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Social Media Influencers' Role In 2020 Candidate Endorsements


Political endorsements are coming fast and furious this primary season from newspaper editorial boards, unions, state senators, small town mayors and social influencers. That last category is a recent addition. So we called Taylor Lorenz to talk about it. She covers the many corners of the Internet for New York Times. Welcome to the program, Taylor.

TAYLOR LORENZ: Thanks for having me.

FOLKENFLIK: So remind us what a social influencer is. And then let's start with some examples.

LORENZ: So a social media influencer is really anyone with a large online following who mostly sort of monetizes that following in the digital space. When you say the word influencer, a lot of people think Kim Kardashian. But, of course, there are a lot, you know, smaller, more - what they're called micro and nano influencers. These are people with just 10,000 to 15,000 followers on Instagram, TikTok, YouTube.

FOLKENFLIK: So give us a couple examples. Who's made endorsements here, and for whom?

LORENZ: Sure. There was, you know, a lot of kerfuffle, I guess, about a week ago when Joe Rogan, who is a famous podcaster and, I think, fair to call him a social media influencer, came out with an endorsement for Bernie. On top of him, there have been lots of smaller endorsements from people with still pretty dedicated audiences. For instance, Anthony Fantano, a YouTube music critic and has endorsed Bernie Sanders. And people like Caroline Calloway, who's sort of a controversial lifestyle influencer, recently announced that she would be canvassing for Bernie.

FOLKENFLIK: So look. In recent years, you think of Oprah endorsing Barack Obama. You know, you have Kanye West endorsing President Trump. Michael Jordan used to say, hey, Republicans buy sneakers, too, and would shy away from this. Do some of these influencers stay away from political endorsements in fear of losing followers and influence?

LORENZ: Certainly, some of them do. But particularly the younger ones are very politically engaged. You know, these are sort of the Gen Z influencers, those who are very involved in things like the climate movement or have, you know, very strong feelings around student debt because these are issues that they feel, like, directly affect them. So one platform that we've seen a lot of sort of influencers speaking out is on TikTok. The #Bernie2020 on TikTok has over 111 million views. But TikTok is kind of becoming this behemoth for meme generation. So these ideas that you're seeing on TikTok can very quickly spread across the Internet, especially among Gen Z kids who are sort of hyperconnected on all these platforms.

FOLKENFLIK: What makes these endorsements, these embraces special?

LORENZ: Well, one thing that's interesting if you, you know, think about social media influencers is they have this very direct connection with their followers. So, you know, you're mentioning Oprah, for instance, endorsing Barack Obama. Oprah is a very beloved TV figure, but she's not going to reply to you on Instagram or get into a debate in her TikTok comments about "Medicare for All," for instance, whereas these social influencers, especially the young ones, absolutely will. They converse more directly with their audience. They like feedback from their audience. And audiences have a very sort of parasocial relationship with them where they feel like these people are their friends. They're looking to them, you know, for lifestyle advice. They're looking to these people to tell them what to wear or to suggest products or potentially tell them who to vote for.

FOLKENFLIK: So what we know is that almost every swing out, you hear the desire for campaigns to electrify the youth vote. And if we could just get them to vote, then we can activate this, and somehow you're off to the races, right? In one sense, do you think that this is going to actually activate younger voters to vote at an increased level, the fact that they're being engaged with by these, you know, micro influencers, these more directorate people who talk to them through social media?

LORENZ: Yeah, I mean, that's the million-dollar question. I would say it doesn't seem like any of the campaigns are aggressively doing outreach to, you know, a million specific people. But there are those candidates that seem to have captivated younger voters in a different way than, you know, someone like Biden, for instance. I will say that a lot of these kids are young, but they are very politically engaged. I think that engaging with these influencers and attracting a large and very vocal, dedicated online following is a big part of what led to Trump's success in 2016. And so the Democrats this time around, you know, especially those that are appealing to the young ones - it's certainly something they're likely thinking about.

FOLKENFLIK: Taylor Lorenz reports for The New York Times. Taylor, thanks.

LORENZ: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.