Gotham Gazette

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Get Social: Candidates Must Unlock the Power of Young Voters in New York City Elections

voter reg day

Teen voter registration (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Twenty-five million people under the age of 30 voted in the 2020 presidential election. That’s the highest it has ever been, both in raw numbers and percentage of eligible voters. As one of the largest voter blocs in the country, politicians want and need as much of the “Gen Z'' vote as they can get. So naturally, politicians are thinking, where can we find the youth?

On social media, of course.

Yet, as New York City’s 2021 election cycle has drawn to a close, local candidates have been struggling to use social media to connect with this impactful group of voters, who we know vote  at far lower rates in local elections than national ones. As a 15-year-old, future voter, and New York City native, I have a few thoughts on how candidates should be better utilizing these communication tools.

According to the Pew Research Center, 72% of Americans under 30 use some form of social media, making it the most important medium for connecting with young voters. It’s also a useful tool for reaching a wider array of people. About half of Latino and Black Americans are on Instagram in particular, according to the Pew study.

The ultimate endgame for all politicians is to get as many votes as possible. How they allocate their resources determines their priorities. Over the course of the 2021 election cycle,  New York City candidates spent over $47 million on television ads and an additional $27.3 million on all mailings, campaign literature, and print advertising, according to the latest data from the city’s Campaign Finance Board.

While it’s harder to track spending on social media, if candidates invested a quarter of what they spent on traditional media on Instagram, Twitter, and Tiktok, they would be far better off connecting with young voters*. While it can be complicated, it doesn’t have to be expensive at all. Duolingo, the popular language learning app, is dominating TikTok (@duolingo) with its weird, wacky, and low-budget content that doesn’t even reference its language learning app. And, it’s working: this year alone they managed to increase profit by 106%.

Throughout history, successful public figures have mastered the communication tools of their time. Benjamin Franklin distributed pamphlets of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” to inspire support for the revolution. Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his Fireside Chats through radio. Dwight Eisenhower was the first presidential candidate to use televised campaign ads. And John F. Kennedy charmed Americans through his performance (and use of stage makeup) in the televised debates. In the modern era, politicians must learn to use social media.

In 2008, Barack Obama tapped into social media to reach the White House. Donald Trump was the first president to have his own personal Twitter account. (While Obama did have a Twitter account while running and during his time in office, it’s been carefully managed by his team.) Trump was his authentic, unfiltered self on Twitter and used the platform to gain and direct a massive following before he was kicked off the platform due to the risk of further incitement of violence.

Nowadays, we see a lot of politicians on Twitter, some trying to copy Trump’s model while others use it far more carefully. The politician most widely-recognized as being on the cutting edge of social media is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. AOC came out of nowhere to win her New York congressional seat in 2018 and become the youngest member of Congress. Her saviness on social media has played an instrumental role in her rise. In fact, she was so successful at connecting with people through social media, she was asked to lead a seminar on how to use Twitter for fellow members of Congress.

Whether she’s cooking pasta on Instagram Live, conducting a makeup tutorial on Facebook, responding to Ted Cruz on Twitter, or live-streaming a video game session on Twitch, AOC is always looking for new ways to break the fourth wall and connect with people on social media. Of course, she’s not cooking up pasta in front of the world just because she has a killer recipe she wants to share. She’s sharing her ideas while building a two-part story combining the visuals (cooking, gaming, etc.) and her voice (policies, big ideas, opinions). She’s being real and human, breaking the barrier of awkwardness that often arises when people talk to politicians.

Her approach is similar to the TikToker Dylan Lemay (@dylanlemay). Lemay gained millions of followers on TikTok while working at an ice cream shop. While his videos show him scooping ice cream and decorating cakes, his voice-overs share stories about what he did that day with his friends, and his plans for later. This is often referred to as “multi-narrative storytelling,” and it’s the same approach AOC is using in her social media content to discuss public policy.

Unfortunately, these inventive new ways of using social media for political purposes mostly haven't reached New York City’s local elections -- despite being the nation's cultural capital and home of countless social media agencies and influencers (soon to include Lemay, who is moving to New York City to start his own ice cream shop).

Based on my own analysis of the New York City mayoral candidates’ social media channels, few if any are using social media to efficiently target young voters. Many are sharing longform, highly-edited essays in Twitter threads spanning multiple tweets, which ruins the allure of Twitter’s short form and personable style. On Instagram, candidates mostly posted pictures of their travels around the city, meeting and talking with voters. Rarely did they try to engage directly with voters through social media (commenting, responding to questions directly, interacting in other ways), missing out on the potentially pivotal group of voters under 30.

Most candidates running for mayor never even attempted to create a TikTok account, despite the platform’s growing popularity over Facebook and Instagram and a global audience of over 1 billion users.  We know this is a viable way to help win elections because it has happened before — on November 2, two 19-year-olds from Connecticut won their local elections through the power of social media.

There are some local candidates who shine above the rest in their social media performance. For example, Brooklyn City Council Member-Elect Chi Ossé developed his online following through his leadership in the Black Lives Matter movement. The 23-year-old has expanded his audience by being genuine on Twitter and interactive with voters on Instagram, which helped lead to his win on Election Day. His staff also consists of fellow underrepresented New Yorkers around the same age. I would love to see Ossé take on TikTok as well.

That’s among my suggestions for all New York City politicians, who collectively can do a lot to improve their social media game:

First, use TikTok. Whether you love it or hate it, it’s what’s now and next, so you better use it. With TikTok just surpassing YouTube in watch-hours per month, it’s an important medium for appealing to a younger audience. Warm up with repurposed content from other platforms if you are feeling skeptical. The more you use it, the more comfortable you will get with the platform's unique and ever-changing trends. Be silly, embarrass yourself, let loose, show yourself. TikTok is the place to be.

Next, be authentic. Twitter and Instagram aren’t just advertising platforms. Be yourself. Write your own tweets. Not everything has to be reviewed by a team of 10 people. If you have an idea, share it. Have a picture you like? Post it on your IG story. This will help candidates appear more relatable and in-touch with regular people.

Next, try using multi-narrative storytelling. Introduce seemingly unrelated narratives into the same content and trust that your audience will understand and actually enjoy the content.

Don’t forget, interact! One-way social media communication is boring. Social media was created for people to have conversations with each other, and that’s what most people use it for. Respond to comments. Comment on other people’s content. Carefully, have a debate with someone in their DMs — I can promise you they’ll remember it.**

Next, be genuine. You don’t have to be so uptight and calculating. Voters aren’t dumb, they can tell. If you put on the camera and lose the makeup and all the other showmanship you might have, you will appear more genuine. Voters are always looking for more genuine candidates.

Lastly, get more youth on your team. Who’s better at appealing to young voters than other young voters? Many young New Yorkers are leading the fight against climate change, gun violence, and so much more. You can work with young voices to guide your decisions in the world of social media. Many young people know what they are doing, and you should trust that many would love to help you with your campaign.

With another round of City Council elections throughout the city just around the corner in 2023, now is the time for anyone considering running for one of these seats to break ground on their social media strategy, and start thinking big about how they can inspire young New Yorkers to support their candidacy and vote. In doing so, our elected officials will be more in touch with young voters and more responsive to their needs.

Nikita Chernin is a sophomore at New Dorp High School and a NYC Votes Youth Ambassador in Staten Island. The views expressed here are his own. On Twitter @N6chernin.

*While a lot of campaigns use the Facebook ad tools to advertise to voters, the people they target are usually of an older demographic. Facebook does skew more towards the older generations in its user-base so while politicians do advertise there, it’s not seen by youth as much.

**A word of caution. There are boundaries that people have. Be careful to not cross them, as crossing people’s personal boundaries usually results in problems. Always use your brain and exercise caution when talking to voters in private — and expect that anything you say privately will become public at some point.

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