Politicians turn to social media influencers in search of loyal audiences

Politics

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — As politicians enter the early stages of their 2022 primary campaigns, many of them are forming casual relationships with social media influencers to help boost their own visibility.

For example, Governor J.B. Pritzker attended a live, late-night show in Chicago on Tuesday night and shared the stage with Shermann ‘Dilla’ Thomas’, an up-and-coming TikTok influencer known for explaining interesting historical facts about Chicago in short video blurbs.

The live setting offered Pritzker some quality face time with a friendly crowd who cheered his short riffs about his progressive politics, but it also came with some awkward moments when he stumbled over a trivia question from the viral video maker known online as @6figga_dilla. Pritzker later made up ground when he correctly answered a question about former Governor John Altgeld, and added his own trivia knowledge about Altgeld’s progressive record and ties to organized labor during the late 19th century.

On the south side of town, several Illinois Republicans and candidates running for governor recently appeared in a series of Facebook livestream videos with pastor Corey Brooks, who recently started a 100-day campaign to camp out on a rooftop to draw attention to gun violence. Venture capitalist Jesse Sullivan, asphalt magnate Gary Rabine, state senator Darren Bailey, and Cubs co-owner Todd Ricketts all visited Brooks. Some of them made donations to his nonprofit Project H.O.O.D.

Ricketts, who recently stepped down as the Republican National Committee finance chair, was the only one who didn’t use the appearance to directly address the pastor’s social media audience.

The campaign strategy isn’t entirely new. Politicians have sidled up next to celebrities or faith leaders for decades seeking a share of their familiar spotlight, or an in-road with their captive audience. And to be sure, anywhere there’s a platform, politicians want to get on it. The more loyal the viewers, the more valuable the engagement.

In some instances, campaigns are paying for the extra visibility as a way to boost their profiles. Sullivan’s nascent campaign recently paid $1,000 to a popular Central Illinois Facebook page called ‘217 Problems’ to sponsor a series of posts promoting small businesses. In exchange, each post featured a link to Sullivan’s page at the top.

Brian Berns operates the Facebook page and Twitter account as a part-time hobby from his home in Springfield. While he doesn’t necessarily aspire to the term “influencer,” he reluctantly says he probably is one. He describes his page as a “a multi-content platform that touches upon Midwest stereotypes, memes, and community support stuff.”

More than 124,000 people like the Facebook page, and another 42,000 accounts follow his Twitter handle. A few years ago, he realized his audience had grown large enough, he could start to monetize it and supplement his income working for a health insurance company and as a part-time Uber driver.

“Let’s be honest: there’s [TV] news, radio, and then there’s me,” Berns said, describing his view of a fracturing traditional media landscape. “The reality is if I reach four or five million people a month, that’s something.”

Many of Berns’ posts include odd pictures of quirky traffic incidents, cars crashing into buildings, complaints about cold weather, or polls asking followers to chime in with their observations about life in Central Illinois. Berns says the simple, steady stream of random, folksy, often irreverent banter has earned him a certain degree of familiarity with many of his followers that sometimes turns into loyalty and trust.

“I get people that tell me, ‘Oh, we get the news from you,'” he said before referring to himself as “a ten percent journalist.” “I’m like, ‘I’m on my break. You’re giving me something. I’m just giving out two sentences, yet I’m considered a new source. It doesn’t make any sense.”

While some of his followers have posted complaints about his page starting to promote political campaigns in their Facebook feeds, Berns sees a potential opportunity to cash in with other campaigns in the future. If he determines a candidate or campaign is friendly or supportive of small businesses in Central Illinois, he said he would consider helping to raise their profile outside of the traditional paid Facebook advertisement.

“I want to make sure that it makes sense for my brand,” he said, acknowledging some initial trepidation about wading too far into controversial political debates.

Similar to traditional advertisements, campaigns would still have to report the expense to the Illinois State Board of Elections, but because the soft-sell sponsored post isn’t an overt advertisement, it doesn’t include the same disclaimers and flags that come with regular Facebook political ads and monitoring tools.

The Sullivan campaign’s use of social media messaging appears to be reaching its target audience. One business owner who recently launched a watch shop in downtown Springfield said he learned about the first-time political candidate online and the engagement drew him to attend an event for small businesses.

“I spend a lot of time on the internet, you know, social media, so I find out about Jesse Sullivan,” Brian Su said from the front room of his Sangamon Watches storefront. “The campaign website, that really interests me, because he’s a strong supporter to small business.”

Su, a Chinese immigrant who moved to the U.S. after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, said he has struggled at times in undertaking difficult business ventures. So when Sullivan’s campaign partnered with 217 Problems to promote a spin-off version of the reality show ‘Shark Tank,’ he signed up and attended.

“As a startup, I was very interested,” Su said.

Before long, campaigns will likely broaden the scope and reach of their message to appeal to larger audiences with yard signs, large media ad buys, and public addresses. But in the meantime, successful campaigns know they need a passionate base, and social media is making it easier than ever to find those voters and engage with them in meaningful ways on issues they care about most.

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