Don’t Forget to Like, Subscribe and Vote: Biden’s Rocky Influencer Courtship - The World News

Don’t Forget to Like, Subscribe and Vote: Biden’s Rocky Influencer Courtship

On a Friday afternoon in late April, President Biden brought celebrities and elite social media influencers together for a White House reception. Fran Drescher and David Cross mingled with Ilona Maher, a rugby star, and V from @underthedesknews, at a mixer meant to generate warm feelings and badly needed pro-Biden content.

Jonathan M. Katz, an independent journalist and sharp critic of the administration, was shocked to get an invitation. When he met Mr. Biden, he pointedly asked about military aid to Israel and suggested he was supporting a “genocide.” Mr. Biden answered politely, but then appeared to grow impatient. “I know you’re a typical press guy,” he said. “I trust you as far as I can throw your phone.” Aides then ushered Mr. Katz away.

The episode, which Mr. Katz recorded on video and shared with his roughly 100,000 followers, was one in a series of Mr. Biden’s awkward attempts to manufacture online enthusiasm for his candidacy.

For months, the president’s campaign has watched as its rival, Donald J. Trump, has surfed on his popularity among the very online. Mr. Trump’s supporters produce an endless stream of memes, videos and adoring posts — all essentially free advertising — that reach an increasingly crucial slice of voters.

Mr. Biden and his allies are working furiously to build a comparable online army, trying to persuade, or in some cases pay, people to sing Mr. Biden’s praises to their large followings. They are finding that social media feeds are difficult territory for an 81-year-old president whose policies on Gaza and immigration are unpopular on the left.

“It’s clear we have to use influencers or creators as a way to reach the future of the progressive movement,” said Brian Rolling, co-founder of MurMur Impact, a group that has worked with liberal causes on mobilizing Gen Z voters. “But we talk to a lot of young people and they’re just not on board with Biden.”

The president’s campaign is working to change that. While often eschewing interviews with legacy media outlets, he has granted face time to friendly social media eminences, such as Daniel Mac, who has won more than 20 million online followers by asking people “What do you do for a living?”

(The video with Mr. Biden, filmed at the Detroit Auto Show, went viral, notching 40 million views on TikTok — but it fell far short of the 60 million views Mr. Mac got for an interaction with the founder of an Italian supercar manufacturer who doesn’t speak English.)

Influencers have been given exclusive tours of the White House and campaign headquarters and been invited to briefings with policy advisers. They’ve been wined and dined at lavish parties in New York and at State of the Union watch parties in the White House. And they’ve been promised extraordinary access to party officials at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August, where for the first time ever they’ll be given a special room of their own, outfitted with quiet spaces for making videos.

At least one has been offered an interview with the president at the convention, but said he was asked not to bring up Gaza.

Priorities USA, a super PAC supporting Mr. Biden’s campaign, has pledged to spend at least $1 million on influencers, some of whom will be paid to share talking points online. The Democratic National Committee is using a smartphone app to train thousands of volunteers on how to share content in their social networks.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent $150,000 in March to hire an influencer marketing agency. And in late April, the Biden campaign — which said it does not pay influencers for content — paid almost $2 million to retain Village Marketing, an influencer agency, to help run its social media outreach program.

The money pales in comparison to the tens, or even hundreds, of millions of dollars campaigns spend on conventional television advertising and mailers. But it is widely viewed as critical to Mr. Biden’s chances of winning re-election.

Half of American adults say they get some or all of their news from platforms like YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, according to the Pew Research Center. Among young people, the stats are even more striking: Nearly one-third of people between 18 and 29 get their news on TikTok.

Polling suggests Mr. Biden is struggling with those voters. In a recent NBC poll, Mr. Biden held a commanding advantage among voters who regularly consume traditional news. But Mr. Trump led decisively those among those who said they rely primarily on social media for information, an advantage that stretched to more than 25 points among those who follow no political news at all.

“It would be negligence on our part not to meet voters where they are,” said Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, co-founder and vice president of Way to Win, a group that connects Democratic donors with political strategists and has begun investing heavily in influencer outreach.

The Biden campaign began its work with influencers late last year and says its efforts will begin to bear fruit over the summer. “Our partnership program for 2024 has scaled significantly, starting earlier than ever before and with more staff dedicated to the work,” said Mia Ehrenberg, a campaign spokeswoman.

That project, however, has been difficult for Mr. Biden.

While the White House has hired several former employees of Instagram, the campaign’s most senior social media position, tasked with overseeing recruiting and deploying influencers, has remained unfilled for five months.

Mr. Biden’s policy on the war in Gaza has alienated not only supporters of Palestinians, but also pro-Israel voices who object to his calls for a cease-fire. He has also taken the brunt of the outrage over a bill he signed in April that would ban TikTok in the United States if it is not sold, even though it was a proposal first put forward by Mr. Trump. (The former president has since reversed his position.)

And allies’ attempts to talk up accomplishments like capping the cost of insulin or eliminating some student debt have been drowned out by liberals focused more on the administration’s drilling and pipeline decisions or increasingly hard-line stance on immigration.

The enthusiasm gap is measurable, particularly on TikTok.

Since February, when the Biden campaign officially joined the platform, it has posted more than 200 times and garnered just over 375,000 followers. Mr. Trump joined TikTok less than two weeks ago but has already accumulated 6.2 million followers.

“They’re inviting a few people to the White House, they’re doing dinners,” said Grace Murray Vazquez, vice president for strategy at the social media marketing agency Fohr, which said it did work with the Biden campaign in 2020 but has not been contacted to do so this year. “It’s a drop in the bucket.”

One event took place last month at the Eaton, a four-star hotel in the heart of Washington. Way to Win, Future Forward, Mr. Biden’s primary super PAC, and the Hub Project, another progressive group, hosted about 140 influencers to Washington for a three-day event called Trending Up.

Attendees were feted with a rooftop sushi spread, an open bar and a tour of the Capitol.

But the mood, at least for some, soured after about a dozen attendees received surprise emails inviting them to the White House, setting off weeks of contentious accusations online that they and other pro-Biden creators were “feds” paid to shill for Mr. Biden.

“The inherent mistrust of authority was present at the whole conference,” said Sean Szolek-VanValkenburgh, who has 1.6 million followers on TikTok who come to see their arcane posts about legal terms of service agreements. (That’s more than double The New York Times’s following on that site.) Mx. Szolek-VanValkenburgh did not receive an invitation but said they would not have accepted if they had.

Julian Sarafian, a lawyer who represents influencers and posts about legal issues, was invited. Afterward, he created a video of himself dancing to a Kendrick Lamar song outside the White House, while a list of “Biden White House wins” pops up on the screen.

“They want people who are not going to rock the boat and be in line with their messaging,” said Mr. Sarafian, who has 320,000 TikTok followers.

Finding those people can be tricky for Mr. Biden. Joshua Doss, a political pollster who lives in Chicago and posts about politics, race and basketball, was recently contacted by Village Marketing, the firm hired by the Biden campaign, and offered a potential interview with the president at the Democratic National Convention.

But Mr. Doss was put off when the agency specifically asked him to avoid discussing the war in the Mideast. “I couldn’t imagine going to my audience, given how upset they are about his handling of the issue, without talking to him about Gaza,” Mr. Doss said.

He initially declined, but later said he would agree on the condition that he be permitted to ask a “tough question” about the way the economy is affecting Black people.

Village Marketing did not respond to requests for comment. The Biden campaign declined to comment on the discussions.

Ryan Davis, a co-founder of People First, an influencer agency that works with liberal causes, said Democrats should seek out microinfluencers with followings as small as 2,000 people and ask them to create posts that focus on issues, rather than mentioning Mr. Biden by name.

Such “softer messaging” requires few if any disclosures under federal rules, he noted, which can make them feel more authentic — even if the influencer is working off scripted talking points. Microinfluencers often accept deals for just a few hundred dollars, making it possible to sign up dozens or even hundreds of friendly voices for a single messaging campaign, effectively paying for the appearance of mass support.

That can be more powerful than a $300,000 deal with a single superstar, Mr. Davis said.

“This is not a Greek play where god is going to come down and, deus ex machina. save us with Taylor Swift,” Mr. Davis said. “It’s going to be a very hard fought race.”

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