Progressive TikTok creators turn against Biden
Jul 10, 2024

Progressive TikTok creators turn against Biden

In 2020, many creators on the platform backed Biden's campaign. Now, they're offended by his policies on Gaza, climate and TikTok itself, explains Taylor Lorenz of The Washington Post.

About a third of adults under 30 regularly get their news on TikTok, according to the Pew Research Center. And the messages that young, left-leaning creators are posting on the short-form video app this election season are pretty different from last time around.

In 2020, a coalition of influencers united to back presidential candidate Joe Biden’s campaign, and a historically high youth turnout helped propel him to a win. But after 3½ years of Biden’s presidency, the TikTok tide has turned, according to Taylor Lorenz, online culture columnist at The Washington Post, who recently wrote about this shift. The following is an edited transcript of her conversation with Marketplace’s Meghan McCarty Carino.

Taylor Lorenz: Biden’s campaign in 2020 partnered with a lot of content creators leading up to the election in terms of distributing information to them, inviting them to events, things like that. Once Biden took office, they tightened that relationship with the content creators even further. They used content creators to roll out things like the [COVID] vaccines. They also used them to push a lot of early items on Biden’s agenda, such as his Build Back Better plan, infrastructure plan. They also briefed content creators on big issues like the war in Ukraine and other stuff that the government was doing.

Meghan McCarty Carino: So how have things kind of changed in this election cycle?

Lorenz: So things have done kind of a 180. So I would say Biden’s first couple years in office were marked by this really tight relationship with a lot of Gen Z progressive internet content creators. Once it became clear that he wasn’t exactly meeting all of the promises that he had made in his campaign, you saw the energy start to shift. You had Elise Joshi, a climate activist and content creator on TikTok, confronting the administration about drilling projects, about greenlighting drilling projects and other sorts of issues related to climate where they didn’t think Biden was doing enough, basically, to stop climate change. You also had a lot of young content creators really outraged about the U.S. policy towards Israel and our decision to continue to give them aid. A lot of young content creators, especially disabled content creators, are extremely angry at the president now for not doing more to curb the pandemic. And then of course, you have the TikTok ban, the app that has become sort of the hub for progressive activism.

McCarty Carino: We have an example here from a TikTokker, @Shiloh_author. Let’s hear kind of some of the sentiment that these creators are expressing:

@Shiloh_author: The boomers think that Gen Z doesn’t understand what’s going on, so let me break it down for them: [Donald] Trump, bad; Biden, bad. Third-parties presented, but Gen Z not big enough for third parties. So we’re back to bad and bad. We say, “Don’t want,” you say, “That’s all we have.” We say, “Would rather jump ship than go down as it’s sinking.” You say, “That’s unpatriotic,” we say, “F___ you, give us better options.” You say, “Trump, Biden,” we say, “That’s it?” You say, “Yes because system says so.” And we’re back to bad and bad. You see the cycle? You are the cycle. I’m tired of this, Grandpa.

McCarty Carino: How has the Biden campaign reacted to this shift?

Lorenz: Not well at all. A lot of creators told me how they feel like they’ve been blacklisted from events. They used to get invited to these briefings and events at the White House. Now they’re completely shut off. The Biden campaign has basically just been like “Shut up and get on board.” They haven’t really done a lot to build bridges with more progressive creators. I think the issue here is the fundamental differences in what these young people want versus what the Democratic Party is giving them. You can do as much outreach as possible, and you could have the entire Biden comms team taking all of these content creators out to lunch, but it won’t matter until they change their stance on Israel, take steps to mitigate climate change more significantly, reverse the TikTok ban, actually start combating COVID, things like this that matter to people, especially progressives.

McCarty Carino: And the folks that you talk to kind of compared the treatment of creators to the traditional media. I mean, how’s that compare?

Lorenz: I think what’s frustrating to a lot of these young people is that they feel like for the Biden administration to give them a response on things or to engage with them, they have to be 100% on board with everything Biden says. We know that The Washington Post, for instance, can show up in the White House briefing room and get a response no matter how critical we are of the president. Content creators are very much the new media. They have audiences much bigger than The Washington Post in some cases, and they feel like they’re seen more as marketing mouthpieces and not the new journalists, basically, that a lot of them are.

McCarty Carino: Are there some meaningful differences between kind of the creator ecosystem and traditional media that make it challenging or that creates sort of tensions in how something official like a campaign would treat these folks?

Lorenz: Yeah. I mean, fundamentally, content creators are not like the traditional media in that they have a much tighter bond with their audience. Their audience is much more likely to trust them than they are the traditional media. They also monetize in different ways. Some of them do sponsored content. Some of them do have these more porous relationships with brands than traditional journalists. That said, a lot of them are extremely ethical, brilliant, independent journalists who do a really phenomenal job. So I think it depends on the content creator. I think that the Biden campaign seems to be treating these content creators more like marketing mouthpieces rather than members of the new media.

McCarty Carino: This kind of reminds me of the tensions with the new media when I got into journalism, which was the blogsphere. I mean, we have kind of seen a convergence there, where it seems like a lot of the really influential blogs kind of professionalized, and a lot of the traditional media kind of turned more blogger-ish. Do you see something similar happening here?

Lorenz: I do. I also got into journalism through blogging. I have absolutely no formal experience. And I developed an audience on the internet. Now that’s led me to work at mainstream places like The Washington Post. So this is a pathway that I think a lot of these content creators will end up following. I was actually talking to one content creator in D.C. just this morning who was saying that his whole goal this year is to get more of these traditional media opportunities, get a deal with NBC or CBS. So I think these young people are experts at leveraging their audiences. I think that the traditional media needs to embrace them, and I think a lot of traditional media has. The Washington Post has a TikTok team. A lot more news outlets are partnering with content creator-type correspondents. So I think you’re seeing a lot of blurred lines in this new media landscape.

McCarty Carino: The White House is set to host a creator economy summit next month, in August. What is that about? And do you think this has the opportunity to kind of rebuild any of these bridges?

Lorenz: Hmm. I think that the White House hosting a creator economy summit is very interesting. It reminds me of when [President Barack] Obama hosted South by South Lawn, which was an event he held a few months before leaving office, basically bringing all of these big tech companies to meet with White House staffers and people in D.C. and build those bridges. I think that the Biden administration seems to be trying to do a similar thing to online media creators. I don’t really know what they hope to achieve with this summit. I think it remains to be seen. This is the first time they’re hosting the event. I think they just want to hear from content creators and establish more connections in those industries. I will say a lot of content creators, especially Gen Z, that I talked to say that they don’t have any plans to attend the summit. I think fundamentally, the Biden administration and the Democrats more broadly, they are not going to capture young content creators by setting up meetings with them or even catering to them. They really need to engage with these people in meaningful ways. They need to have briefings where these content creators can ask really tough issues. They need to recognize that they might not garner a lot of support in Gen Z until they shift their policies. Ultimately, it’s their policy on Israel that these content creators have issues with, among many other things. Now, could they build better bridges by maybe having some of those conversations with more contentious leftist creators? Yes, I think they could. But they have shown an unwillingness to do that. And I think that a lot of young people feel that’s reflective of the broader Democratic Party’s unwillingness to engage with more progressive ideology.

McCarty Carino: We’ve been talking about Democrats and the Biden campaign. What does this look like on the other side of the aisle?

Lorenz: Well, the Republicans have always been completely intertwined with the content creator industry. I mean, the entire right-wing media landscape has worked with content creators for however long you want to think this industry has existed. I mean, you have to consider the fact that the right-wing media is extremely personality driven. Just go back to the days of talk radio in the ’90s, people like Rush Limbaugh, right? It’s always been driven around charisma and personality in a way that the more traditional media has not, especially when you look at figures like Trump. He was so early on working with these big people with online followings. I mean, I’ll never forget, I covered the 2016 election, and at the [Republican National Convention] in 2016, you had tons of YouTubers, content creators. It seemed like the entire thing was just to get content. And the RNC this year will also be welcoming back content creators, and same with the [Democratic National Convention] this time as well. So I think it’s a battle for online influence, and both parties seem to recognize the importance of that.

More on this

Back in April, President Biden signed a big foreign aid package that also stipulated TikTok would be banned in the U.S. if the platform does not separate from its China-based parent company, ByteDance, and find a new owner by Jan. 19.

If you found yourself wondering about it when we were discussing TikTokkers’ unhappiness over the ban, here’s an update. In May, the company sued to block that law on First Amendment grounds. The case is likely to go all the way to the Supreme Court.

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