Looking at the economic data, you would think that young voters would be at the top right now. Unemployment remains low. Job opportunities are abundant. Inequality has decreased, wage growth is finally outpacing inflation, and the economy has expanded rapidly this year.
Look at TikTok and you get a very different impression, one that seems more in line with both consumer confidence data and President Biden’s performance in political polls.
Several of the economics-related trends gaining traction on TikTok are downright dire. The term “silent depression” recently generated a avalanche of viral videos. clips critical of capitalism are common. On Instagram, jokes about poor housing affordability are a genre unto themselves.
Social media reflects (and potentially feeds) deep-seated angst about the economy that is showing up in both surveys of younger consumers and political polls. It suggests that even when the job market is booming, people are focusing on long-term issues, such as housing affordability, when assessing the economy.
The economic conversation taking place virtually may offer insight into the stark disconnect between optimistic economic data and pessimistic sentiments that has baffled political strategists and economists.
Never before has consumer sentiment been is constantly depressed when unemployment was so consistently low. and the voters misrate Mr. Biden on economic issues despite rapid growth and a strong labor market. Young people are especially sad: A recent survey by The New York Times and Siena College found that 59 percent of voters under 30 rated the economy as “poor.”
That’s where social media could offer insight. Popular interest determines what content plays well, especially on TikTok, where the goal is often to go viral. Platforms are also an important disseminator of information and sentiment.
“A lot of people get their information from TikTok, but even if you don’t, your friends do, so you’re still stuck in the echo chamber,” said Kyla Scanlon, a content creator focused on economic issues who publishes carefully researched explainers on TikTok, Instagram and X.
Scanlon rose to prominence in mainstream media in part for coining and popularizing the term “vibecession”because of how bad consumers felt in 2022, but he believes that in 2023 it has been even more bitter.
“I think people have gotten angrier,” he said. “I think we’re in a worse situation now.”
Surveys suggest that people in Generation Z, born after 1996, largely get their news from social media and messaging apps. And the share of American adults who turn to Tik Tok in particular The demand for information has constantly increased. Facebook remains a bigger news source because it has more users, but about 43 percent of adults who use TikTok receive news from it regularly, according to a study. new survey by the Pew Research Center.
It’s hard to say for sure whether negative news on social media is fueling bad feelings about the economy or the Biden administration. Data and surveys struggle to capture exactly what effect specific news distribution channels (particularly newer ones) have on people’s perceptions, said Katerina Eva Matsa, director of news and information research at the Pew Research Center.
“Is the news, the way it has evolved, making people see things in a negative way?” she asked. It’s hard to know, she explained, but “the fact that you were bombarded and entangled in all this information could have contributed.”
Biden’s re-election campaign team is aware that TikTok has supplanted X, formerly known as Twitter, for many young voters as a crucial source of information in this election cycle, and aware of how negative it tends to be. White House officials say some of those messages accurately reflect the messengers’ economic experiences, but others border on misinformation that social media platforms should monitor.
Rob Flaherty, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, said the campaign was working with content creators on TikTok in an effort to “amplify a positive, affirming message” about the economy.
Some political campaign publications that promote Biden’s work record They have managed to accumulate thousands of likes. But posts about “Silent Depression” have attracted hundreds of thousands, a sign of how much negativity is gaining.
In those videos, influencers compare how easy it was to survive economically in 1930 versus 2023. The videos are misleading and miss the crucial fact. that approximately one in four adults was unemployed in 1933, compared to four in 100 today. And the data they cite often comes from unreliable sources.
But the housing affordability trend that the videos highlight is based in reality. Over time, it has become more difficult for young people to afford property. The cost of a typical house was 2.4 times the typical household income around 1940, when government data begins. Today it is 5.8 times.
It’s not just housing that makes young people feel like they’re being left behind, either, if you ask Freddie Smith, a 35-year-old real estate agent in Orlando, Florida, who created an especially popular video on “Silent Depression.” Recently, so are the costs of gasoline, food, cars and rent.
“I think it’s the perfect storm,” Smith said. “It’s this push and pull that millennials and Gen Z are facing right now.”
Inflation has cooled noticeably since peaking in the summer of 2022, which the Biden administration has welcomed as a victory. Still, that just means prices aren’t rising as quickly anymore. Key costs remain noticeably higher than just a few years ago. Edibles are much more expensive than in 2019. Gasoline was around $2.60 a gallon in early 2020, for example, but is now around $3.40.
Those higher prices don’t necessarily mean people are worse off: Household incomes have also increased, so people have more money to cover higher costs. Data on consumer spending suggests that people under 25 (and even 35) have been spending a roughly equivalent or smaller proportion of their annual budgets on food and gasoline compared to before the pandemic, at least in average.
“I think things just seem more difficult,” said Betsey Stevenson, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Michigan, explaining that people have what economists call a “monetary illusion” and think about the value of a dollar. in fixed terms.
And housing has actually been taking up a larger share of young consumers’ budgets than in pre-pandemic years, as rents, home prices and mortgage costs have risen.
In addition to prices, student loan content has taken off in TikTok conversations (#studentloans has 1.3 billion views) and many of the posts are unhappy.
Biden’s student loan initiatives have been a roller coaster ride for millions of young Americans. Last year he proposed canceling up to $20,000 in debt for borrowers who earn less than $125,000 a year, a plan which was estimated to cost 400 billion dollars for several decades, only to see the Supreme Court strike down the initiative this summer.
Biden has continued to push for more tailored efforts, including $127 billion in full loan forgiveness for 3.6 million borrowers. But last month, his administration also ended a pandemic freeze on loan payments that applied to all borrowers — about 40 million people.
The administration has tried to inject more positive programming into the social media discussion. Biden met with about 60 TikTok creators to explain his initial student loan forgiveness plan shortly after announcing it. The campaign team also sent videos to key creators, so they could share them, of young people crying when they learned their loans had been forgiven.
The Biden campaign does not pay these creators or try to dictate what they say, although it does advertise aggressively on digital platforms, Flaherty said.
“It has to sound authentic,” he said.