Everything Is Just Dandy!

Inside the Progressive Movement’s TikTok Army

Politico
Ian Ward
2022 03 27
https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2022/03/27/progressive-gen-z-for-change-tik-tok-00020624

Aidan Kohn-Murphy, a floppy-haired high school senior from Washington, D.C., is an unlikely leader of America’s largest and fastest-growing progressive media empire. Yet that is, in effect, what Kohn-Murphy has become — and he’s only 18 years old.

“Otherwise, [I’m] very tired, and not doing very well in calculus,” says Kohn-Murphy, sighing.

Outside calculus class, Kohn-Murphy is the founder and executive director of Gen-Z for Change, a coalition of about 500 progressive social media influencers spanning all of the internet’s most-trafficked social media platforms. The coalition’s primary digital stomping ground is TikTok, where Gen-Z for Change’s influencer network collectively boasts upward of 500 million followers — a figure that far exceeds the average monthly viewerships of Fox News, CNN and MSNBC combined, which tops out at about 5 million viewers.

Gen-Z for Change has already mobilized its followers to carry out a handful of unorthodox online actions — including crashing an anti-abortion whistleblower line in Texas with raunchy memes. But Kohn-Murphy has higher ambitions: As more politicians in Washington begin using TikTok to reach young voters, his organization is building closer ties with Democrats in Washington in the hopes of not only commenting on policy, but actually influencing it. Yet in making inroads into the political mainstream, do Gen Z’s digital warriors risk sacrificing the transgressiveness that makes them a distinctive voice of their generation?

“We want to be able to advocate and to push for the policies that Gen Z believes in,” Kohn-Murphy says. “Not to be revolutionary, but there’s a lot wrong with the world, and if we can use our platform to make positive change and leave the world better than we found it, then we’ll have done our job.”

Gen-Z for Change’s influencers hail from various subregions of the TikTok universe — including fashion TikTok, cooking TikTok, comedy TikTok, self-help TikTok and, of course, dancing TikTok — but they all share an interest in using their platforms to support progressive causes. The organization itself, staffed by Kohn-Murphy and 20 volunteer organizers, serves as the nerve center of this effort, coordinating between influencers, distributing video scripts and talking points, and providing research and editorial support for the coalition’s campaigns.

The scope of Gen-Z for Change’s coalition has won Kohn-Murphy and his organization the most valuable — and elusive — commodity in Washington: the ear of the White House. In early March, the Biden administration enlisted Gen-Z for Change to help organize a briefing between senior administration officials and prominent social media influencers about the war in Ukraine. The briefing, first reported by the Washington Post’s Taylor Lorenz, became something of a viral sensation, inspiring a Saturday Night Live sketch in which President Biden (James Austin Johnson) and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki (Kate McKinnon) solicited advice on the war in Ukraine from a cadre of ditzy TikTok stars.

Kohn-Murphy — who, in typical influencer style, captured his real-time reaction to the sketch in a TikTok on his personal account — was flattered by the parody. “It’s really cool to do something [so] quote-unquote ‘notable’ that [it] got parodied,” says Kohn-Murphy, who will attend Harvard University next fall. But for the most part, Kohn-Murphy says, the sketch confirmed his suspicion that even as the White House and members of Congress ramp up their outreach efforts to progressive content creators, the country still hasn’t grasped TikTok’s power as a political tool.

“Using social media to advocate and pressure the U.S. government — like, that’s not dancing,” Kohn-Murphy says. “This is not a dancing app.”

It remains to be seen, however, exactly what sort of tool TikTok will become in the hands of this generation of young progressive activists. In some respects, Kohn-Murphy and his merry band of influencers have turned TikTok into a highly unorthodox — and cheekily transgressive — vehicle of digital protest. In September of 2021, for instance, Olivia Julianna, a Texas-based TikToker and Gen-Z for Change’s political strategy coordinator, posted a video encouraging her followers to send fake tips to an anti-abortion whistleblower line that allowed Texans to report suspected violations of the state’s new six-week abortion ban. The ensuing deluge of tips — which included a significant volume of pornographic memes depicting the Disney-Pixar character Shrek — forced the line to shut down.

“I’m not really sure how that came up,” Julianna says of the X-rated memes. “But you know what? If it saves a woman in Texas from having to pay a fine, then I’m all for it.”

This sort of crowd-sourced digital protest has become a favorite weapon among Gen-Z for Change’s online army. In January, the organization launched a similar campaign to spam an email tip line, set up by Virginia’s Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, that enabled Virginians to report teachers who were discussing topics that they considered to be instances of critical race theory. And in February, the group flooded Starbucks with 88,000 fake job applications after the company fired several employees who were involved in a unionization effort.

At the same time, Gen-Z for Change’s collaboration with the White House is raising questions among both its critics and its supporters about the coalition’s true objectives. To the organization’s skeptics, its ties with the White House are proof that it has become an out-and-out propaganda organ for the Biden administration. To some of its would-be allies on the left, the organization’s liaisons with the White House are evidence that the coalition is more interested in cozying up to Washington’s power centers than in pushing for transformational political change. One way or another, Gen-Z for Change and its coalition of progressive influencers will eventually have to ask: Can they more effectively achieve their goals as the White House’s ally or as its antagonist?

For now, Gen-Z for Change is keeping its options open — for the most part.

“Whether it’s shaping policy, whether it’s educating our … collective platform [and] followers, whether it’s taking down tip lines, whether it’s supporting unions — just any progressive change, by any means, is our goal,” says Elise Joshi, Gen-Z for Change’s operations director and an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley.

“By any means?” Kohn-Murphy asks, catching Joshi’s slip. “By most means. By means within reason.”

Gen-Z for Change has its origins in the 2020 election, when Kohn-Murphy, then just a solo TikToker with a modest following, began posting clever and irreverent content about the election under his personal TikTok handle, @aidanpleasestoptalking. As election day loomed, Kohn-Murphy posted about a phone-banking session that he had organized with a handful of friends, hoping to encourage his followers to sign up. The effort quickly caught fire, as scores of influencers emerged from the digital woodwork to lend their platforms to the effort to defeat then-President Donald Trump. Realizing that the initiative had outgrown the scope of a single phone bank, Kohn-Murphy began organizing the influencers under the moniker “TikTok for Biden.” By election day, over 400 influencers had joined up.

As the coalition’s number grew, its videos caught the eye of the Biden campaign’s digital director Rob Flaherty, now the White House’s director of digital strategy. Flaherty contacted Kohn-Murphy ahead of the election to discuss TikTok for Biden’s work, and according to Kohn-Murphy, the organization maintained an informal line of communication with Flaherty through the transition period. Following Biden’s inauguration in January 2021, the coalition changed its name to “Gen-Z for Change” to recognize its broader policy goals.

The collaboration has continued since Biden took office. In July 2021, for instance, Gen-Z for Change co-hosted a YouTube town hall discussion about the Covid-19 vaccine with Anthony Fauci, the White House’s chief medical adviser. In November, the organization helped facilitate a briefing between influencers and White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield about the administration’s Build Back Better plan.

These initiatives have raised suspicions that the organization and its coalition of influencers are, in effect, unpaid propagandists for the Biden White House, using their platforms to uncritically parrot the administration’s messaging. Following the White House’s briefing with influencers on the war in Ukraine, for instance, Fox Business accused the White House of “drafting” TikTok influencers to “blame Putin for rising gas prices.” Other skeptics were quick to draw parallels between Biden’s outreach to social media influencers and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s campaign to pay Russian TikTok influencers to spread pro-Kremlin narratives online.

Kohn-Murphy doesn’t put much stock in these accusations, and he is adamant that Gen-Z for Change’s work is advocacy, not messaging. He points to the fact that Gen-Z for Change’s members do extensive independent research to verify the information they receive from the White House before amplifying it online, and he notes that Gen-Z for Change is not paid or compensated for any of the content it creates.

“It’s not like we’re huge Joe Biden superfans,” Kohn-Murphy says. “Like, we were pushing for Joe Biden because we wanted to use our platforms to make progressive change, and at the time, it was the most effective way to do so.”

Indeed, the coalition’s influencers are not shy about broadcasting their disagreements with the administration when they arise. In a recent video on her personal TikTok account, Victoria Hammett, a Los Angeles-based influencer and Gen-Z for Change’s deputy executive director, criticized the Biden administration for failing to support Medicare For All — one of the several policy areas where Hammett says she has publicly broken with the White House.

“I feel like the Biden administration and many Democrats have kind of forgotten about the people that supported them and are not as concerned with what their supporters want [as they are] with bipartisanship,” says Hammett, whose personal TikTok has over 750,000 followers. “Personally, as a creator, one of my frustrations is seeing Biden [be] unwilling to do things that his supporters want him to do, like canceling student loan debt, for example.”

For his part, Kohn-Murphy compared the briefings that the White House hosts for social media influencers to the daily press briefings that the administration provides for journalists and reporters.

“If people think that a briefing is propaganda, then they’re not going to like what Jen Psaki does almost every day for basically every news organization in the country,” Kohn-Murphy says. “This has nothing to do with messaging…This has to do with creators; many of them were already using their platforms to spread information and to combat misinformation.”

This comparison, it must be said, is not a very good one. Despite their likely sincere commitment to ensuring the accuracy of the information that they disseminate, Gen-Z for Change’s influencers are not journalists in any recognizable sense — just as they are also not straightforwardly activists or policy advocates or even, as their right-wing detractors have claimed, Soviet-style propagandists.

In reality, it is difficult to fit the work of these progressive influencers into any pre-existing category of political communication. Policy advocacy? Well, sort of. Journalism? Not really — but if you squint, maybe. Activism? Yes — but also no. Perhaps the most accurate thing that can be said about these influencers is that they exist in the gray area between activism, citizen journalism and old-fashioned political messaging, serving as harbingers of a paradigm shift in political communications that has yet to be fully realized — or understood.

In this respect, Gen-Z’s progressive TikTok army resembles no group more than the burgeoning collective of academics, journalists and policy researchers that has coalesced under the purposefully vague umbrella of “disinformation researchers.” As the journalist Joe Bernstein argued in a recent story for Harper’s, this multidisciplinary group of researchers, which has styled itself as a sort of non-partisan “EPA for content,” also defies straightforward categorization. Although these researchers have made it their mission to “expose the spread of various sorts of ‘toxicity’ on social-media platforms, the downstream effects of this spread, and the platforms’ clumsy, dishonest and half-hearted attempts to halt it,” their real ideological function, as Bernstein points out, is a bit more complicated than that.

In its quest to cleanse the media ecosystem of contaminated information, “Big Disinfo” serves two distinct ideological functions within the Democratic ecosystem. On the one hand, Big Disinfo’s war on disinformation feeds into center-left accounts of Trump’s ascendancy that explain Trumpism primarily as the result of conservative media manipulation and right-wing conspiracy theorizing rather than as the product of genuine populist anger about the failure of America’s ruling elite. In this respect, Big Disinfo helps absolve the Democratic Party’s ruling elite of its responsibility for creating the political, economic and technological conditions that allowed Trump to flourish in the first place, shifting blame onto the social media companies and media organizations that allow false information to circulate.

On the other hand, Big Disinfo plays an essentially revanchist role in the public debate over truth-telling. By arguing that the power to distinguish reality from falsehood ultimately rests with America’s “objective” truth-tellers, disinformation researchers bolster the authority of the institutions whose role as gatekeepers of the information ecosystem have been most dramatically undercut by new technologies: the mainstream media, institutions of higher learning, deep-pocketed think-tanks and the government itself. As Bernstein writes, “That the most prestigious liberal institutions of the pre-digital age are the most invested in fighting disinformation reveals a lot about what they stand to lose, or hope to regain.”

A similar set of risks befalls Gen-Z for Change’s decision to join the information wars on the side of the White House. Despite well-founded concerns about TikTok’s role in spreading false and misleading information, the platform still harbors a potentially transformative political possibility: to create a radically decentralized, highly personalized and thoroughly democratic information ecosystem that wrests power away from traditional gatekeepers. At least on its surface, Gen-Z for Change’s activity seems to be in the service of this promise. After all, the organization has successfully built a media network that reaches billions of viewers every month — all for the price of cell phone service.

Yet by casually deferring to the White House as a reliable source of information on an issue as politically fraught as the war in Ukraine, the group risks reinforcing the very same information hierarchies that gave rise to the misinformation crisis in the first place. Coming from a generation whose political outlook centers on skepticism of powerful institutions and opposition to hierarchy in all its forms, it is also a decidedly un-Gen Z thing to do.

All of this invites the question: To what degree do the political objectives of the TikTok left resemble those of prior generations of Democratic Party activists, and to what degree are they meaningfully distinct?

In some respects, Gen-Z for Change, which is incorporated as a 501(c)4, shares the goals of any progressive advocacy group: to influence federal policy by pushing the Democratic Party to adopt a more progressive platform. Indeed, the “Issues” page of the organization’s website reads like a comprehensive wish list of progressive priorities: climate justice, disability rights, gender equality, reproductive rights, gun safety, racial justice and so forth.

The organization’s objectives are also more fundamental than that. In addition to contending with a national Democratic Party that’s dominated by white-haired Baby Boomers and aging members of Gen X, Gen-Z for Change also has to combat its own generation’s political lethargy and congenital political fatalism — two characteristics that, in both kind and degree, distinguish Gen Z’s political outlook from those of their predecessors.

To its credit, Gen-Z for Change has correctly diagnosed the source of Gen Z’s political malaise. Faced with the convergence of multiple generation-defining crises — and the apparent failure of America’s political institutions to respond adequately to these crises — a significant number of Gen Zers have given up on organized politics altogether. Against this backdrop, Gen-Z for Change’s primary objective is to convince young people that America’s political system isn’t entirely unresponsive to their demands.

The approach they have taken to this challenge is subtly brilliant: Take Gen Z’s fixation with social media — both a symptom and a cause of their generation’s political paralysis — and turn it into the vehicle of its political empowerment.

“What we realized with these tip lines and with the Starbucks project is that people really want to feel like they have some sort of agency in the world, because oftentimes when we see that there’s nothing going on with our national government, [and] there’s very little progress on the issues that Gen Z cares about, we feel like we have no control over anything,” Joshi says. “And when we present these incredibly important actions — like taking down oppressive tip lines — people are easily engaged because they want to feel like they can be involved in something.”

“It’s a matter of, like, what can you do strictly from mobilizing young people from their homes,” Kohn-Murphy says. “There is a lot more to be done … [but] right now, our platforms are on social media. The most effective way that we can make change are things … that do materially benefit people, even if they’re not, like, fixing the entire problem.”

Along the way, Gen Z’s progressive TikTokers have discovered something about the platform that the brightest political minds in Washington have yet to fully grasp: that TikTok is a forum for political action, not just a tool for reaching would-be voters. Communications staffers on Capitol Hill look at TikTok and see another channel for spreading messaging to potential voters; meanwhile, the new generation of online organizers look at TikTok and see an entire universe of forms of direct action. After all, why lobby lawmakers to take down an anti-critical race theory snitch line when a handful of Zoomers with their iPhones can break it instead?

In this respect, the potential impact of Gen Z’s ongoing experiment in TikTok politics stretches far beyond the White House. What is brewing among young progressives on TikTok is a massive online experiment in participatory democracy, a potential transformation in the way that young progressives engage with — and, when necessary, circumvent — America’s political institutions. As is true of all digital paradigm shifts, the possibilities of the movement can sound hopelessly abstract — but in reality, they are very concrete. Julianna, the organizer behind the anti-abortion tip line protest, points to her own life story as evidence of TikTok’s potentially egalitarian effects.

“I grew up [in a] working-class, single-parent household in a very small town. I’ve struggled with health issues and other stuff my whole life. And I didn’t think that I would be able to do a lot of impactful things in life,” Julianna says. “Now I’m in a place where I’m in meetings with the White House and talking to the Senate Majority Leader [Chuck Schumer].”

At a moment when populist and anti-elite sentiments are flourishing on both sides of the political spectrum, it is no surprise that the country’s political leaders are beginning to explore new ways to harness TikTok’s political power to their own ends. Yet for the young activists who nurtured political TikTok into existence, this opportunity also presents a challenge: to maximize TikTok’s power as a tool for progressive change without sacrificing its transformative and transgressive potential.

The uncertain future of Gen Z’s TikTok revolution received a passing mention at the end of Saturday Night Live’s parody, when cast member Bowen Yang sauntered into the Oval Office dressed like the popular Japanese content creator Kazuhisa Uekusa — known for performing nifty tricks with a toilet plunger affixed to his bare chest. As magisterial music played in the background — and with the camera slowly zooming in on the plunger stuck over his nipple — Yang waxed poetic about the transformative power of TikTok, urging viewers to “never underestimate the power of new technology and how it reaches young people — in ways you can never understand.”

“The joke at the very end is, ‘Don’t underestimate the power of TikTok and making change,’ and right at the end, ‘We get more views than the [nightly] news,’” Joshi says. “They’re saying that as a joke, but it’s actually true.”