Exit polls from the midterm elections point to the youth vote as being a decisive factor in staving off the expected “red wave.” What role does social media play in turning out a record high number of young voters? Senator-elect John Fetterman, who flipped a Republican-held seat in Pennsylvania, became known for his witty—and viral—Twitter posts, often lambasting opponent Mehmet Oz for, say, being a resident of New Jersey. His social media strategy, which also included a robust presence on TikTok, has been credited with effectively reaching younger voters.
According to analysis from CIRCLE, the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, the youth vote (ages 18-29) was the second highest in three decades, after the 2018 midterms. And it played a key role in battleground states like Pennsylvania, where youth voters accounted for 12% of the overall count, and of that, 70% voted for Fetterman.
As candidates from both parties look to harness the power of young voters, Cafe’s Noa Azulai spoke with Annie Wu Henry, a social and digital media expert and the social media producer on Fetterman’s campaign.
This transcript was edited for length and clarity.
Noa Azulai: What have you seen in your electoral work get the most engagement with people? What seems to resonate? What doesn’t?
Annie Wu Henry: I think what’s really interesting about the Internet, it’s that there’s so many trends, there’s so many things that are so timely. And then there’s also the short attention span. You can keep scrolling. If a TikTok doesn’t grab your attention in the first few seconds, if you don’t hook them, they’re just going to swipe to the next video. It’s pretty tricky. And so I think what works the best is trying to find that sweet spot of something that is short, entertaining, and they don’t have to think about too much, that they watch and they’re like, “Oh, I get it,” and I laugh during it or, “Oh, I get it,” and I cringe during it, or whatever your intended reaction is.
And then the content that they’re reading, even if it’s in a meme format, even if it’s in a TikTok format, it’s tangible information that’s important for the race and for the candidate. I know that’s not concrete like this is the secret formula, but I think that that’s kind of the point. And that’s what’s cool and difficult about the Internet is that it’s ever-changing. It’s that so many people have opinions. It’s that it moves so quickly and so trying to really make sure you’re harnessing all of that when creating content.
Noa Azulai: Have you found that there’s something that’s really important in your work that employers can give you or enable you with to be able to make those kinds of posts?
Annie Wu Henry: I mean, I’m a young person, I’m a chronically online person. I feel like half of the things I say sometimes people are like, What are you talking about? Because now you have to know one thing to understand, another thing to understand another thing. But it’s being present on those platforms. And like, it sounds silly, but it’s part of the job. It’s knowing what’s happening. Because if you’re just a few hours behind, if you’re a day behind, you’re not going to understand what led to another. And so I think hiring and empowering people that are already in those spaces or understand those landscapes is so important because a lot of it, yes, I think you can learn, but I think it takes time. And I think being present and being there and just like any community, you know, the online community is one of its own. And if you’re there and you understand it and you understand the humor of it and you understand how things work and how things are sent around or just like the dynamics of creators and how they think about things, having people that have that insight and that knowledge is helpful. Just like you’d want a senator that’s from Pennsylvania, because they’re from Pennsylvania —
Noa Azulai: Not New Jersey.
Annie Wu Henry: Not New Jersey or Palm Beach or wherever his houses are.
Noa Azulai: What is the most effective way to reach young voters? Are campaigns generally doing enough to reach young voters? And how important is social media in that sort of campaign strategy?
Annie Wu Henry: It’s so increasingly important. And so much of our campaign was every county, every vote. And so it’s meeting people where they are. It’s not just going to the big cities. And that mentality can be thought of in all types of ways. So when I think about myself and other young people, I don’t have cable. I’m not seeing the political ads in the same way as my parents. And so I think, again, it’s a loss to not try to meet people where they are. And that doesn’t discount all of the other types of media and all the other types of ways we communicate with people. Door knocking and phone calls and text banks and TV ads and snail mail, all of those things are still effective. But I think you have to include now the other ways people are getting information.
TikTok, I think, has more hours streamed a day than Netflix, and TikTok and YouTube are like a search engine for so many people rather than just Google, and so many people get their news for better or for worse from things like Twitter. They get their information on how to register to vote from an infographic on Instagram.
I hope that people across the board see that youth want to get involved, that they care, that they want to have a say. And sometimes it’s just getting the information to them. You know, as a young person, sometimes you don’t know where to start. And if you meet them where they’re at and you give them a little something, then maybe that will propel them to take further action or to get involved, or to just talk to their friends.
Noa Azulai: Have you ever experienced any pushback from people who did political communications in older generations or in a time that didn’t have TikTok? Is there any kind of divide you’ve had to reconcile?
Annie Wu Henry: Not really. I think, you know, coming on to the campaign they brought me on for a reason. And I think that they saw the value in it and they didn’t necessarily need to understand what I was doing all the time. You know, there were members of our team that don’t have TikTok, that don’t understand the Don’t Worry Darling drama or the Adam Levine tweet meme. But numbers and, like we see in the turnout, the impact speaks for itself. And you don’t need to understand the nuances of how to do a transition on TikTok to understand that TikTok is a valuable and powerful tool that reaches millions of people. And I think that we’re still at the curve of people actually understanding the platforms or things like that. I think that even older demographics and older political institutions are understanding that there’s power there and that they should be on the side that is using that. Because, I mean, even the White House brought a bunch of TikTok-ers to the White House before the midterms to make content and to meet with Biden and Obama and all types of people. And it feels probably silly, like, oh, just TikTok-ers. But I think people understand the power. Does Biden understand TikTok? I don’t know. But I think that they know that it would be a lost opportunity to not try to utilize it. And that’s why they hopefully give it to people who do understand it.
Noa Azulai: There was obviously a lot of talk before the midterms about this big “red wave” that was coming, which we didn’t see. We did see a lot of young people come out to vote. And feels like anecdotally, there’s a lot of surprise every time young voters come out like in the last few elections. Young people—our generation—are a really powerful force. Do you think young voters are underestimated? And where is the future of Gen Z’s political power headed?
Annie Wu Henry: I think for Gen Z and just young people in general, we have so much at stake and there’s so much of a reason that we could be disheartened, but also why we should care. And probably in spite of being underestimated a lot of times, I think Gen Z really tries to make a conscious effort and you see that with all these different types of organizations and all of these different people speaking out and people trying to get involved. I think you see that every time there’s a protest after something like the Dobbs decision—all of these young people that really care and they want to do something. And so I think there is this level of surprise of like, oh, the youth turned out. I’m hoping that in the coming years, it’s not as much of a surprise and it’s seen as the power that youth are. And I think, again, it’s investing into making sure young people have the tools and have the information and have the resources to be involved and to be a part of civic processes. It’s so important and I think as we invest into that even more, we’ll just see youth continue to show up and hopefully not surprise people, but continue to make people shocked at how much power there is.