There are three inevitabilities in life: death, taxes and older generations freaking out at the younger ones for technologies and behaviors they don’t understand. TikTok, with its iron grip over the screen time and battery usage of the newborn to 24 age range, has not escaped this generational criticism.
The anti-TikTok conversation has recently come to a head on the topic of parasocial relationships, one-sided relationships in which consumers of media feel a personal connection to content creators when one does not exist in real life. On a platform where the success of influencers is dictated by their likeability, building the idea of a friendship between the creator and the viewer is essential to keeping people engaged and sharing content.
The Daily Mail, in their never-ending quest to write the most sensationalist headlines in news media, call these relationships “weird.” The headline jumps from the page: “Are YOU in a parasocial relationship?” The answer is yes, but these relationships aren’t as strange as the Daily Mail would like you to think they are.
Parasocial relationships are often the strongest factors behind why people watch media in the first place. Everyone has their favorite talk show host, news anchor or character in a TV show (I’m looking at you, Seong Gi-Hun from Squid Game). As fundamentally social animals, human beings are wired to empathize and connect with the people we see on our screens, and our brains form what feel like very real, personal relationships with the characters and people involved. This keeps us coming back for more content. These relationships can even be so strong that the negative emotional effects of losing a favorite character in a tv show resemble those of losing a real-life social relationship.
Many have written about the phenomenon of algorithmic radicalization, where social media algorithms recommend political content that aligns with a user’s existing political beliefs and introduces them to more extreme political content, thus creating an echo chamber. What is too often overlooked, however, is the role that parasocial relationships play in this process of internet radicalization.
It’s hard to imagine an alt-right without the grifters that have shaped it from the beginning, and perhaps no voice has been more influential, or shrill, than Ben Shapiro’s. While his actual debate skill is lacking in substance, Shapiro’s argumentative style and bullying are incredibly persuasive. For reasons I personally cannot understand, people find these aspects of Shapiro likable, and a parasocial relationship is formed. As consumers interact more and more with right-wing media and encounter new personalities, these new “friendships” exacerbate their radicalization by adding an emotional element. These aren’t political ideas anymore — they’re friend groups.
These emotional connections are stronger than rational thinking, and those trying to de-radicalize extremists through, for lack of a better term, “facts and logic” will run into a brick wall when they find that they can’t overcome the strength of these relationships. If we want to deliver people out of the depths of their extremism, we need to recognize that it’s charisma, not logic, that drives political beliefs.
Next time you walk around campus and pass the Turning Point USA table in front of the Union or happen upon a crowd of anti-vax protestors in the Circle, think twice before you decide to engage in political discussion. As long as alt-right content creators keep them in their parasocial clutches, there’s nothing you can do to change their minds. In this instance, the older generations might be right about TikTok and social media — it’s better for everyone if they would just get off their phones and interact with everyone else at the dinner table.
Hal Fox is a sophomore majoring in Chinese and international studies from Robert, Louisiana.