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COVID-19 Messaging and Youth Engagements on TikTok

The project

This project is an individual grant hosted at Curtin University, and is funded by the Social Science Research Council and Wenner-Gren Foundation Rapid-Response Grants on COVID-19 grant, September 2020–March 2021. Ethics Office approval number HRE2019-0806.

Following from the legacies of young people inspiring social change on TikTok, this project turns to look at the forms of COVID-19 messaging on TikTok and how young people are engaging with the information and platform meaningfully. Thematically, the project will engage with the emergent but very limited research on the digital cultures of TikTok.  Theoretically, the project will engage with social media ‘attention economies’ (Goldhaber 1997), paying special attention to ideas around ‘discursive activism’.

This project will gather five forms of evidence: Press coverage and academic research will be conducted via archival research, which involves the systematic searching for articles based on a list of relevant keywords and phrases over a specific period of time. Ethnographic fieldnotes will be generated in daily diaries during the period of digital ethnography and online participant observation among selected hashtag streams, audio meme streams, and select networks of TikTok creators. Downloads and screengrabs of selected TikTok videos will be done via screen recording software and grab features on a laptop. Textual documentation of selected comments will be lifted and archived in a text document. Special attention will be paid to TikTok contents that relate to the themes of misinformation, hygiene awareness, racism and xenophobia, displays of support, and entertainment.

This project poses three main research questions, informed by sociological and media studies framings of COVID-19 and its resulting social impacts:

1) How are young people using TikTok to engage in COVID-19 conversations? What types of contents are being created, circulated, curated, and contested? What visual, textual, and audio meme templates and vernaculars have emerged, and how can they be used effectively in other settings?

2) How does the platform TikTok enable young people to engage in COVID-19 conversations, activism, and advocacy? What features are being used, circumvented, and subversively reappropriated? How do the platform logics encourage the communication of information, conveyance of sentiments, and creation of communities?

3) What is the potential of short video apps like TikTok for improving better communication with young people? How can invested stakeholders such as governments, educational institutes, public agencies, and advocacy groups reach young people in these spaces? What types of corporate/sponsored messages are integrated and accepted, and what is rejected and negated?


[in progress] Public-facing report for the SSRC

[in progress] Popular media article for Items and The Conversation

[in progress] Journal article on TikTok, COVID-19, and anti-Asian racism

[in progress] Handbook chapter on the evolution of TikTok during COVID-19

[in progress] Journal article on internet celebrities of TikTok during COVID-19

[in progress] Journal article on the discursive waves of COVID-19 themes on TikTok

[in progress] Journal article on global milestones and media events via COVID-19 on social media

TikTok & Youth Cultures in the Age of COVID-19. Online Symposium, 29 March 2021. <About | Programme>

Abidin, Crystal. 2020. “TikTok and Digital Intimacies in the Time of COVID-19: A Backstory.” Digital Intimacies 2020: Connection in Crisis, University of Technology Sydney. 7-9 December 2020. <Link | Playlist>

Further information

SSRC press release here.

Wenner-Gren Foundation press release here.

The researchers

The CI on the project is Dr Crystal Abidin – Associate Professor & ARC DECRA Fellow in Internet Studies at Curtin University, the Programme Lead of Social Media Pop Cultures at the Centre for Culture and Technology at Curtin University, and Affiliate Researcher with the Media Management and Transformation Centre at Jönköping University. She is a digital anthropologist and ethnographer of vernacular internet cultures, and researches young people’s relationships with internet celebrity, self-curation, and vulnerability. Crystal has been studying the Influencer industry in Southeast Asia, Australia, and the Nordic since the late-2000s. She has authored over 60 refereed articles and chapters on various aspects of internet culture, and her books include Internet Celebrity: Understanding Fame Online (2018), Microcelebrity Around the Globe: Approaches to Cultures to Cultures of Internet Fame (2018, co-edited with Megan Lindsay Brown), Instagram: Visual Social Media Cultures (2020, with Tama Leaver and Tim Highfield, Polity Press), and Mediated Interfaces: The Body on Social Media (2020, co-edited with Katie Warfield and Carolina Cambre). Crystal is listed on Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia (2018) and Pacific Standard 30 Top Thinkers Under 30 (2016). Reach her at

Research Assistant D. Bondy Valdovinos Kaye is the Editorial Assistant for Media Industries Journal, a PhD candidate in the Digital Media Research Centre at Queensland University of Technology, and an avid musician. His research interests include digital music, cultural policy, and platform studies. He has recently published research on TikTok in the Chinese Journal of Communication, Mobile Media and Communication, and the International Journal of Communication.

Research Assistant Dr Xinyu (Andy) Zhao currently teaches and researches at Deakin University, University of Melbourne and Curtin University. He completed his PhD at Deakin University in 2020 and is particularly interested in the intersections of transnational mobility, digital technologies and young people.


If you would like to get in touch, please reach Crystal at, crystalabidin[at]gmail[dot]com, or @wishcrys.

This page was last updated on 25 March 2021.