TikTok Whisperer by John Fetterman – The New York Times

Newt Gingrich was not happy. It was December night. On the 6th, minutes before the call of Raphael Warnock for the United States Senate in Georgia, and on the Fox News program “Hannity”, the hint of the imminent loss of Herschel Walker had begun. One of the main culprits: TikTok.

Tik Tok? The Chinese-owned social media platform, which didn’t even exist at the start of Donald J. Trump’s presidency, should be banned “on national security grounds,” Mr. Gingrich said. “But as long as it’s legal,” he continued, “we have to learn to compete in a place like this, because that’s where Gen Z gets such a high percentage of their information.”

“We must learn to be competitive within it,” he added.

This is a point – and probably the only one – on which Mr. Gingrich and Annie Wu Henry would agree.

At the age of 26, Ms. Henry – or @Annie_Wu_22 as she is known Twitter, Instagram and TikTok — had been a relatively low-level staffer since July of Sen.-elect John Fetterman’s campaign against Dr. Mehmet Oz in the US Senate race from Pennsylvania, when he took on Mr. Fetterman’s TikTok account.

“John already had this incredible communications team working for him, and he himself had been a Twitter guy for years,” said Ms. Henry, he said in a video call from his apartment in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood. He was wearing sweats and a hoodie (“very brand today,” he said with a laugh). “But we were able to move his voice and his message to other platforms,” ​​he said.

And those other platforms were even “more important than it might have been normally,” said Ms. Henry said, because Mr. Fetterman was unable to hit the court after suffering a stroke in May.

Ms. Henry was quickly converted, according to Mr. Fetterman’s director of communications, Joe Calvello, his “Queen of TikTok.” The account amassed more than 240,000 followers in three months, with three million likes and tens of millions of views. Ms. Henry’s was able to make serious fun, and serious fun; and his motto – in life and on TikTok – is “embrace the cringe”. In other words, let the world see you as your messy, authentic self.

Of course, you have to have a candidate who is willing to let you do this. “John is not an Instagram guy,” polished, carefully curated, “and he wouldn’t be the one making him dance on TikTok either,” he said. “But if we can use a kind of weird, quirky sound and edit our messaging so that it’s a little, well, not messy, but not super-refined, it aligns with who he is, who this campaign is.”

Some of his achievements: the video of Dr. Oz brags about growing up in “South Philadelphia” followed by a map showing that across the water is… New Jersey, overlaid with Smash Mouth’s “All Star” (“Someone Told Me once the world will roll me / I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed”).

Another one of her stronger examples: a trippy TikTok duet from the heavy metal puppets to Psychostick’s “Numbers (I Can Only Count to Four)” featuring Dr. Oz cannot count the number of houses he has.

While she did not create Mr. Fetterman’s response to Dr. Oz’s famous crudités video, in which she complains about the price of “crudités” and combines Philly Wegmans and Redner’s grocery stores, she did have a fundraising moment. For any donation over $5, donors will receive a sticker that reads, “Wegners: Let Them Eat Crudité.” Very quickly, the money came.

“Annie is like this generational force,” said a young political operative known as Memes. He has a Twitter account called @OrganizerMemes, an aggregator of smart political images and text, which also serves as a place for harassed young employees to vent without being revealed to their bosses. (Memes is 25 years old, works in politics and would like to keep his job, hence the anonymity).

Consider Ms. Henry, a close friend, although they met in a non-virtual way for the first time in Georgia, when Ms. Henry made a last-minute decision to fly to Georgia and help get the Asian vote out for Senator Warnock in the runoff.

“Young people are often not trusted in campaigns to get things done,” Memes said. “Annie is what happens when you trust young people to do what they’re good at.”

Ms. Henry grew up in a rural, deeply conservative town in York County, Pennsylvania, the only child of Tom and Beth Henry, both special education teachers. She was adopted in China at 13 months.

When her exhausted and excited parents welcomed their new daughter, Mr. Henry said, the nurse told them: “This one is very proud, he will get what he wants in life.”

From an early age, her parents said, injustice would make her head explode. Her liberal but devout Methodist parents despaired when they could not get their daughter to attend church with them once she learned what gay marriage was and that their church would not allow it.

“I think because she was adopted from China and we had very few other ethnic races in our town, she might have felt like an underdog,” her father said. “Sometimes he was picked on. But when he saw someone else being picked on, he got mad.”

He got his first smartphone in high school and was tweeting about the 2012 election before he could vote. Four years ago, he led Black Lives Matter protests in his predominantly white hometown.

And it was his father who first told him about Mr. Fetterman. “When I was mayor of Braddock, I admired him for really helping people who were depressed, for standing up for the common person.” Henry said. “When he announced that he was thinking about running for the Senate, I told Annie, ‘This is a man you have to think about. This is someone you can support.”

He graduated from Lehigh University in 2018 — his honors thesis was on the intersection of identity and social media — and then worked on a series of jobs: organizing for a couple of local politicians in Philadelphia and doing social media for a bridal company to pay the bills.

At the start of the pandemic, she wrote an attention-grabbing essay about dealing with her ethnicity for the first time and feeling really scared as an Asian American in a country where the president called Covid-19 “the Chinese flu” . Wearing a mask in public, she reminded herself to “look nice” and not sneeze or cough.

Last year, he made his first viral tweet with a friend: a Stop Asian Hate meme that got millions of views, helped by reposts from celebrities like Chrissy Teigen and Ellen Pompeo.

Sophie Ota, Mr. Fetterman’s digital director, hired her in late July. In the coming months, Ms. Henry said, they were a blur. There were no rest days. There was no time to check what the experts were saying about the predicted “red wave” and Ms. Henry and other staff members assiduously puzzled over the news.

Ms. Henry was also one of the only people on the campaign trail who owned a car, which meant he drove co-workers from one part of the state to the other, doing about 1,000 kilometers a week; the joke was that he had memorized the Pennsylvania Turnpike and knew the best rest stops and coffee shops. (At one point, the compliance officer, who monitors staff expenses, looked at how many lattes she was buying and wanted to know who she was buying coffee for each day. They were just for her.)

While she and Mr. Fetterman was often in different locations, showing up before events so he could shoot and post photos of the crowds, the lines, the people. At most events there was a tracker – a guy from the Oz team who oversaw the event.

“This is very common,” said Ms. Henry said: “But this guy was there mainly to see if he could record John spoiling the words so they could make fun of John’s health. He also recorded John’s children. There are ways to do it where you are no rude and disrespectful.” Mrs. Henry had one last word of disdain: “And he was using a video camera

Ms. Henry has a fairly high online profile aside from her connection to Fetterman. Her personal Instagram account (which has more than 80,000 followers) alternates information about how to get involved in the fight against racism and protecting abortion rights with selfies with fellow protesters such as Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker or actress Kerry Washington.

And Ms. Henry has no shame in supporting low-paying political jobs with a side hustle or two. It has partnered not only with nonprofits that promote reproductive rights or protect democracy, but also with the occasional manufacturer of skin creams or vibrators.

Political tchotchkes and pop culture references — “just little references to people I love — fill her apartment. Her doormat says, “In this house, we understand that basic human rights are not political issues and that science is a matter of fact, not opinion. welcome.”

Taylor Swift merchandise is strewn about and signed copies of Jimmy Carter and Gloria Steinem books are on the coffee table. Next to her door is a handbag that says, “Friends don’t let friends miss the election.”

She’s trying to catch up on her real life after the blur of the past few months: answering emails, paying a speeding ticket and, perhaps most importantly, getting tickets to Taylor Swift’s upcoming concert. (She and Mr. Fetterman’s wife, Giselle, have a “text bond” about Taylor Swift, she said.) She’s single and unemployed, but like many of her peers, she’s not panicking.

“I don’t know how this is going to play out, and I don’t necessarily want to know,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll have this job, like, big dream forever.” She said she doesn’t think she wants to work on the Hill, even though a recent Instagram post shows her looking very Jackie O, mysteriously visiting the White House.

And he’s enjoying this first taste of celebrity. She said she had recently been walking down the street and a man rolled down his window and called out, “Are you Annie?” “I said ‘Yes’ but a little surprised/confused,” she texted me. Then he yelled, “Thank you for all you’ve done,” and left.

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