.

But when the news was announced that Grech was on TikTok, the reactions were mixed. Wasn’t it just a cynical way to grab the attention of younger voters?

“Even before his election as leader of the opposition and the Nationalist Party, Bernard Grech underlined that the younger generation is at the core of the party’s process of renewal,” a PN spokesperson told Times of Malta when asked to explain.

Many young people, he said, had already approached the party to become active participants or volunteers.

“Grech believes that the younger generation should be incessantly empowered to advocate change and can transmit a positive political experience through various means and different networks of communication, which, of course, include but are not limited to such platforms,” he added.

Eve Borg Bonello, president of TeamStart, the party’s youth branch for 16-to-18 year olds, is one of the dancers in the video.

Grech wanted to advocate for youths to have their say in the party, she said.

“At TeamStart, we believe we have an integral role in the PN’s renewal… Grech has always maintained that youths should not only think outside of the box but actually move away from thinking inside or outside boxes and take a fresh approach,” she said.

The younger generation is at the core of the party’s process of renewal

Borg Bonello said TikTok provided an innovative way to contribute to positive change, adding the party has received positive feedback from using the platform.

While this particular platform is still in its infancy, two University of Malta lecturers believe TikTok will play a leading role in political communication.

“Social media tools do not change a party’s image but they are essential tools to shape it,” public policy lecturer George Vital Zammit said.

“The short clip produced by the PN is an original clip where the leader becomes a protagonist with young people to be a force for change.”

It was rare to see a political leader getting immersed in such acts but Grech’s disposition could be an attractive characteristic to those consuming the message, he said.

“The leader is not only directing change but is also part of it,” he noted.

Marketing lecturer Franco Curmi noted that social media had radically changed politics and democracies.

“Politicians and, even more so, political parties need to reach a wide audience that goes beyond what a single social media platform can provide,” he said.

Political parties were very risk averse, since the smallest mistake could become national news, he observed.

“Innovating with a new social media platform like TikTok may not be an easy feat and needs to be assessed by looking at it from the point of view of its audience,” Curmi said.

The target audience – the younger TikTok generation – was likely to connect with the content, he added.

“With the TikTok audience in mind, that means being innovative enough of coming to ‘my’ platform, which is quite a leap.”

While locally Facebook tends to be more popular, this is changing among the younger users, who are now more likely to consume content on platforms like Instagram and TikTok instead.

Vital Zammit and Curmi, however, sounded a note of warning.

“Adaptation is the secret of success. Those who do not adapt will fall behind.

“My concern is that the focus will be on the form rather than the content,” Vital Zammit explained.

“It is undeniable that those who master these tools have a higher capability to connect with their followers and politics is one prime example.”

Curmi said getting the very heavy formal politics into bitesize bits for youths was no mean feat and required parties to “innovate radically”.

“For now, it is too early to tell how influential TikTok content is as there has not been enough time for research,” Curmi said.

“But given the similar dynamics to existing platforms, its emphasis on viral content and its demographic audience, my hypothesis is that it will be even more influential than current popular social media platforms.”

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