John Fetterman’s TikTok Whisperer – The New York Times

John Fetterman’s TikTok Whisperer – The New York Times

John Fetterman's TikTok Whisperer - The New York Times

Newt Gingrich was not happy. It was the night of Dec. 6, minutes before the U.S. Senate race in Georgia was called for Raphael Warnock, and more on the Fox News show “Hannity,” pointing the finger for Herschel’s impending loss. Walker had started. A big culprit: TikTok.

TIC Tac? The Chinese-owned social media platform, which didn’t even exist at the start of Donald J. Trump’s presidency, should be banned “for national security reasons,” 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 have to learn to be competitive inside,” he added.

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

At 26, Mrs. Henry – or @Annie_Wu_22, as she is known on TwitterInstagram and TikTok – had been a relatively low-level staffer since July during Senator-elect John Fetterman’s campaign against Dr Mehmet Oz in the U.S. Senate race from Pennsylvania, when she took over the TikTok account from Mr. Fettermann.

“John already had this amazing communications team working for him, and he himself had been a Twitter guy for years,” Ms. Henry said, in a video call from her apartment in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood. She wore sweats and a hoodie (“very on-brand today,” she laughed). “But we were able to move his voice and his message to other platforms,” ​​she said.

And those other platforms were still “more important than they normally could have been”, Ms Henry said, as Mr Fetterman couldn’t be on the trail after his stroke in May.

Ms Henry quickly became, according to Mr Fetterman’s director of communications, Joe Calvello, their “TikTok Queen”. The account racked up over 240,000 followers in three months, with three million likes and tens of millions of views. Mrs. Henry managed to make serious fun and fun; and his motto — in life and on TikTok — is “kiss the grimace.” In other words, let the world see you as your messy, authentic self.

Of course, you must have a candidate who is willing to let you do this. “John is not an Instagram guy” – polite, neatly curated – “nor would it be for him to put him on TikTok dancing,” she said. “But if we can use some kind of weird, offbeat sound and change our messaging to be a little, well, not messy, but not super polished, that fits who he is, who this campaign is.”

Some of his hits: the video of Dr. Oz bragging about growing up “south of Philadelphia,” followed by a map showing that across the water is…New Jersey, overlaid with “All Star” from Smash Mouth (“Somebody once told me the world was gonna roll me / I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed”).

Another of her more cutting examples: a trippy TikTok duo of heavy metal puppets in Psychostick’s “Numbers (I Can Only Count to Four)” with Dr. Oz unable to count the number of houses he owns.

While she did not create Mr. Fetterman’s response To Dr. Oz’s infamous raw food video, in which he complains about the price of “raw vegetables” and confuses Philly Wegmans and Redner’s grocery stores, she had a eureka fundraising moment. For any donation over $5, donors would receive a sticker that read, “Wegners: Let Them Eat Crudity.” Very quickly, the money flowed in.

“Annie is like this generational force,” said a young political operative known as Memes. He runs a Twitter account called @OrganizerMemes, an aggregator of clever political images and texts, which also serves as a place where harassed young employees can let off steam without being reported to their bosses. (Memes is 25, works in politics and would like to keep his job, hence the anonymity.)

He considers Mrs. Henry a close friend, although they had just met non-virtually for the first time in Georgia, when Mrs. Henry made the last-minute decision to fly to Georgia and help secure the Asian vote for Senator Warnock in the second round. .

“Young people often don’t trust campaigns to do things,” Memes said. “Annie is what happens when young people are trusted to do what they are good at.”

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

When her exhausted and overjoyed parents received their new daughter, Mr Henry said, the nurse told them: ‘This one is very proud, she will get what she wants in life.’

From an early age, his parents said, injustice made his head explode. Her liberal but devout Methodist parents were in despair that they could not get their daughter to attend church with them once she learned about same-sex marriage 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 outsider herself,” her father said. “Sometimes she was harassed. But when she saw someone else being harassed, she was furious.

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

And it was his father who first told him about Mr. Fetterman. “When he was mayor of Braddock, I looked up to him for really helping people who were depressed, for standing up for the ordinary person,” Mr Henry said. “When he announced he was planning to run for the Senate, I said to Annie, ‘He’s a man you have to think about. He’s someone you can support.

She graduated from Lehigh University in 2018 — her honors thesis focused on the intersection of identity and social media — then worked a series of jobs: organizing for a few local Philadelphia politicians and managing media. payroll for a wedding business to pay the bills.

At the start of the pandemic, she wrote an essay that drew attention to coming to terms with her ethnicity for the first time and feeling genuinely 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 “appear friendly” and not to sneeze or cough.

Last year, she made her first viral tweet with a friend: a Stop Asian Hate meme that has been viewed millions of times, helped by reposts from celebrities such as Chrissy Teigen and Ellen Pompeo.

Sophie Ota, Mr. Fetterman’s digital director, hired her in late July. The following months, Ms Henry said, were a blur. There were no rest days. There was no time to check what experts were saying about the predicted ‘red wave’, and Ms Henry and other staff listened diligently to the news.

Ms. Henry was also one of the only people in the countryside to have a car, which meant she drove colleagues from one part of the state to another, driving about 1,000 miles a week; the joke was that she had memorized the Pennsylvania Turnpike and knew all the best rest stops and cafes. (At one point, the compliance officer, who checks employee 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 were often in different locations, she showed up early to events so she could take and post pictures of the crowds, the lines, the people. In most events, there was a tracker: a guy from the Oz team who monitored the events.

‘It’s very common,’ Ms Henry said, ‘but this guy was there mainly to see if he could record John getting the words wrong so they could make fun of John’s health. also recorded John’s children. There are ways to do it where you are not rude and disrespectful. Mrs. Henry had a last word of contempt: “And he was using a camcorder.

Ms. Henry has a fairly high online profile outside of her Fetterman connection. Her personal Instagram account (which has over 80,000 followers) alternates information about how to get involved in the fight against racism and protecting abortion rights with selfies with rally pals like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker or actress Kerry Washington.

And Ms. Henry isn’t shy about supporting low-paying political work with a side hustle or two. She’s partnered not only with nonprofits that promote reproductive rights or protect democracy, but also with the occasional maker of skin creams or vibrators.

Political tchotchkes and pop culture references — “just little references to people I look up to — fill his apartment. His doormat reads, “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 books by Jimmy Carter and Gloria Steinem lie on the coffee table. Next to his door is a tote bag that reads, “Friends don’t let friends miss the election.”

She’s trying to catch up on her real life after the fuzziness of the past few months – answering emails, paying a speeding ticket and, perhaps most importantly, snagging tickets to the next Taylor Swift concert . (She and Mr. Fetterman’s wife, Giselle, have a “linked text” on Taylor Swift, she said.) She is single and unemployed, but like many of her peers, she has no panic.

“I don’t know how it’s going to pan out, and I don’t necessarily want to know,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll have this kind of dream job forever.” She said she didn’t think she wanted to work on the Hill, although a recent Instagram post shows her very Jackie O, mysteriously visiting the White House.

And she’s enjoying that first taste of fame. She said she had recently walked down the street and a man rolled down his window and shouted, “Are you Annie?” “I said ‘yes,’ but a little surprised/confused,” she texted me. Then he shouted “Thank you for everything you have done” and ran away.


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