The Biden administration is doing outreach on Ukraine and Russia to popular digital creators from platforms like TikTok, seeking to message to the highly influential group and reach a broader – and younger – audience.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki and officials from the National Security Council held a briefing Thursday with approximately 30 creators who have been covering Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on their social media channels, including TikTok, YouTube and Twitter, a White House official confirmed to CNN. The briefing was first reported by the Washington Post.
“The creators were given an overview of the latest in Ukraine, as well as where the US sees the conflict moving toward,” the official said, adding that officials also took questions from attendees.
“The material was similar to that given in traditional briefing calls to reporters over the last week,” the official said.
The official pointed to the “millions of views” that these creators have produced to explain the latest situation in Ukraine over the past few weeks.
It is “one of the fundamental ways that Americans (particularly young Americans) are coming to see the war evolve in real time,” the official said.
It is also a strategy to combat the scores of misinformation led by the Kremlin on social media.
“As the Russian government has begun paying TikTok creators to produce pro-Kremlin propaganda, briefings like these are a critical tool to ensure that creators can have their questions answered and can provide accurate information to their followers,” the official said.
Aaron Parnas, a 22-year-old Ukrainian American who has 1.2 million followers on TikTok, has been posting regularly on the app since the war began with updates from local journalists and his family on the ground in Ukraine, he told CNN.
Parnas was part of the White House’s call Thursday, after the administration reached out to him earlier this week, he said.
Parnas – who is the son of Lev Parnas, Rudy Giuliani’s former associate whose work in Ukraine stood at the center of former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment inquiry – said his involvement in the call with the Biden White House had nothing to do with his father.
“This was 100% me on my own. I love my father, but I am not my father. We aren’t connected politically in anyway,” Parnas said.
Parnas said the White House’s briefing with the TikTokers was twofold.
First, the White House gave an overview of what the Biden administration is doing to help Ukraine and described the United States’ work with local partners in Europe.
Then, Parnas said, the White House let the influencers ask the administration officials questions “about what people viewing our platforms cared about.”
“I think the main purpose behind (the call) was to get content creators on these other platforms engaged, because, as was noted on the call, many of the people on this platform have a larger following than some even news organizations. So it’s just another way for the White House to combat misinformation and to get accurate information out there,” he said.
Parnas said he posed a question he’s been asked directly by many of his followers.
“My question was essentially, ‘What would Russia need to do for the United States to get involved more by either imposing a no-fly zone or putting American boots on the ground? What would be that tipping point that would require that next step, that escalation?’”
“That is a question that I’ve been receiving. … Many people were kind of nervous that the United States might not be doing enough, per say, by not imposing a no-fly zone even though many Ukrainians wanted it,” he said.
Parnas described being on the call as “honestly surreal.”
“It was just truly a blessing and an honor to be able to be on the call. I think that as a Ukrainian American, I think that the White House is doing a great job right now in their relations with Ukraine and the aid that they’re providing,” he said.
“I think it’s great that they’re using alternative avenues especially through content creators on TikTok and elsewhere to kind of spread real information and combat misinformation,” Parnas said, adding, “There’s just so much misinformation out there that needs to be debunked.”
This is not the first time the White House has engaged with TikTok creators to reach younger audiences.
Dr. Anthony Fauci last summer joined a number of TikTok personalities for a series of conversations about the importance of the Covid-19 vaccine, as part of a push from the White House and the US Department of Health and Human Services to boost youth vaccination rates.
“I think that what people need to understand is the sheer power that TikTok has, whether they like it or not,” said Aidan Kohn-Murphy, the 18-year-old founder and executive director of Gen-Z for Change, a non-profit coalition of more than 500 social media creators.
“Misinformation and disinformation run rampant on social media, and so I think that it was absolutely the right choice of the White House to equip the people who are providing this information on social media with the best information possible,” Kohn-Murphy, who was on the call, told CNN.
“No matter how people feel about it, this is how a lot of young people, but really people in general, are getting their news. And I think that it’s our responsibility as a coalition of social justice-minded creators to spread proper information to combat misinformation and do what we can to make sure that everyone is educated on the situation especially in Ukraine, and I think that hearing from the White House was one small part of how to do so,” he said.
Ellie Zeiler, an 18-year-old creator from LA with 10.5 million followers on TikTok and 1.8 million on Instagram, was also on the call.
Zeiler has been on calls with the White House before, but she said this one was “very special.”
“We got to listen to everyone else’s questions, and they were really speaking to us like we were helping them as well. For example, one of the questions was like, ‘What are you guys as the White House doing to kind of stop misinformation from coming out?’ And they straight up told us, ‘By working with you guys,’” Zeiler said.
“Everyone left the call, I think, a little bit more motivated to share what they learned and what is going on,” she said.
This story has been updated with additional details.