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Joe Biden hopes these PA social media influencers can help him win in November

President Joe Biden takes a photo with supporters after speaking at a campaign rally at Sherman Middle School in Madison, Wis., Friday, July 5, 2024. (Morry Gash/AP)
President Joe Biden takes a photo with supporters after speaking at a campaign rally at Sherman Middle School in Madison, Wis., Friday, July 5, 2024. (Morry Gash/AP)
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By Aliya Schneider (The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

Kenny Screven, a Lehigh Valley-based content creator whose handle is kscreven on social media, chatted to the camera while putting on his makeup to get ready for a White House Pride celebration June 26.

Before digressing into details of his “gorgeous” blush and eye shadow pallet, Screven, 29, talked about how “there’s so much at stake that people are not realizing” surrounding this year’s election.

“I honestly can’t say that Trump has my back,” said Screven, who is a gay, femme-presenting Black man. “I don’t believe Trump really cares about people like me.”

Screven, who has and , is one of several Pennsylvania-based influencers working with President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign. While Screven’s social media focuses on beauty, he believes embracing makeup as a Black gay man and advocating for his community — in turn talking politics — go hand in hand.

“Why not talk about politics while I’m doing my makeup? I feel like it’s more relatable,” he said. “It seems more comforting almost, because it’s just like you’re talking to your friends on a FaceTime call.”

Getting ready for a historic day at the White House! 🌈🏛️ Join me as I celebrate Pride in style and share this unforgettable experience with you all!

There’s no question that the Biden campaign is trying to reach younger voters, and the most obvious places to look are Instagram — and, increasingly, TikTok, where 32% of U.S. adults age 18-29 get their news, according to Pew.

Young voters helped carry Biden to victory in 2020, but their support for him has slipped this year. Their backing is even more important in the aftermath of a disappointing debate that rocked Democrats’ faith in the president and led to countless memes shared mocking the president — his grandchild even suggested connecting with influencers to help garner more support after the fallout, according to the New York Times.

But Biden is the underdog in the race when it comes to TikTok. Trump has 7.3 million followers on TikTok while the Biden campaign has just 399,000. While the gap is smaller on Instagram, Trump also leads in followers there with 24.8 million followers compared to Joe Biden’s 17.1 million.

And Pennsylvania, a critical swing state, is on the forefront of the Biden campaign’s efforts to win young people over online. Just last month, the campaign hired Patrick Kelly, its first-ever influencer manager dedicated to a battleground state — and he’s a Philly native. Kelly, whose title is “content partnerships and influencer engagement manager,” is a content creator in his own right who recently moved back to the Keystone State from Washington, D.C. for the job.

“We are committed to earning every vote and meeting young voters where they are — whether that’s knocking doors or engaging them online — to make the stakes of this election clear,” Kelly said, citing democracy, gun violence in schools, and student debt relief as key issues.

Already, Kelly has helped find more than 250 creators in the state, 130 of whom live in Philly, and the campaign is working with dozens of them, he said.

Several creators working with the Biden campaign have also worked with Gov. Josh Shapiro, who frequently works with influencers to talk about the administration’s work as he raises his national profile.

As part of his efforts to connect with young people, Biden has hosted roundtables with influencers at the White House and he’s been featured on influencer Daniel Mac’s TikTok account driving an electric Cadillac. His campaign parodied Kendrick Lamar’s diss track, and last year, the White House held a Christmas party for influencers.

But connecting with influencers hasn’t been all smooth sailing. The president lost his patience with one influencer asking about Gaza, and another was offered an opportunity to interview Biden but was asked to keep the topic off limits, according to the New York Times. A group of creators who campaigned for Biden in 2020 and called themselves TikTok for Biden, now called Gen-Z for Change, is instead criticizing the president on the app this year on that issue and more.

Screven said that while he can understand young people’s concerns about Biden, the consequences of the election can last a lifetime, citing Project 2025, a conservative proposal written by Trump allies that would have negative consequences for the LGBTQ community.

“I feel like the more people like me inform the community, it’ll kind of help bridge that gap a little more,” he said. “… Literally, our right to exist is at stake. I don’t even know how else to phrase it.”

How the Biden campaign works with influencers

While traditional brand partnerships often come with tight constraints, the Biden campaign describes its partnerships in the state at this point as loose and unpaid. Creators get invited to events and can choose what to post, or whether to post at all. They can also use campaign staffers as resources to learn about issues surrounding the election.

Screven, for example, met Biden at a Lehigh County coffee shop in January, where they bonded over attending the same small Catholic school in Delaware. The campaign also invited the beauty influencer to interview U.S. Rep. Jasmine Crockett, D-Texas, at Philly’s Juneteenth parade, an offer that Chester County-based creator Lisa Nicole, known as lisalovescurlslocs, also took up.

“There’s no pressure to film anything in particular,” Screven said. ” … It is very much what I feel like is important for my community to know and understand this election year, so I do love that. It’s really me, and no one’s putting words in my mouth.”

And unpaid influencing isn’t necessarily bad. Kory Aversa, a public relations specialist and Philly-based content creator who is working with the Biden campaign, said that followers may view paid advertising, which has to be disclosed, as “inauthentic.”

Influencers’ creativity will be put to the test this election cycle as they balance talking about politics and staying true to their own brand. The Biden campaign has tried to work events into creators’ niches, like by giving out free cheesesteaks on Juneteenth in West Philly and inviting content creators who specialize in food.

And sometimes being authentic means indirectly advocating for the Biden campaign, for instance, highlighting issues embraced by the Democratic Party without explicitly telling followers whom to vote for.

“It’s one thing to be at the White House and talk about our president’s accomplishments for LGBT people, but it’s a very different message to put up something attacking another candidate or talking about things like the debate afterward in a much more direct or confrontational way,” said Aversa, who also attended the White House Pride celebration.

Sophia Schiaroli, an LGBTQ-focused Philly-based influencer whose handle is soso_swag, leaned into a trending sound on TikTok (“Is somebody gonna match my freak?”) while posting about Trump allies blocking the Right to Contraception Act. Schiaroli wrote that in contrast, Biden is protecting contraception access and working to expand free birth control.

“Please vote this November,” Schiaroli, who is working with the Biden campaign, said at the end of the post. Bridget McFadden, another Philadelphia-based influencer who posts under the handle bswift_13 commented “see ya on November 5!”

Tomika Bryant, a self-described “Philly lifestyle expert” whose handle is tomikatalks, typically posts about lifestyle, wellness and travel. She lives in King of Prussia and has 148,000 followers on Instagram, and she’s also working with the Biden campaign.

Bryant, 51, a breast cancer survivor and advocate, started venturing into discussing politics because of the overlap with health care. She was invited to Biden’s rally last month at Girard College, which was intended to reach Black voters like herself, another group the Biden campaign is working to win back after seeing support lag.

Bryant likes sharing news with her followers during her morning walks on her Instagram stories. She asks them, “What do you think about this? Do you know how this impacts us?” she said. She said she’ll give her followers the gist of a new bill, for example, but she’ll also make an effort to direct them to the source to read for themselves.

Ultimately, she wants to inform her followers and help them make “the best decision with all the facts,” she said.

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