The White House Is Holding Policy Briefings For TikTok Creators : The NPR Politics Podcast The administration is trying to explain its policies to a core part of the Democratic base: young voters. A third of young people say they prefer to get their news on social media.

This episode: White House correspondent Asma Khalid, political reporter Barbara Sprunt, and political reporter Miles Parks.

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The White House Is Holding Policy Briefings For TikTok Creators

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SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey there. It's Susan Davis from the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. And Atlanta, come see us live. Join me, Mara Liasson, Asma Khalid, Tamara Keith, Miles Parks, Georgia Public Broadcasting's Stephen Fowler and WABE's Rahul Bali as we do our show live at the Buckhead Theatre, Thursday, October 20, at 8 p.m. You can find more information about tickets, including student ones, at nprpresents.org. Thanks to our partners at Georgia Public Broadcasting, WABE and WCLK Jazz. We hope to see you there.

BEN: Hi. This is Ben (ph), and I just finished driving down to D.C. from New Jersey to see my dad come out of retirement for a performance of "Guys And Dolls" at the Kennedy Center tonight. (Singing) My time...

BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: Whoa.

BEN: ...(Singing) Of day is NPR POLITICS PODCAST time. And that time is now.

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

(Laughter) 1:37 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, October 12, 2022.

BEN: Some things may have changed by the time you hear this, but I'll always be proud of my dad's long career on Broadway. Congrats, Dad. All right, here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

KHALID: Ah, that's lovely. And I hope Dad's an NPR POLITICS PODCAST listener so he actually appreciates that shout-out.

SPRUNT: That's amazing.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Yeah. I'm getting some theater school flashbacks myself. Congratulations to your dad.

KHALID: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

PARKS: I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting.

SPRUNT: And I'm Barbara Sprunt. I cover politics.

KHALID: And today on the show, why the White House is turning to TikTok stars to sell its message. The Biden administration has been holding policy briefings with social media influencers. The goal is to reach younger people where they are. And, Barbara, you have been reporting on this. So take us inside the White House strategy.

SPRUNT: Well, the White House has been engaging with social media influencers to help spread its messaging in a number of areas. They offered a virtual briefing earlier this year on the war in Ukraine, and they've done others. They've talked to them about student loans. Most recently, they held a briefing at the White House for a group of 20 or so influencers around the Inflation Reduction Act - so Democrats' signature-spending package. And I spoke to Rob Flaherty, the director of digital strategy at the White House, and he said, you know, there's an acknowledgement that the media environment is just so fragmented that you have to go beyond the means of just traditional media to get your message out.

ROB FLAHERTY: The reality is, if you want to go out and talk to a wide amount of people whose lives are going to be impacted by the Inflation Reduction Act and go and both take credit and also tell people how they can access some of the benefits, we need to get out into the digital communities that people exist in.

SPRUNT: And there's a long history of White Houses using technology and pop culture to spread its message. But engaging with influencers on social media - who, I should say, sometimes call themselves content creators; others prefer to call themselves citizen journalists - it offers a unique opportunity. They can send a tailored message to exactly the people they're trying to reach, and they can do all of that without the filter of traditional media.

PARKS: Well, I think the size of the audience can't be understated here, too - right, Barbara? I think this - I admittedly feel kind of old saying this. I don't interact with TikTok that much, but I was swiping through some of these, you know, influencers that you reported on, and these are people with millions of followers. And each video that they post gets, like, hundreds of thousands of views.

SPRUNT: Oh, absolutely - right? This is not a narrow reach. We're talking hundreds of thousands, sometimes, in terms of followers, sometimes several million followers. So the reach is massive.

KHALID: So, Barbara, there is a part of me that I guess has, like, a little bit of hesitation about what these briefings look like and also possibly some of the shortfalls about this. I mean, my assumption is, like, these influencer briefings sound different.

SPRUNT: Yeah. So this is different than a typical press briefing with reporters. I spoke with V Spehar, who hosts "Under The Desk News." It has 2.7 million TikTok followers. And Spehar said they expected the briefing to be sort of similar to what we see, what the media gets at daily White House press briefings. But it ended up being a lot more intimate.

V SPEHAR: Kahlil Greene, who is the Gen Z historian on TikTok, was there, and he asked some incredible questions. There was another woman, A.B. Burns, who does sort of what she calls 'hood politics. Sharon Says So from the Sharon Says So government-related podcast was there. There was a ton of climate activists. There were people there who work in finance who are young, like Vivian, who is Your Rich BFF on Tik Tok. It didn't feel like, OK, let's get a bunch of celebrity TikTokers in here to make propaganda. It wasn't that. It was like, hey, all of you guys are talking about things that this bill touches, and we want you all to kind of know each other.

KHALID: I mean, so, Barbara, this leads me to kind of a natural follow-up, which is there feels like there might be inherent risks in this strategy. You know, I do think traditional journalists are trained to push back, to contextualize much of what the White House is saying. Is there a sense of risk in this strategy journalistically?

SPRUNT: The idea of a risk journalistically is that maybe there's not the resources, you know? We have editors, we have fact-checkers, we have producers, reporters, we have, like - you know, news outlets have whole teams devoted to help package content. And a lot of these influencers are one-person shops. So it's a bit different. And the other part of this, you know, in terms of what you said about how journalists can push back on certain questions - my sense, from speaking to people who were at this briefing, is that there was actually a lot of pushback, but not necessarily about the Inflation Reduction Act. And this is what I thought was really interesting.

They were briefed on the legislation, and they could ask questions about the legislation. It sounded like many of them did. But other people used their opportunity of being in that room to ask other questions, you know, related to incarceration rates, related to different pieces of legislation. And I think it speaks to - it's just a - it's kind of a new realm. They're figuring out what it means to work with the White House. Maybe they felt like, this is my chance to ask my question. I won't be back for another daily press briefing necessarily, so I got to get it in.

So it's just - it speaks to sort of a new dynamic, and there are, you know, potential pitfalls in that. But I'd like to point out, you know, there's potential pitfalls in engaging with any sort of media. You know, just because the White House does an interview with someone doesn't mean they're going to be happy with the way it's portrayed to, you know, the listeners or the viewers. And just because they invite someone to the press briefing doesn't mean they're going to write a story. So, you know, it's kind of a give and take. And that's, I think, to be expected.

PARKS: Well, and I would also say, you know, we can sit here and we can talk about the pros and cons of this sort of information environment. But the cat's out of the bag. You know, I mean, 33% of people ages 18 to 29 say they prefer to get their news from social media, right? And so if that is the case, that is already the environment that we're kind of living in, then the White House - it makes sense that the White House would say, this is how people are getting their news, whether we like it or not, whether it's good for society or not. If this is how people are already getting their news, then we might as well make it so these people at least are a little bit more informed about our policies.

KHALID: All right. Well, let's take a quick break, and we'll be back in a moment.

And we're back. And, you know, I recall covering Joe Biden's presidential campaign. It is, I think, kind of an obvious statement that he was not particularly popular amongst young voters. And so it seems like what you're describing, Barbara, is part of a broader strategy to ensure that he, his party, is able to continue to court young voters and ensure that they vote for Democrats this November.

SPRUNT: Yeah. I mean, I think the White House, you know, pushed back a little bit when I was chatting with Rob Flaherty about the idea that this is tied to the midterms, you know, because they see it as not elections based. They see this as, like, this is a way to grow, you know, a base of people, not just for campaigns and for elections, but to - so that they understand what policy is coming out of the administration, that they can then, you know, take and implement in their own lives. But it is also clearly a strategy to keep that group of people informed and energized, you know, be it before the midterms, you know, or, as the White House says, as part of a much longer strategy to keep these people engaged.

And as we talked about earlier, like, where they are is on digital devices, right? So the White House wants to be there and be there in a consistent way. The idea is to build a sustained, continuous relationship with this group of influencers and really partner with them in a longer lasting way.

PARKS: Well, and I don't think it's a coincidence either - right? - that this briefing was focused on the Inflation Reduction Act. And then you watch these videos. A lot of them focus - that the influencers did focus on what this bill did for climate change, which we know is a very important issue for young voters. I think I'd be curious to see, you know, down the road, as they do build this relationship, will they do more of these briefings specifically around issues that we know young people care about?

SPRUNT: Yeah, definitely. And just to that point, Miles, they are planning more briefings, right? So they're encouraged by what they see so far, and they want to dive deeper, particularly on climate.

KHALID: So, Barbara, for the influencers who did share some of this political information with their followers, what kind of feedback did they get?

SPRUNT: Well, I spoke with A.B. Burns-Tucker. She has over 600,000 followers on TikTok. She was at that briefing, and she said that the reaction from her followers was mixed.

A B BURNS-TUCKER: So I think there was a mixed reaction on both sides, which - this is America. That's to be expected. I would say that it was more positive than negative. Some people were like, all right, cool. Like, now I could get some solar panels, right? Like, now, you know, my granny and them prescriptions going to be cheaper. Like, we actually getting somewhere.

Because I do more political and, like, legal content, I think one of the things is always like, oh, you went to the White House, so now you going to say whatever the White House tell you to say. And it's like, no. Just because I earned my space doesn't mean I'm going to be a puppet for somebody.

SPRUNT: So that kind of reaction is probably exactly what the White House was hoping for, right? Because you've got people who are engaging with legislation that they - it seems like they didn't know about before. What kinds of, you know, like, climate change provisions can they apply to their own life and their family's life? And then she gets to address the idea that, like, she's not a puppet for the administration. She's not their mouthpiece. She got to ask them questions, and then she brings it back to her followers.

KHALID: All right. Well, let's leave it there for today. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

PARKS: I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting.

SPRUNT: And I'm Barbara Sprunt. I cover politics.

KHALID: And thank you all, as always, for listening to THE NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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