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Meet the 25-year-old who TikToked his way onto RFK’s campaign team

In the polls, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is a long shot independent presidential candidate, struggling to compete against the well-funded incumbent and his spotlight-grabbing predecessor. But on TikTok, Kennedy is a towering figure, with more than 1.2 million followers.

“RFK Jr is making some of the best political candidate TikTok content ever made,” news content creator V Spehar recently posted on Threads, adding: “This is not an endorsement, I’m just saying he’s broken through and is hitting millions of views day after day. Folks should pay attention.”

How Kennedy’s presence on the popular social media platform will affect the November election is impossible to say. But there’s little doubt who is responsible for Kennedy’s rise there: Link Lauren, 25, a politically eclectic content creator who has shot to fame over the past year by covering and collaborating with long-shot presidential candidates.

Lauren has amassed more than 455,400 followers on his personal TikTok account and nearly 20 million likes. By contrast, the Biden campaign has just 274,000 followers, and Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, has no official TikTok presence.

With 170 million users in the United States, TikTok is considered fundamental to reaching young voters, who were key to Biden’s 2020 triumph over Trump. Kennedy hired Lauren as a paid senior adviser in November in hopes of reaching this critical demographic — though there’s debate over whether his campaign is more likely to appeal to Biden or Trump supporters. Last week, the bipartisan No Labels group announced it won’t field a presidential candidate, leaving Kennedy as the most prominent independent candidate in the race.

Since joining the campaign, Lauren has played a key role in designing some of Kennedy’s most successful online initiatives, including drafting the script for a recent video aimed at voters under 30 who, as Kennedy says in the spot, “probably know my name but not much about me.”

In the video, Kennedy describes the political history of his storied clan, talks about his record as an environmental and antiwar activist and lays out positions intended to appeal to voters beset by high rents and low rates of homeownership. It has been viewed more than 1.5 million times on Instagram and has drawn thousands of comments.

Last month, in a separate video criticizing a measure moving through Congress that could lead to a ban on TikTok, Kennedy referred to Lauren as one of his campaign’s key staffers. “People love TikTok,” Kennedy said in the video. “It’s the digital public square.”

Lauren is “a very, very good communicator,” said Olivia Nuzzi, a political reporter for New York Magazine, who said she thinks of Lauren as “a political influencer — somewhere between an activist and a reporter and an operative.” At a time when polling shows that many young voters are skeptical of institutions and “not excited about either major party’s candidate,” she said, “Link understands how to make complex issues and complex individuals palatable on the internet.”

Lauren said he was drawn to the Kennedy campaign — his first official job in politics — for the professional opportunity and to become involved in the political process. He has not expressed support for Kennedy’s more unorthodox views. Kennedy, whose campaign is managed by his daughter-in-law, Amaryllis Fox Kennedy, a former CIA officer, and includes communications director Del Bigtree, the CEO of an anti-vaccine advocacy group, has promoted false claims, extreme positions and shifting postures on a variety of issues. Kennedy has long faced condemnation for spreading falsehoods about the safety of vaccines — claims debunked by leading health and science organizations and ones that Lauren does not amplify.

Lauren said he hopes to use the experience to become an influential commentator — and perhaps run for office himself. Many of his heroes have also blurred the line between political operative and media personality — an increasing phenomenon online, where many young people spurn traditional news sources in favor of social media content creators.

“I feel like the most effective political figures today are media figures,” Lauren said. “I look at someone like George Stephanopoulos who was Bill Clinton’s communications director in the 90s. He used that knowledge to go become an anchor and a journalist and report the news. For me, it’s being a social media personality and covering the news while doing a campaign.”

While Lauren describes his own political philosophy as anti-establishment, he cites conservative influencers — Tucker Carlson, Glenn Greenwald, Tulsi Gabbard — as inspirations because of their strong personal brands and ability to build successful independent media businesses. He recently slammed traditional cable news outlets on X as “full of hypocrites who’ve sold their souls to peddle DNC talking points” and says “I love Fox News because they have the best ratings.”

Lauren grew up in Dallas, where he currently lives, and attended New York University. He opened his TikTok account when the pandemic hit, but didn’t begin posting in a significant way until after he graduated in 2022 with a degree in music business and entertainment.

He started by covering not politics, but pop culture. His breakout moment came last May with King Charles’s coronation. Lauren did hours of live streams, amassing more than 32 million views on TikTok that month alone.

That same month, Trump did a town hall on CNN, and “CNN viewers were apoplectic,” Lauren said. “They were melting down. They were upset that Donald Trump was on their network. And so I got on TikTok and said, ‘These viewers need to calm down. You can’t live in your little silos … Trump has every right as a former president to go on any network.’”

His post, he said, was “very shocking to people because TikTok was such a left-leaning environment at that point.” But his stance earned him credibility with conservatives and independents, and his following began rising by the thousands.

Within a month, Lauren was creating political content regularly on TikTok, building a large following primarily by covering minor presidential candidates. He interviewed self-help author Marianne Williamson shortly after her on-again, off-again campaign for the Democratic nomination kicked off last year. He traveled to New Hampshire to film with Minnesota congressman Dean Phillips (D), who later suspended his own challenge to Biden. And in January, he traveled to Iowa to cover the Republican caucuses, where he filmed content with pharmaceutical entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who has since ended his campaign for the GOP nomination.

@itslinklauren

Dean Phillips is challenging Joe Biden in his bid for the White House. I went to go meet him in New Hampshire. He’s from Minnesota and is a three-term Congressman. #deanphillips #uspolitics #politicaltiktok #politicstiktok #foxnews #cnnnews #newhampshire

♬ Chill and gentle lo-fi/10 minutes(1455687) – nightbird_bgm

In person, Lauren can speak as authoritatively about Gen Z YouTubers and reality TV as he can the nuances of the electoral system. Ramaswamy’s campaign says Lauren gave it advice on how to succeed online.

“He has a quality that I think is increasingly absent in politics, which is that he genuinely wants to help people,” said Tricia McLaughlin, Ramaswamy’s former communications director. “He’d give us advice, and be like, ‘Here’s what works for me.’ He wasn’t necessarily a Vivek fan, but we struck up a friendship.”

Lauren says his politics have evolved since he was a college student. “When I was living in New York going to NYU, my political beliefs were a bit more one way. Then as you grow, you evolve, meet more people and you travel, your political views shift. I consider myself just an independent thinker, because I’m gonna call it like I see it, whether you’re Republican or Democrat.”

He said his coverage of right-wing candidates is a reflection of opportunity rather than ideology, adding: “I never want to just cover one side of the aisle.” But, he said, “When I started covering politics, the DNC didn’t want to have a primary, they were pushing other Democratic primary challengers off the ballots. So I was left to cover conservative politics. They were having debates.”

@itslinklauren

Anyone can get involved in politics. Look at congress. There’s room for everybody. #uspolitics #politicstiktok #politicaltiktok

♬ original sound – Link Lauren

For now, Lauren sees an opportunity in speaking to younger voters disaffected from the two-party system. “I’m like, let me get on here …,” he said of his TikTok account, “because you’re not going to hear this on NBC or MSNBC. They’re going to gaslight you and say everything’s better under Joe Biden and everything’s amazing, and that’s not the case at all.”

Many young people at a recent Kennedy campaign event in Los Angeles agreed with those sentiments. Phoebe Cutler, a 21-year-old college student attending with her father, said she voted for Biden in 2020, but won’t again because Biden has not “improved the socioeconomic landscape” for young people. She said she is also appalled by his stance on Gaza.

Though she reads the Economist, Cutler said she gets much of her news from alternative sources like Russell Brand’s podcast and “citizen journalism.” “I try to take opinions from both sides and try to decipher my own,” she said.

Lauren thinks legacy media has abandoned young people like Cutler by being slow to adopt new formats like TikTok.

“You can either resist TikTok or you can use it to reach people,” he said. “Gen Z are not going to see the nightly news, so if you want to reach people you’ve got to get on these platforms and speak to them.”

Whatever happens to Kennedy’s candidacy, Lauren said he plans to continue to create content about the 2024 election. Even as he helps RFK flourish on TikTok, Lauren is working to build his own following across platforms, networking with leaders in politics and media and considering launching a newsletter on the platform Substack.

Not long ago, Lauren said, he was approached about staging his own run for office in his home state of Texas — a prospect he finds appealing.

“I think if you really want to get things done,” he said, “you have to be ready to get your hands dirty, get in the ring, and get to work.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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