Trumped-up anxiety? On TikTok, Americans tell Canadians: ‘Please, invade us’

A Tennessee nurse looks into her phone screen, pulls down her face mask and says, “It’s happening.” Her eyes are wide, her lips curl and her tone is a half whisper — she’s in disbelief, or maybe awe.

She just watched 27-year-old Lindsay Graves from Coldbrook, N.S., announce the news for which she had been waiting.

Canada was going to invade the United States.

“Secret Agent Mooseknuckle 4774. Operation first wave — liberate the United States of Canada. Reporting for duty.”

This spoof, or variations of it, have increasingly been playing out on the popular short-video sharing app TikTok as the 2020 U.S. presidential election draws near.

The videos sometimes start innocently, saying “I have questions for Canadians,” and then pivot to the big ask: “Please, invade us.”

Thanks to the app’s duet feature, with which a user creates videos that include another user’s video on one screen, Canadians such as Graves, whose account deals with Canadian history of the First World War, have been able to respond to the calls.

The result is a viral phenomenon in which Canadians assure their American neighbours that a cavalry — made up of armoured moose, Canada geese and confusing road pylons — is coming to save them from political life in the United States.

Graves is one active participant, having been dubbed “fearless beaver leader” by American users of the app, who stepped into the role happily.

“I think they’re looking for a glimpse of humour in very stressful days for the American populous right now,” Graves said. “It’s been a way to make fun of how peaceful Canada is, and my American following almost doubled — especially with the election going on.”

“A lot of my female friends feel like they’re in the prequel to the Handmaid’s Tale,” Graves said, referencing the dystopian book by Canadian author Margaret Atwood that describes an oppressive autocracy. “There’s been a few serious people who have come into my (direct messages) asking, ‘How do I come to Canada?’”

Researchers of social media, and TikTok in particular, say they’ve observed how jokes about things being better off in Canada have become a meme representing young peoples’ anxieties and fears. It’s happening, of course, in a year when a global pandemic and tense protests for racial justice have already created a challenging enough news cycle, even without a massively contentious presidential race.

“What’s interesting to me is we saw this same kind of meme in the aftermath of the 2016 election,” said Ioana Literat, a professor who researches online communication at Columbia University’s teachers’ college.

In 2016, the meme mostly took on the character of American democrats making jokes about running, biking or driving to Canada, upon the election of Donald Trump.

The invasion meme is a perhaps more extreme extension.

Literat goes through thousands of videos associated with political hashtags in an effort to gain insights into the political messages Generation Z sends over TikTok.

“Yes, it’s lighthearted and comedy based, but it speaks to very real anxieties and uncertainties,” Literat said. “There’s a deep sense of anxiety, of fear for one’s future, the future of one’s loved ones.”

Michelle Pinchev, founder of Pinch Social in Toronto, says the trend says also something about Canadian youth.

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“A lot of our cultural identity in Canada is really tied to comparing ourselves to Americans,” she said.

It’s comedy, but it’s also a form of activism, she said.

“It serves this dual purpose of being able to point a finger at what’s going wrong in the United States, and also weigh in politically on something we are very much influenced by.”

Alex McKeen
Alex McKeen is a Vancouver-based reporter covering transportation and labour for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alex_mckeen

TORONTO STAR