WASHINGTON — In between posts showing himself running ladder drills and lifting weights, Ky’Wuan Dukes, a 20-year-old wide receiver at Johnson C. Smith University, tells his 21,000 Instagram followers to vote. He has also discussed gun control and abortion rights, as part of a campaign he is paid to participate in by NextGen America, a Democratic political action committee and advocacy group.
Luke Stone, a contestant on the reality shows “Bachelorette” and “Bachelor in Paradise,” has shared with his 33,000 followers an advertisement promoting reproductive rights for women, paid for by another Democratic PAC, American Bridge.
And in July, Grace Hunter, who has 4 million followers on TikTok, posted a video capturing the responses she got on a dating app when she asked the people she matched with their opinions about abortion. She then encouraged her followers to vote, as part of a sponsored campaign called “Hot Girls Vote.”
These social media influencers and microinfluencers — noncelebrity users who have attracted a moderately large following — are paid hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars per post to circulate political messages, and they are part of a growing group of people who are being paid by campaign operatives to create content aimed at influencing the midterm elections.
Political firms, mostly those aligned with Democrats and progressive causes, are increasingly turning to them in hopes of finding ways to reach Generation Z and non-English-speaking voters, according to researchers, and they represent a novel — and unregulated — way of promoting political messages.
Strategists say using influencers can enhance how campaigns engage with crucial voters who could help sway competitive races. They provide a cost-effective way to communicate to large and localized audiences that draws higher engagement and circumvents bans on political advertising on platforms like Twitter, TikTok and Instagram.
“Influencers know their audience better than anyone else,” Jessica Floyd, the president of American Bridge, said. “They are in conversation with people day in and day out on subjects that matter to them.”
Young voters tend to skew toward Democrats, voting for Joseph R. Biden Jr. over President Donald J. Trump in the last presidential election by a margin of 60 percent to 36 percent, but they are the least likely age group to turn out. In a September poll by The New York Times/Siena College, just 30 percent of young voters said they were “almost certain” they would vote in the midterm elections.
People First, a liberal-leaning firm that specializes in partnership with influencers, found in one study that 43 percent of people surveyed trusted influencers more than political campaigns themselves, said Curtis Hougland, the company’s chief executive officer.
Mr. Hougland said People First had worked with about 10,000 influencers this election cycle to cover seven congressional races and about a dozen other advocacy and state-level campaigns.
The NextGen PAC set aside about $2 million during this campaign cycle for its digital strategy and influencer programs that partnered with college athletes, including Mr. Duke, and TikTok users including Ms. Hunter, according to Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, the group’s president. As part of the deal, the influencers are required to disclose that the posts are paid for, and by whom.
The Democratic Majority Action PAC has focused its efforts on congressional races in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, offering influencers between $300 and $500 per post, said Sannie Overly, a former Kentucky state representative who leads the organization.
And some campaigns have hired influencers as members of their staffs, recognizing the power of a large social media following to blast out their messages.
While many organizations mandate that the influencers with whom they contract for posts divulge that the material is sponsored, the partnerships raise unique issues, as no federal guidance has been published on the specifics of influencer political advertisements. That means that users and political marketing campaigns are effectively bound by no more than an honor system in disclosing when content has been paid for by a political campaign or organization. Some experts worry it could exacerbate the spread of misinformation and allow shadowy political messaging to flourish.
G.L. DiVittorio, a 27-year-old TikToker who runs a political account called “The Pocket Report” and has partnered with advocacy groups to create content, said the field is akin to “the Wild West,” adding that she believed social media companies and political firms were still figuring out how to enforce disclosure policies. Firms like People First review posts from their influencers before they are published to ensure that the user has disclosed that the content was paid for, Mr. Hougland said, but largely leave the message alone in efforts to keep it personalized and genuine.
The Federal Election Commission, which oversees campaign finance law including political advertising, does not have specific regulations for influencers, meaning they are not subject to the same rules as traditional advertisements like TV and radio ads, which mandate disclosure of who paid for the content.
Political action committees must report how they spend their money, but they are not required to disclose the names of individual influencers or accounts with which they partner. And recipients of PAC or campaign funding have no legal obligation to disclose money they receive.
“Influencers can create the illusion of popularity for particular organizations, campaigns, politicians, corporations, especially in circumstances when we saw that influencers weren’t disclosing that they were paid,” said Samuel Woolley, the director of propaganda research at the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Media Engagement.
Mr. Woolley, who has studied how social media platforms have been used to manipulate public opinion, says he worries that true transparency is impossible because influencers may fear losing followers if they promote content that is clearly marked as sponsored by a political group or candidate.
According to F.E.C. data, campaigns and political action committees have spent more than $300 million dollars during this election cycle on digital and social media advertising and consulting. It is impossible to discern how much of that has gone directly to influencers because PACs and campaigns typically pay firms that then contract work to influencers.
Platforms including Twitter and TikTok have banned political ads; TikTok has even banned political ads from paid influencers. But in a statement in the lead-up to the midterm elections, Eric Han, TikTok’s head of U.S. safety, conceded that undisclosed political advertising from influencers was still a problem.
Even when social media companies do try to flag sponsored political content, it can be difficult to determine when a post is paid for or simply prompted by a user’s beliefs, said Laura Edelson, the co-director of Cybersecurity for Democracy at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering.
Oftentimes, monitoring political content from influencers “tends to fall through the cracks,” she said, because “influencer content completely breaks the model.”
Tracy Travaglio, 37, a fashion and political microinfluencer from Pennsylvania who has partnered with the Democratic Majority Action PAC to advertise about her state’s gubernatorial race, said she had disclosed her partnership status in her caption. Failure to do so, she added, is “not necessarily healthy for our democracy.”
Sam Shlafstein, 19, who has more than 137,000 followers on TikTok and works with the nonprofit group Gen-Z for Change, said the campaigns he partners with have strict guidelines and insist on editing his captions and content multiple times before he can post.
Mr. Shlafstein, who has worked with the Democratic National Committee and the White House, added that social media platforms and the influence of Gen Z users like him have “democratized” political messaging.
He added that he only agrees to create posts for issues he genuinely cares about.
“The benefit could outweigh the cons, and it’s not the worst instance of a lack of transparency in politics,” he said.
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