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Gen Z voter turnout will show just how influential influencers really are

Online creators Ariana Afshar, left, and Brian Femminella have been sharing news and tips for voters ahead of the midterms. (Courtesy of Arian Afshar; Samantha Sybo)

On Ariana Afshar’s 12-hour workdays, she makes TikToks about topics such as Medicare-for-all, posts to Twitter and Instagram about a $15 minimum wage, attends in-person protests, and gathers news to discuss while listeners walk their dogs or make dinner during her weekday-evening Twitch stream. Recently, she talked about the attack on Paul Pelosi. But if it’s a been a particularly rough news week, sometimes she’ll just stream a game or “90 Day Fiancé.”

“I would like to see a system change and more progressive policies being put in place, because what we have in America right now is not sustainable,” said Afshar, 26.

As Gen Z’s voting-eligible population grows, its members’ views and votes are taking on increasing importance. And to figure out how to vote and who to vote for in next week’s midterms, young people are turning to those they can relate to: content creators on social media whose interests, identities or beliefs align with theirs.

Now more than ever before, Gen Z voter turnout will reflect how good political influencers like Afshar are at their jobs.

“I truly try my best to fight for every single marginalized group, whether it’s Iranian, whether it’s LGBTQ+, whether it’s POC, whatever the situation is: health care, women’s rights, reproductive rights, all these things,” Afshar said.

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The creation of Afshar’s digital persona, “The Progressive Brat” — which she calls her “angry alter ego” — came out of personal frustration, as she watched her hard-working immigrant mom struggle to afford basic needs after cancer diagnoses. Afshar quit her corporate communications job to work as a political content creator, scouring the internet for pertinent political issues and linking back to reliable sources to bring viewers up-to-date information. She sometimes films in-depth explainers about political events. But the work she’s seen get the most views are her short and snappy clips.

In one recent TikTok, Afshar holds her ballot in one hand and blows a kiss to the camera with her other. “Me casting my vote knowing I’m cancelling out a Republican boomer’s vote,” the caption reads.

Jamie Cohen, assistant professor in the media studies department at CUNY Queens College, said videos like Afshar’s are characteristic of the political content Gen Z consumes: not too serious, or long, or contrived, or strict on accuracy — and with just the right amount of spiciness to get viewers talking.

“They speak a different language than all previous generations,” Cohen said. “They interpret media completely different than millennials, Gen X or boomers, and as Bo Burnham would say, they see the world almost cynically or ironically.”

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Gillian Brooks, assistant professor of strategic marketing at King’s College London, said Gen Zers are less likely to trust authority figures or institutions, from politicians to traditional news media. And although Gen Zers are more politically engaged in their youth than previous generations, a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted in September found that only about 49 percent of Americans 18 to 29 said they were absolutely certain they were going to vote in the upcoming elections.

In an attempt to motivate young voters, President Biden influenced eight TikTok influencers to visit the White House, in a late-October trip that also brought them to the Supreme Court, to the Capitol and face-to-face with former president Barack Obama.

Political discourse on TikTok and Twitch is the latest evolution of bringing politics to online spaces where people already gather. Millennials watched on YouTube, Brooks noted, as Obama ran for office in the first U.S. presidential campaign uploaded to the video-sharing website. Gen Zers, by contrast, aren’t necessarily looking to hear someone with a political background.

“If there’s someone online who they know intimately, they see their life through their … cellphone, they’re going to believe what that person is saying,” Brooks said. Influencers “understand the weight that they carry, even if they don’t understand the responsibility.”

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They also understand their audience.

“One thing about Gen Z as a generation is that we’re increasingly media literate, and we can kind of see through a lot of the bulls--- of politicians,” said Sam Shlafstein, 19, communications coordinator for Gen Z for Change, an organization made up of about 500 young activists.

Politicians, Shlafstein said, have backtracked on campaign promises to address issues such as climate change that disproportionately affect Gen Zers. But when young people vote in record droves, they put pressure on politicians to pass “legislation that will hopefully re-instill faith in our institutions,” he said. Shlafstein believes Gen Z for Change can boost midterms turnout in swing states such as North Carolina, which could help decide Senate control.

Grant Sikes, 19, who built her following of more than 100,000 on TikTok during the University of Alabama’s sorority recruitment season, wasn’t used to discussing politics with fans. Her friends come from across the political spectrum. But being LGBTQ in Alabama, where gender-affirming care for minors has been challenged, made Sikes want to speak up, and do so authentically.

“I’m the exact same person I am on camera that I am in person,” Sikes said. “I’ve definitely heard people wanting me to use my voice in the platform that I was given off of Bama Rush to not only voice things that I’m passionate about, but voice things for the community.”

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When she visited D.C. in October for the Human Rights Campaign’s national dinner, Sikes posted outfit-of-the-day videos and explored D.C. landmarks. She stopped in front of the U.S. Capitol building to talk about politicians who are trying to strip LGBTQ rights.

“It’s upsetting that people … work in this building to actively take my rights away,” she said in one TikTok.

LGBTQ activist, tech company co-founder and Army officer Brian Femminella, 22, ties his TikToks to LGBTQ-related news stories. He decries the spread and rise of hate, and advocates for fair treatment for the LGBTQ community in the public service and tech industries.

“We’re not just voting for who we like and who has better policies on the economy. We’re voting for who wants to keep recognizing us as human beings,” said Femminella, who lives in New York City. “People want to erase the last 50 years-plus of what progress we’ve made, especially for queer and trans people.”

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But Gen Z is not a monolithic voting bloc, nor a predictable one yet. Gallup data from earlier this year found that 52 percent of Gen Z identified as political independents, 31 percent as Democrats and 17 percent as Republicans.

D.C. resident Jayme Chandler Franklin, 24, co-founded a website, the Conservateur, to provide a space for conservative young women to read stories that connect fashion, politics and culture. The Conservateur’s social media features Republican women running for office, infographics from a right-wing perspective and women wearing the Conservateur’s hot-pink “Make America Hot Again” hats.

Yet not everything on the group’s platform is political. One of its main goals, Chandler Franklin says, is to promote free speech and civic dialogue.

“You don’t have to agree with everything we say and our mission,” she said, “but I think we deserve a voice.”

On Tuesday, Gen Z will reveal just how loud it wants to be.

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