This Volunteer Army Reps Joe Biden on TikTok. And Instagram. And Reddit ...
Thanks to the pandemic, the Democratic National Convention went virtual, Joe Biden massively scaled back in-person rallies, and the President of the United States, well, caught Coronavirus. This year’s election battle has, as a result, been fought online like no race before it. At the same time, digital activism has seen some stumbles as late (think: performative black squares, self-indulgent challenges). Enter the Biden Digital Coalition. The unofficial grassroots organization has 275 volunteers of all ages hoping to combat Trump’s internet-savvy, conspiracy-touting fanbase with their own internet army spanning platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Medium, Spotify, Reddit, and of course, TikTok.
The coalition had roots from Pete Buttigeg’s Digital Captain’s program, where Biden Digital Coalition co-director Laura De Veau volunteered before Biden’s campaign approached her following Buttigeg’s withdrawal from the race. Now, the BDC has representation and leadership from Warren, Sanders, Harris, Yang and other primary campaign supporters. While it coordinates with the campaign, the Biden Digital Coalition is officially independent from it.
Olivia Sullivan, currently co-lead of the coalition’s TikTok, also moderates a handful of official Joe Biden Facebook pages. When she approached the campaign about getting the presidential hopeful on TikTok, they pointed her to the Biden Digital Coalition instead.
“I was definitely bothering them, like, ‘We have to connect with Gen-Z voters,’” Sullivan says in a phone call. “The Trump TikTok pages have 1.5 million followers. They've been promoting Trump for the last two years on the app and there was basically no presence for Joe Biden.”
When Sullivan joined, the Biden Coalition TikTok had around 300 followers. The account now has over 100,000, and they say around 12,000 users stopped by their live video the night of the first presidential debate.
“On TikTok, the funny, trendy content really brings people to our page, so we really try to utilize that, but then balance it with policy videos,” Sullivan says. “We bring them to the page and then hopefully provide them some education and value once they're there.”
Most of the videos play off of whatever TikTok trend is popular at the moment, such as Kamala Harris’s “I’m speaking” from the Vice Presidential debate, or use recognizable TikTok audios to highlight issues like Trump’s tax returns or make jokes about the candidates.
And support for Biden is part of a new trend on the app as well. While a popular audio with the lyrics “please don’t make me vote for Joe Biden” was all the rage during the final months of the Democratic primaries, last week 200 popular digital creators like Jackie James, Jeremy Scheck, and Claudia Conway launched @TikTokForBiden.
But Gen Z isn’t the coalition’s only target. On TikTok, there’s a volunteer for every demographic, like Mary Jo Laupp, who has over 30,000 followers and calls herself the “TikTok Grandma,” gearing her account towards people who “want to talk politics in a safe space with someone who is older,” Sullivan says. There’s also a woman named Eugenia, who goes by “queenbored” on the app. She identifies as a “suburban mom” and speaks from the progressive side of a pocket of American voters Trump frequently claims.
The coalition leverages each social platform using different strategies. De Veau and Sullivan cite the “#HeLied” hashtag that the coalition championed on Twitter after journalist Bob Woodward revealed in his book, Rage, that Trump purposefully downplayed the severity of the coronavirus.
“Reddit is where things typically happen first, and then it hits Twitter, and then Facebook,” De Veau says. “I think It's more about speaking to the strengths of the platform rather than thinking about who's going to be on the platform.”
They’ve also found engagement is just as important as content.
“Responding to comments we feel is an important part of activism,” Sullivan says. “Showing how you engage with people who disagree with you so that tens of thousands of people who follow us see, ‘Oh, that's the point that they're making to combat that.’”
“A woman who I worked with many years ago once said to me, you need to assume good will when you're dealing with people,” De Veau says. “I think it's an interesting way to look at life—and I also think it's a very, very difficult way to look at life through the internet.”
But the pair believe internet literacy is a crucial skill for the next—and, most importantly, current—generation of politicians.
“When a Senator takes out their Jitterbug flip-phone and has no idea what TikTok is or how Facebook works, that person shouldn't be on a committee,” De Veau says. “We need people who actually understand this, regulating this. And I hope that in the next administration, hopefully the Biden-Harris administration, we expand that out."