TikTok influencers tapped in efforts to turn out young voters in US presidential election

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WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) – Some influencers are throwing their weight behind ambitious get-out-the vote campaigns in an effort to lure more young people to the polls. Their are showing signs of success, especially in some hotly contested states, like Texas.

Mr Jeremy Scheck, 20, has amassed 1.6 million followers in the last six months by posting videos on cake decorating, pasta-making and other foodie content while stuck at home during the pandemic. But in recent weeks, the Cornell University junior has been tossing information about voting into commentary on his daily meal plan.

“I think one of the virtues of doing it on my cooking account is that it’s not a political account,” Mr Scheck said. TiKTok’s algorithm curates personalised content based on hashtags, clicks and likes.

“You could have a For You page that’s all political content because it knows that’s what you like. Those people are already voting but someone who is just watching food and stuff might not be,” he added.

Feel Good Voting, a non-partisan, non-profit organisation, took notice of Mr Scheck’s rising popularity in August and enlisted him for a paid partnership to help with get-out-the-vote efforts. When Mr Scheck made an angel hair pasta-coconut-mango-rice mash-up, he got more than 500 people to verify registration, register to vote or request a mail-in ballot using the link in his profile.

Traditional forms of outreach like knocking on doors, paper mailers, or phone calls often miss young, first-time voters, and social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram have been critical in filling the gap, said Mr Andy Forrest, co-founder and executive director of Feel Good Voting.

“We find that this low-budget, filmed in my kitchen, straight from the heart, authentic message from a young person is way more powerful than any slick agency-produced ad,” he said.

For years, the corporate world has young influencers to boost their brands. Now, politics is catching on.

For the first time, millennials and Gen Z Americans will equal Baby Boomers and older generations as a share of all citizens eligible to vote, according to research from the non-partisan States of Change project. By disseminating voting information on TikTok, groups like Forrest’s are meeting young people in their digital playground, in hopes of making their votes the decisive force in this .

Mr Michael Hanmer, a government professor at the University of Maryland who has studied youth voter turnout, said young people aren’t used to bureaucratic hassles like filling out forms. Since the pandemic has only amplified confusion around how to cast ballots safely, platforms like TikTok are “very useful”, he said.

“Because it’s creative, entertaining and gets people’s attention, it’s catching some of the young voters who are less experienced and less aware of what to do and where to go for the right information.”

Feel Good Voting has teamed up with more than 300 influencers and pays about US$100 (S$136) to US$1,500 per post. About 40 per cent opt to make videos for free. The organisation has spent more than US$76,000 on influencer partnerships. For Mr Scheck’s content, the organisation calculated that it cost US$1.74 for one person to complete a Vote.org form.

“It’s a small price to pay relative to how many people we’re activating,” Mr Forrest said.

Texas-based TikTok creator “Miss Macy” built her following of more than 400,000 with her “no-filter”, fast-talking political and cultural commentary in front of her signature plant-adorned mirror.

A self-described outspoken “black sheep” from a “very conservative” town, Macy said she was drawn to TikTok because she could talk about issues she was passionate about, like women’s rights and climate change, in her own style. She says most of her viewers are about 15 to 25 years old, and many are from her hometown. She declined to give her full name to protect her privacy and identity online.

Macy was recruited by Texas Rising, a non-partisan grassroots organisation that focuses on increasing Gen Z voter engagement. The 19-year-old borrowed a cowboy hat from a friend and used her grandmother’s farm as her set for a video reminding young Texans to vote that got nearly 17,000 views. For her effort, she was paid US$2,000 by Texas Rising.

“I think the people I am reaching are those that are a little in the middle, or maybe not even necessarily right in the middle, but they just don’t know how to do what they want to do,” Macy said.

Mr Scheck and Macy are part of an army of creators who have been instrumental in reaching young voters this election. Their influence has been especially significant in states like Texas, a historically Republican stronghold that is now considered a toss-up amid a surge in early voting. Texans under 30 had already cast more than one million votes as of Oct 27, more than 80 per cent as many did in the entire 2016 presidential election, according to an analysis by Tufts University’s Centre for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement and Catalist, a progressive research firm.

While there are strict rules for influencers hawking products like sneakers or bottled water, the line between election campaigns and influencer content is blurry, and the regulatory and policing burden has largely fallen on the platforms.

Facebook Inc., which owns Instagram, has banned new political ads in the week leading up to the election, while TikTok, which is owned by Chinese Internet giant ByteDance Ltd., has long forbidden paid political ads.

Feel Good Voting said all paid posts with TikTok creators comply with the appropriate advertising and sponsorship disclosures. Because the organisation is non-partisan and focuses on get-out-the-vote efforts without endorsing either candidate, paid content isn’t classified as political. A TikTok spokesperson declined to comment specifically about voter turnout and reiterated the company’s ban on political ads, including paid political content posted by influencers.

Bigtent Creative, a digital organising group, has poured more than US$1.2 million into paid content from influencers on TikTok, almost all of whom are under 25, according to chief executive officer Ysiad Ferreiras. The group has focused on engaging young people of colour and pays creators US$150 to US$1,000 per post to help voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts. Since June, Bigtent has registered more than 25,000 voters across the US, with 21 per cent coming from Texas, said Kia Kolderup-Lane head of public policy and strategic initiatives.

“There’s a massive Latinx population and Latinx voters tend to be on TikTok more than most other demographics,” Lane added.

Bigtent said campaigns are reaching a wider swathe of young voters this year by focusing on TikTok, Instagram, and other digital sites. In previous elections, much of the outreach focused on college-educated, upper-class voters on university campuses, which has been largely impossible to do this year because of the pandemic.

NextGen America, a left-leaning political action committee created and funded by former Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer, recently focused on trying to flip the traditionally Republican Lone Star State by launching a six-figure investment for outreach programmes geared towards young voters in the Rio Grande Valley and El Paso.

The organisation has 1,600 influencer partners across TikTok and Instagram, and has seen a significant impact in rural communities where young people are often overlooked, said Tegan O’Neill, digital director at NextGen.

“There is a lesson here and we’re seeing it loud and clear,” said the University of Maryland’s Hanmer. “There’s a lot of money going into campaigns now. Adding new people and methods into the mix is going to be a big part of the strategy for young voters going forward.”

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