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Monday, September 26, 2022

Primary candidates take to TikTok

Campaigns look to engage young voters online

<p>Politicians are using social media sites such as TikTok in hopes of reaching young voters.</p>

Politicians are using social media sites such as TikTok in hopes of reaching young voters.

TikTok is a hub for a variety of creative content — trendy dances and memes are usual suspects for video topics. Lately, though, the social media algorithm has thrown midterm election coverage into the mix of videos that pop up on users’ For You pages.

In the midst of the midterm primaries, some candidates — including July Thomas, who’s running for Gainesville mayor, and Val Demings, who’s running for Senate — are using TikTok as a key part of their campaign strategies.

With catchy viral sounds and bite-sized clips known to capture the attention of younger generations, the social media platform has been a way to gain resident support and convince the youth to go vote.

Andrew Selepak, a social media professor from the UF College of Journalism and Communications, said TikTok’s unique algorithm is ideal for candidates who want to reach audiences outside their immediate network by using down-to-earth content.

“Today, no one is going to sit and listen to a candidate talk about their opinions for two hours,” he said.

Instead, Selepak said, TikTok is especially effective at catering to shorter attention spans with its brief and captivating style of content. As the language and concepts of campaigns become simpler, an air of informality is also added to humanize the candidates, he said.

“You're trying to be seen as the person you want to have a beer with,” Selepak said.

Thomas, a 31-year-old Gainesville mayoral candidate, also received attention for her TikTok videos. Her account, @julygnv, has more than 17,000 followers and received 1.4 million views within the past month.

Thomas’ videos mostly feature conversational, informative content about Gainesville’s issues and history.

Some of the viral videos on her page include descriptions of Gainesville during the Reconstruction era and the Rosewood massacre. Thomas said her videos appeal to viewers because she doesn’t have ulterior motives.

The platform gives her a chance to connect directly with the people most likely to vote for her, Thomas said.

“I'm just trying to make people aware of this history, first and foremost,” Thomas said. “And it's not even my history, but it's history that I want people to know.”

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It’s worth putting effort into TikTok campaigns to reach younger voters because Gainesville has a young population overall, Thomas said. About 57% of Gainesville residents are under 30 years old, according to 2020 data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“People always say you can't win just by appealing to the youth vote,” Thomas said. “Whenever I hear that, I always think, ‘have you considered that the youth don't vote because you are unappealing?’”

Evan Smith, a 20-year-old UF political science and history junior, described Thomas’ TikTok videos as “unscripted, unpolished, unpracticed, unmediated and uninterrupted.” This candidness allows Thomas to talk to voters directly without a separating median or institution, he said.

Smith views candidates using TikTok positively, he said, because it allows them to reach a younger voter demographic.

“It is true that TikTok does have a lot of entertainment, and it really is about small sound bites, but that’s really what young voters gravitate to,” Smith said. “You might as well speak to them in the medium that they’re comfortable with.”

Demings, a 65-year-old Democratic candidate running for Senate, has more than 70,000 followers and 3.6 million views on TikTok. Her account, @valdemings, includes a mix of motivating montages of her career, as well as lighthearted meme videos.

Katie Jevin, Demings’ deputy press secretary, said in a statement that being close to voters is the primary reason for Demings’ TikTok account.

“Chief Demings is leading an innovative and creative campaign that is working tirelessly to meet voters wherever they are, in person or online, and bolster our fight to defeat career politician Marco Rubio and send a cop on the beat to the United States Senate,” Jevin wrote.

Many of the posts on Demings’ account are pointed against her Republican opponent Sen. Marco Rubio. Demings uses trending music and sounds to create both serious and humorous posts to expose claimed shortcomings of the current senator, such as his refusal to stand against the controversial Parental Rights in Education Act, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by advocates.

Other videos include compilations of pictures of Demings from her youth and career as Orlando police chief and a Q&A session with TikTok account Gen Z for Change on TikTok Live.

Demings also uses the viral nature of her TikTok platform to garner campaign donations. In the second quarter of the fiscal year, Demings raised more than $9 million online, Jevin wrote.

“A strong internet presence helps build a digital fundraising army,” Jevin wrote.

Many Gainesville students have also come across Demings on their For You pages. Jaanai Scott, a 20-year-old UF finance junior, said there were both good aspects and other improvements that could be worked on for Demings’ TikTok.

“I want to hear what you can do for the community, what you can do for Floridians,” Scott said. “In that sense, I'm glad it’s kind of a break through the seriousness.”

Although Scott said she wishes Demings would acknowledge that youth voters could better engage with serious political issues, she also believes the lighthearted nature and use of trendy sounds set Demings apart from traditional campaign methods.

“I'm gonna remember a candidate who had a TikTok of a Wii character running in the background,” Scott said. “I'm gonna remember that probably more than I remember somebody saying, ‘Oh, I’m a Floridian just like you.’”

Contact Erina at eanwar@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @ErinaAnwar_ .

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Erina Anwar

Erina is a second-year journalism student and reports on East Gainesville for The Alligator. Originally from Dhaka, Bangladesh, Erina grew up in Fort Lauderdale and is excited to discover new stories in Gainesville. When she’s not writing, she enjoys exploring local restaurants and watching Korean dramas.


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