During the 2022 midterm elections, politicians running for all levels of office took to social media to reach young voters (and the chronically online).
One campaign that garnered attention in this realm was that of Senator-elect John Fetterman, who was in a tight, expensive, high-stakes race with Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania. While Fetterman was the face of the campaign—and according to members of his team, even created some of his social media content—he had a whole digital strategy unit helping him along the way.
One of the members on the team was Annie Wu Henry, a 26-year-old digital and social media specialist, originally from York County, Pennsylvania. Henry, who describes herself as “zillenial”—someone “very much on the cusp of millennial and Gen Z”—said she started working in electoral politics full time last year, first on the primary campaign of a progressive challenger, and then as an organizer in the state.
“As the midterms were approaching, I really needed to hop in,” she said, in a recent Zoom call. “The John Fetterman campaign and what they were doing with messaging—both from the digital side of things and just who he was as a candidate—it really resonated.”
I talked to Henry about social media strategy, how Taylor Swift made her way into midterms content, and the future of digital campaigning. Our interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Hannah Docter-Loeb: What does a social producer do for political candidates?
Annie Wu Henry: Social media has been around for a while now, but it’s still this new space, especially in political campaigns. How it’s being used and to what extent very much varies on the person in the role of producer, as well as what the campaign needs.
On the Fetterman campaign, we had a very robust digital team. I could really explore different areas of social media, and try to use it in innovative ways that maybe weren’t being done in the political realm in the past.
Do you have any examples of that, of things that you were excited about or were pretty unique?
We’re not the first campaign to do a TikTok, but I think our TikTok was different from many political campaigns. I think it was very engaging, funny, informative, but still very true to who John Fetterman is. We weren’t having him do dances or maybe specific trends that didn’t make sense for him to do, but we were still utilizing trendy sounds or things that people would recognize on the app in a natural way. I think that was something really creative and fun that just also speaks to the times that we are in.
Do you have any favorite moments from the past election cycle or favorite social media memes—not necessarily Fetterman-related—that you feel are emblematic or representative of modern political campaigns?
As a Taylor Swift fan, I enjoyed how her album and all of the Easter eggs and different moments that were happening in the Swiftie world were utilized by so many politicians, including by our campaign and by Bob Casey, the other Senator of Pennsylvania.
I think what’s really interesting is how all of these different pop culture-drama-online moments are intersecting and being used in brand and political and campaign discourse to get messaging across. I think that there are ways you can overdo it, but there are also ways that you can do it that say “We’re relevant. We understand what’s going on. We’re going to meet people where they’re at, on these platforms, as well as talk the talk, speak their language.”
To me, that’s really fun because it’s ever-changing. It is also a challenge because you don’t want anything to come off as inauthentic, or as if you’re just hopping on a bandwagon. Something I never thought I could be doing on a political campaign, was the Adam Levine texts, altering those texts or using them in a format about our policy or dunking on our opponent. Especially in politics in 2022 and in this line of work, it is a stressful, high-stakes space. But it can be fun along the way, and I liked those little moments of joy that we were able to have on the campaign.
How do you differentiate your work on different platforms, when you use Twitter versus TikTok?
So much about communicating well is understanding the medium and understanding the community of each social network. With this campaign, I give the example of “you want a senator that’s from your state.” You want people who are from these platforms, who understand them, which is, I think, part of the reason why I was brought on the team. The way in which you’re talking on Twitter might not be the same way that you’re talking on Instagram. You’re not changing the content of what is being said and what’s being conveyed, but the way in which you’re presenting it.
On TikTok, you have to entertain people and grab their attention. Whereas on Twitter, you’re going there to read what people have to say, hear what their takes are. On Instagram, it’s got to be engaging to the eye or the ear.
Speaking of platforms, I’m curious whether or not Twitter was a big focus in this election.
Twitter was a large part of our strategy. John likes Twitter. John understands Twitter and would be creating content with the team and by himself.
I was not on the team during the primary, but John had the stroke right before it. Once he won the primary, he had to shift because he could no longer be on the campaign trail, as he traditionally would, until he started to recover. So we turned to a lot of these digital platforms to be able to convey a message, to continue to reach people, and to continue to reach a broad audience.
How do you see the current chaos at Twitter influencing future digital strategy?
What is currently happening on Twitter is very worrisome. If it were to die, I think that we would lose a very important tool for a lot of those things: fundraising, and reaching people, particularly young people.
I personally think that Twitter is not going away. I hope that Elon understands and takes seriously the power that he has in that platform and uses that power to keep it running in the hands of people who are smart and capable and will utilize it for good, or if not good, at least neutral aims.
How do you think the presidential election 2024 will be different?
The midterms have really shown there was not a red wave. There is still a lot of momentum from Democrats from the left. There was a historic amount of young voter turnout, and everyone seems shocked about that. I’m hoping that people won’t act shocked that young people want a say in their future and that they will continue to invest in messaging to them and meeting them where they’re at and giving them the resources and information and support to continue to be activated and a part of this very important process.
Social media isn’t going away. Will the platforms be the same in two years? I don’t know. I’m sure there will be updates, things that we don’t like about it, things that shift. I also don’t think people’s use of digital media to get their information and to be entertained will go away.
There also needs to be a continued effort in making sure that we’re fighting against things like misinformation, and there needs to be ethics and oversight, and intention behind what ads are allowed to be played.
What advice do you have for anyone who might be in a similar position of trying to run a candidate’s socials?
So much of our campaign was successful because the overarching theme was authenticity, and that included authenticity on digital. You can be authentic to who your candidate is, who your brand is, and who you are.
I hope that people continue to innovate and invest in the power that is there because there are so many ways that we can be utilizing these platforms that we haven’t even touched yet. The people at the top of the food chain don’t need to know how to make a TikTok or don’t need to know what a reel is or don’t need to understand how BeReal works. But they can invest in staff that understands those platforms, and are experts in those areas.
Is there anything else you think is important to know?
As a young person, as a Pennsylvanian, as a woman of color, I just appreciate these spaces being open to people like me. Campaigns are very chaotic and I hope that we continue to open up the spaces in those ways so that we can have more diversity of thought and innovation that different perspectives bring.