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Opinion: Using influencers to get young people to vote for Joe Biden isn’t just misguided. It’s insulting

Internet personalities Tyler Oakley, left, and Bethany Mota at the Teen Choice Awards.
(Kevin Winter / Getty Images)

Watching former Vice President Joe Biden chat about politics on Instagram with Bethany Mota, a fashion and beauty influencer, makes me wonder what version of the simulation we’re in.

Mota, who is 24, boasts 4.7 million followers on Instagram and 9.99 million subscribers on YouTube. She’s one of many “influencers,” a broad term that mainly refers to people with thousands if not millions of young followers who watch all of their social media content, look up to them and trust their product recommendations.

Since 2009, she’s been posting fashion and beauty videos ranging from “Black Friday Haul!!!” to “Fall Inspiration: Outfits, Accessories, and Beauty!” Thirteen-year-old me grew up watching her, avidly trying out new Essie nail polishes she recommended and jamming out to her favorite One Direction songs.

That’s one of many reasons why it’s so jarring for me to watch Biden clumsily attempt to reach young Americans through influencers like Mota. In the last week, he’s begun doing Instagram interviews with influencers such as 32-year-old Allison Holker from “Dancing with the Stars” and Keke Palmer, a 26-year-old singer, actress and talk show host. It’s an attempt to remedy Biden’s well-known weakness among younger voters. And frankly? It’s insulting.

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It’s insulting because it plays into a longstanding narrative that young people are naive and foolish social media addicts who don’t know any better, rather than taking us seriously as constituents with a valid stake in government policy. The recent Instagram interviews, for instance, are largely composed of Biden reviewing his talking points as opposed to any real conversation.

What makes all of this worse is that Biden should already know that young people are knowledgeable about policy and serious about their demands. In April, when Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) dropped out of the race, millennial and Gen Z leaders wrote an open letter to Biden detailing the policies that he needed to support in order to win the trust of young voters. The list was specific and well-researched: adopting the Green New Deal, transitioning to clean energy by 2030, directing the IRS to investigate the NRA’s nonprofit status, creating citizenship pathways for undocumented people, supporting the Affordable Drug Manufacturing Act, cancelling $1.7 trillion in student loan debt…. The four-page document goes on and on.

By not immediately giving these demands serious consideration, Biden presents himself as another member of the Democratic establishment that believes it knows what’s best for young people, despite the fact that young people are the ones who will have to bear the consequences of present-day policymaking, a point that activists and organizers have made clear.

Against all internal resistance, I will vote for creepy Joe Biden, a man who both should be and does not deserve to be president.

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While Sanders was by no means perfect, young people saw him as a chance to fight for the soul of the Democratic Party; 76% of voters aged 18 to 24 in the Michigan primary cast their ballot for Sanders. However, older voters weren’t willing to have a fair contest for the future of the party.

During the nomination process, young voters watched the Democratic National Committee drastically change its rules on primary debates to allow Michael R. Bloomberg to join in before Super Tuesday, while moderators asked Sanders targeted questions about whether he would “give authoritarians a free pass.”

Mainstream media, from which our voices are largely absent, made it clear that they were willing to be part of an “anti-Bernie chorus,” undercutting him in “objective” news stories even when he succeeded. When young voters complained, they were dismissed for not turning out to vote, despite persistent voter suppression and a political system that has continuously sidelined them.

When Sanders lost the race, he warned the Democratic establishment that “in order to win in the future, you need to win the voters who represent the future of our country.” Biden has moved on issues such as expanding Medicare and forgiving some student loan debt. But more often than not, he wants young people to listen to him — on Instagram and on issues of policy.

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In recent days, the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led political movement that signed onto the aforementioned open letter to Biden, signed onto a letter with more than 50 progressive groups, many of them Black-led. The letter challenges Biden’s desire to invest $300 million into community policing to reform the police, instead of following the guidance of groups such as Movement for Black Lives, which argue that reform has never worked and never will work. At this point, however, it’s uncertain whether Biden will actually listen to them.

Biden and the Democratic establishment need to take young people seriously. Stop paying meme makers to create sponsored content for your campaigns a la Bloomberg, or thinking that interviews with influencers are a better way to bridge the Democratic Party’s generational divide than endorsing policies that young activists have long been advocating.

Sure, we grew up on the internet. But we’re not less intelligent or well-read or aware of the horrors of the world than older voters. If anything, we’ve been forced to grow up too quickly because of their failures — it’s time our vision for the future is taken seriously.


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