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How the Trump Trial Played on TikTok

Vitus Spehar has a million followers, a sit-down interview at the White House and an audience that doesn’t care much about the trial of the century.

Tuesday marks the start of the homestretch for the first-ever criminal trial of a former president, with closing arguments set to begin in a case that political observers and legal scholars will be picking through for years, no matter the outcome. All-caps chyrons will be deployed, and live blogs will chatter away.

For the viewers of “Under the Desk News” on TikTok, it will likely be something closer to another Tuesday.

“In my world, I’m not covering it as much,” “Under the Desk” creator and popular multiplatform newsperson Vitus Spehar told NOTUS in a recent interview. “The people that you want to learn from it are not learning from it, and the people who have already decided Trump is not going to face any consequences just can’t handle watching it.”

It’s not that Spehar thinks covering Trump’s trial is a bad idea — they understand that “trad media” has to cover it, and they are keeping a close eye on it through those channels. This is not a story about a new media reporter telling old media reporters they are stupid; it’s a story about what a new media reporter is seeing in a journalism world that involves a parasocial relationship with a story’s intended audience. An audience that is growing, especially among electorates a lot of political strategists care about.

“From a social media lens, from a peer citizen journalist news lens, it just doesn’t do well,” they said of trial coverage. “Your numbers don’t lie, right?”

Ben Darr has popped up in some political circles as a trusted source for information about how politics plays on social media. His company, CredoIQ, is currently focused on TikTok but is planning to expand. Darr says he has political clients who are trying to understand just what is going on in the sometimes murky world of social. A recent CredoIQ report focused on RFK Jr.’s rise and audience on TikTok, a platform both major party campaigns are now actively trying to leverage. Darr’s data bears out Spehar’s take — the trial is not big news on TikTok.

The data on what trial-related videos have actually done well give a sense of why most don’t. A top post came from MSNBC’s channel, featuring an interview with a potential juror who said she couldn’t be impartial and then told a reporter Trump “looks less orange” in person. The horrific story of a man who self-immolated outside the New York City courtroom makes up the bulk of the rest of the top posts, save for one that was about the trial’s first day from the perspective of a Democrat.

Going outside the CredoIQ data, there’s some traction around videos from Trump supporters criticizing prosecutors and anything that has to do with some kind of gaffe. But real talk of the trial is just not happening much. MSNBC, for example, does pop a “Trump trial in 60 seconds” video every day of the trial. They underperform the channel’s other videos (though one about Trump attacking the judge presiding over his case has picked up some steam).

There’s some polling suggesting wider America hasn’t tuned in much either. Democrats have not hyped the trial for fear of politicizing it. Trump and his Republican allies have been happy to politicize and draw attention to it, turning the case into a kind of multi-week campaign rally. The true test of both strategies will come with how voters ultimately respond to the verdict.

Spehar watches the MSNBC trial recaps every day and praises them. But Spehar doesn’t try to replicate them. The creator has been incredibly good at honing an audience and picking up traction — their channel has more than a million followers and recently hosted Biden administration spokesperson John Kirby for a kind of interview-slash-debate about the TikTok ban at the White House.

Presidential politics, in general, are having a tough time on TikTok.

“Trump-Biden is not interesting to anybody,” they said. Spehar has a decidedly progressive point of view politically and has been trying to figure out how to keep a checked-out audience aware that a serious election is underway.

“I’ve been deeply focused on the down ballot because I just want people to vote anyway,” they said. “I’ve given up on trying to convince people to vote for [Biden], at least until it’s three months out.”

In New York, the Trump trial is just getting to the really good part — when jurors get the case and begin unprecedented deliberations. But Spehar does not expect the people who get their news on social media to get very excited.

“Which is interesting because true crime usually does really well on TikTok,” they said. “But even on the day of the Stormy Daniels testimony, which was pretty salacious, people didn’t really care that much to hear about it.”

Evan McMorris-Santoro is a reporter at NOTUS.