Ken Russell, a political candidate from Florida, went viral for a TikTok video asking users to register to vote.
Politicians are increasingly using social media like TikTok during their campaigns.
The low barrier to entry for social media can help democratize campaigns, experts say.
Ken Russell calls his strategy a “vote-trap” — or a thirst-trap to get people to the polls.
In a July video posted to Russell’s TikTok account, artist Skylar Stecker squats and poses in front of her camera to a Megan Thee Stallion rap. Then, with a sudden flash, she transforms into a man in a suit on the ground. Russell, kneeling in front of the camera, asks viewers if they are registered for Florida’s August 23 primary.
Aware that audiences are not there to watch a middle-aged congressional candidate encourage them to vote, he begs people to come back as the video glitches and cuts to black.
“Typical political bait and switch,” Russell said in a comment below his video.
The video, and a subsequent reaction video Russell made, together garnered over 7 million views. It’s now one of the top videos appearing under the “political campaign” search results on TikTok. Russell has also gained more than 400,000 followers.
Russell, a Democrat running for a Florida House seat in the US Congress, told Insider he’s a big believer in TikTok, calling it the future of political communications, but said the platform doesn’t require a “deep political strategy.”
Russell, who currently serves on the Board of Commissioners in Miami, said he has no schedule or team helping him with his TikTok content.
He said he finds himself scrolling on the app to see what memes are trending. He then works on ways to weave his political values in with trends he finds humorous in order to create his posts — much like the average TikTok user.
Garnering the TikTok vote means getting Gen Z’s attention
Russell’s videos can perhaps be summed up in a TikTok he posted in July, mocking the Steve Buscemi “How do you do, fellow kids” meme. He said using the platform is ultimately about a politician trying to connect with younger generations through humor.
“It has to do with fun authenticity,” Russell said. “Entertainment, then engagement, and then education.”
Research suggests personal relatability in politicians is important to younger generations. A study from the University of North Florida found that Gen Z users on Instagram connected with politicians like Reps. Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez and Madison Cawthorn, who they felt shared personal aspects of their job and life on the platform and engaged in two-way communication.
One of the authors of the study, John Parmlee, told Insider that he had shown Russell’s “vote-trap” video to his Gen-Z son, who said it worked because of the relatability and humor.
“[Gen Z is] politically active, and so it does make sense for politicians to reach out to them because there are votes to be held,” Parmlee, the director of UNF’s School of Communication, said.
Although there isn’t much research on how much TikTok — an app with over 1 billion monthly active users — affects political campaigns, it’s clear that younger people dominate the app.
TikTok is one of the most popular social media apps among teens, data shows, with 40% of Gen Z using TikTok and Instagram to search topics on the internet over Google. A study in the UK found that TikTok is one of the fastest growing news sources for young adults.
Eric Wilson, a Republican strategist, told The New York Times that Democrats may find it more rewarding to use TikTok to curry favor with younger audiences, who are more likely to vote blue than Republicans, who are often trying to engage older voters with different values.
Democratic politicians may have taken note of this, as some of the most active and popular politicians on TikTok are Democrats.
Sen. Ed Markey from Massachusetts tapped into TikTok during his 2020 campaign. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has an account with 1.3 million followers. Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan also uses the platform to share campaign promises and behind-the-scenes looks on the hill.
Campaigns have become more democratized as social media ‘changed the game’
Russell describes himself as the “underdog” in his race because the primary candidate he is running against, Annette Taddeo, is endorsed by Rep. Nancy Pelosi.
Taddeo also campaigns on TikTok and both Taddeo and Russell use the platform to promote their candidacy and criticize their opponent.
Taddeo appears to have an edge in the polls over Russell, and whoever wins the primary will face off against freshman Republican Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar in November.
But Russell says TikTok has helped give him a large audience and encourages newer politicians to take advantage of the platform. “There is no other world where you can reach your audience so directly and so viscerally without paying for it,” Russell said. “In fact, you can’t pay for it.”
Social media has helped younger, less-experienced, and lesser-known candidates increase the number and amount of donations they receive for their campaigns, a 2016 study found.
The study also found that donations rose for politicians who posted original content, used words associated with “anti-establishment” ideals, or appear to be plugged into mainstream topics.
Ananya Sen, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and one of the study authors, told Insider that while pre-social media campaigns relied heavily on paid advertisements, social media has changed the game.
“Now you can have a viral moment which makes you reasonably popular and that can lead to more funnels, getting you name recognition,” Sen said.
Despite TikTok’s wide reach, the success of newer candidates who engage on the platform is still up in the air. Candidates like Joshua Collins in Washington, Minnesota Democrat Matt Little, and Arkansas Democrat Kelly Krout, all used TikTok to campaign but lost their races in 2020, Insider reported.
There have also been candidates who have won their races, but it is unclear how much TikTok contributed. Georgia newcomer Sen. Jon Ossoff, who used TikTok to promote his campaign, won his race in 2020. Rep. Christina Haswood, another TikTok-user during her campaign, won her 2020 race for the Kansas House of Representatives.
“If I can pull this off as the underdog…it’s gonna say something about the platform, I think, because I’ve invested a lot of time into it,” Russell said.