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Politicians Turn To TikTok To Appeal To Younger Voters

NOEL KING, HOST:

When Christina Haswood was elected to the Kansas state Legislature, she became the youngest person to ever sit in that chamber. How did she court young voters? Well, Haswood got on TikTok to meet the young folks where they're at. A lot of politicians are doing it. Here's Aviva Okeson-Haberman of member station KCUR.

AVIVA OKESON-HABERMAN, BYLINE: TikTok occupies a weird corner of the Internet, sparking short-lived trends like dancing to a voicemail from a toxic ex or creating a musical based on "Ratatouille." So you might not think it's a natural fit for politicians like Christina Haswood. She created a campaign account in her bid to join the Kansas Statehouse.

CHRISTINA HASWOOD: I was about 25 when I got on TikTok, and I was like, I don't think I'm young enough for TikTok.

OKESON-HABERMAN: Her account didn't really take off until a high school student, Conner Thrash, asked if he could help.

CONNER THRASH: She had the capabilities. She just needed, like, a teenager to, like, get her onto the trendy side of TikTok.

HASWOOD: I was like, please (laughter). Obviously, whatever we're doing is not working.

OKESON-HABERMAN: As the TikTok manager, Thrash kept tabs on popular trends.

THRASH: I would be like, OK, think, Conner. How can you make this political, and how can you keep it, like, PG?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE STORY (DEEP HOUSE VERSION)")

TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) Said, marry me, Juliet. You never have to be alone.

OKESON-HABERMAN: Enter a deep house remix of Taylor Swift's "Love Song" (ph). The trend, way back in July, was to have the camera pan out mid-song to capture some suggestive dance moves. Haswood instead power-walks to the beat as text appears listing her priorities, like expanding Medicaid. It worked. A video about policy priorities in a tiny Kansas district got about a quarter of a million likes. Once she takes office, she plans to give her followers a behind-the-scenes look at the legislative process.

HASWOOD: I really want to bring this level of transparency but a level of realness that a lot of us younger people, people of color, young women and women of color, Indigenous peoples belong in these positions.

OKESON-HABERMAN: Juan Carlos Medina is a data scientist who researches TikTok at the University of Munich. He says it can be a powerful way to connect with a younger audience.

JUAN CARLOS MEDINA: TikTok is playing a big part for the new generations of creating this new political opinions and identity, and you have also a lot of very young users, right? So they don't know politics differently.

OKESON-HABERMAN: Some politicians are taking note of the app's rising popularity. In Arizona, Gabriella Cazares-Kelly's campaign manager made her create an account when she ran for office. Cazares-Kelly is a member of the Tohono O'odham Nation. In her third TikTok posting, she's riding an electric scooter and zooming through the screen while shouting...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GABRIELLA CAZARES-KELLY: Excuse me. I'm Indigenous - coming through.

OKESON-HABERMAN: That image became a symbol of her campaign, printed on buttons, posters and stickers. And it brought attention to her bid for county recorder, an important position but admittedly one that's a bit obscure.

CAZARES-KELLY: This very visible campaign largely had to do with this idea that I'm an Indigenous woman coming through with or without your permission.

OKESON-HABERMAN: That attitude inspired Christina Haswood in Kansas. She'll be one of only three Native American women serving in the Statehouse, and she admits she didn't cast her first vote until 2016 because she felt like her voice didn't matter.

HASWOOD: My entire life has been balancing on this fine line of Western society and being an Indigenous woman, and I really wanted to highlight this on TikTok.

OKESON-HABERMAN: For Haswood and others, using TikTok offers them a chance not just to try to demystify state policy but also to reach out to people who might have been reluctant to engage in the political process. For NPR News, I'm Aviva Okeson-Haberman in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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