What do a rapper, a parody specialist and a knitting-obsessed makeup artist have in common?
All of them are “microinfluencers” who have signed up for an experiment in political persuasion that looks radically different from most of the ad campaigns flooding cable and broadcast news during this campaign season.
They may not be household names, but in the rarefied, cacophonous world of TikTok, they’re stars. The rapper Ryze Hendricks, for instance, has 5.7 million followers on the platform. Mochips, a makeup-focused creator who also knits, has 2.5 million.
“I know you’re struggling to raise these kids during this pani,” begins one message last year from Mochips, who winds yarn on a spindle as she talks to the camera. She goes on to explain that the government is “giving you money to help raise your kids.” The video, according to TikTok, was liked or favorited nearly 29,000 times and shared 1,665 times.
Ryze, 39, seems to have been a particularly enthusiastic participant. He recorded two clips in which he raps about “supportin’ that Child Tax Credit,” racking up more than 800,000 views in total. A father of three, he and his wife took advantage of the credits themselves.
In an interview, Ryze said that because he normally raps about less serious subjects, when he started weaving in rhymes about policy issues, “it definitely caused a stir among my followers.” But, he added, “it caused more serious conversation” in his comment section.
Another video, from Quentin Hank, a creator and comedian in Las Vegas, uses the two-frame meme format that is ubiquitous on social media. The first frame runs with the text, “Me: In 2020, stressed about money for my nephew.” The second, showing him mugging for the camera as the happy nephew, bouncing up and down to hip-hop music, reads: “Nephew: Hyped about getting $3,000 from the Child Tax Credit.”
Hank’s feed, which is followed by nearly half a million other TikTok accounts, is normally a madcap mash-up of goofy short skits and paid ads for products like Thighstop Thigh Day, DoorDash and acne medication.
That’s precisely the point, say Mikka Kei Macdonald and Ashwath Narayanan, the young progressive strategists behind the TikTok experiment.
Last year, the two set out to find apolitical accounts and pay them to promote policy-related content — much like Wingstop, the extremely online chicken company, paid Hank to promote their boneless, breaded, crispy “thigh bites.”
Their focus is on reaching young voters of color, a famously hard-to-reach demographic that tends to tune out politics. For Democrats, they are an important constituency, but a fickle one. President Biden remains especially unpopular among younger voters of color, who gravitated toward his more left-leaning opponents during the 2020 presidential primary. It’s this constituency that has consistently expressed discontent with his presidency in polls.
An experiment is born
Both strategists are young people of color themselves: Macdonald, the creative director of Community Change Action, is a 28-year-old of Japanese and Scottish origin, while Narayanan, the founder and chief executive of Social Currant, is an Indian-American who graduated from college in the spring. He only recently became legally allowed to buy alcohol.
Narayanan’s company, which he founded a little over a year ago, bills itself as “a next-generation, youth-powered emerging media agency.” More simply, he specializes in connecting nonprofit groups to influencers on TikTok, Instagram (focusing on its TikTok-like Reels video feature) and other social media platforms. Community Change Action, a nonprofit that seeks to mobilize low-income voters of color for progressive causes, is one of his clients.
To gauge the success of their idea, Macdonald and Narayanan set up an exercise extending over the course of 48 hours in June 2021, linking their efforts up to a White House push involving the Child Tax Credit.
Their goal, they said, was to find out if they could get 100,000 TikTok views for videos on the subject. So Narayanan scoured the platform for plausible influencers who might be suitable messengers, settling on a group of 15.
To their surprise, the videos generated 400,000 views and drove 1,000 clicks to Community Change Action’s page explaining the Child Tax Credit in greater depth and asking people to urge Congress to keep the policy in place.
They also tried to test how well their experiment had performed. So they chose an audience of women between 18 and 34, randomly directing one group toward Mochips’s video on the Child Tax Credit, and delivering a “placebo” video to the other half of the sample.
They found that Black TikTok users making less than $49,000 a year were 23 percent more likely to say they had a positive view of the Child Tax Credit.
Those numbers aren’t necessarily commensurate with the scale needed to move the dial on Capitol Hill. And it’s worth noting that extra payments from the Child Tax Credit were discontinued this winter when Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia soured on the price tag.
A new model for political media?
Macdonald and Narayanan are somewhat dismissive of traditional paid media efforts, which they say rarely reach young, low-income people of color in particular.
In part, they suggest, it’s because of the ethnicity and age of the people who have traditionally made most of the decisions.
“For decades, staffers on political campaigns have looked the same and their roles have been centralized and predictable,” they wrote in a news release promoting their work. “Campaigns have mostly been run by a small number of decision makers who often don’t represent the diversity of our voters.”
That, they argue, combined with senior leaders’ penchant for top-down control, has led to a lack of creativity in political messaging — which is why they allow their creators to write their own scripts as long as they are factually accurate.
“They’ve spent a long time cultivating their audience,” said Narayanan, “so they know them best.”
For Democrats and progressive groups aligned with them, reaching young voters of color can present a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem: Mass television advertising campaigns tend to be aimed at older audiences, who vote at vastly higher rates. So even as Democratic strategists wring their hands about how to engage a population that is itinerant and generally disengaged from politics, they just as often write them off in frustration.
And even when they do try, the senior leaders who tend to run messaging campaigns aimed at influencing the views and voting habits of younger generations tend to struggle to connect with those audiences, too; you won’t find graybeards like James Carville on TikTok for instance — and if he were there, the former Bill Clinton adviser wouldn’t necessarily approach the medium like a digital native.
Macdonald pushed back on my questions about whether viewers might find it inauthentic or unusual that the videos were being sponsored for as much as $3,000 apiece, rather than organically developed by people who felt passionately about the issue in question.
“We need to be paying young creators of color; for progressives, this is a perfect opportunity for us to live our values,” Macdonald said. “Compensation in this instance is a smart, strategic investment in building a new type of political leader, and that’s critical as we seek to build long-term power for young people of color.”
That phrase — “long-term power” — is important. Macdonald and Narayanan believe they’re only in the early stages of figuring out how to tap into apolitical creator communities to send political messages. And clearly, there’s more work to do.
When CNN wrote about Wingstop’s influencer campaign on chicken thighs, an effort to nudge consumers away from more costly breast and wing meat, the network noted that “convincing Americans to get excited about thighs might not be easy.”
You would think that free money ought to be an easier sell.
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