Picture, if you will, a panoply of TikToks, scrolling in a hypnotic stream before you. A disgusted Taylor Swift influencer in the fall of 2021, blaming then-Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin's former company for buying Swift's master tapes. A Tesla owner enthusing about how the bipartisan infrastructure deal could create more charging stations for electric vehicles. A single dad washing baby bottles in his kitchen and singing the praises of the expanded child tax credit championed by the Democrats and the Biden White House. A woman leaping off her couch in celebration of the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown-Jackson. An influencer asking her followers to sign a petition for Biden to protect Spirit Mountain, a sacred Native cultural site in southern Nevada.
All of these videos—you can view three at these links—have one thing in common, besides being slightly wooden in delivery: they were masterminded by an “influencer marketing partner” called Vocal Media, which specializes in “influencer campaigns” for progressive and nonprofit causes. Vocal has been training and paying influencers to promote their clients’ causes in a series of videos that are generally not marked as sponsored content. (The Swift video contained a logo for Vote Save America, a Crooked Media project promoting progressive voter outreach, which does at least suggest a partnership of some kind.) The videos, as a whole, appear to contravene the spirit—if not, the company insists, the letter—of TikTok’s rules about political advertising and the Federal Election Commission’s guidelines about sponsored political content online, which advise, “Virtually all paid political advertising on the internet must contain a full, clear, and conspicuous disclaimer on its face.” We know all this because someone at the communications firm Hone Strategies emailed me, asking if I wanted to write about Vocal and their influencer partners.
“I’m curious if you would be interested in covering a story on Vocal Media, a media firm that actually recruits, trains, and pays social media influencers to make videos on important policy topics like abortion, gun violence, etc,” a Hone Strategies communications associate wrote in an email last week. “Vocal partners with major progressive organizations like Planned Parenthood and NARAL.” She attached an array of Vocal-backed videos for my perusal that Vocal had, she wrote, “worked with social media influencers to create in partnership with various progressive organizations.”
That did strike me as interesting, although not for the reasons Vocal might have hoped. Undisclosed political advertising and influence campaigns have been a persistent problem for TikTok, and creating them is a strategy that political organizations have been increasingly interested in leveraging. (So has the White House; as the Washington Post’s Taylor Lorenz reported in March, leading TikTok stars were briefed about the war in Ukraine, ostensibly to help them debunk misinformation and deliver more accurate news about the invasion.) This email was confirming that the practice is ongoing, in clever and subtle ways.
TikTok has been remarkably clear that partisan and political ads—and these are ads, in that people are being paid to promote something on behalf of a third party—are not OK, issuing a statement in October 2019, that read, in part, “[W]e will not allow paid ads that promote or oppose a candidate, current leader, political party or group, or issue at the federal, state, or local level—including election-related ads, advocacy ads, or issue ads.” But an analysis from the Mozilla Foundation in 2021 found that influencers were easily skirting the ban, concluding that the company’s political ad policies are “easy to evade.”
“Our research found that several TikTok influencers in the United States who disseminate political messages on the platform are receiving payment or the promise of compensation from political organizations,” the report’s authors wrote. “In keeping with FTC guidelines, we define payment as any form of material compensation—financial compensation, complimentary gifts, or trips. Some of this funding could be characterized as ‘dark money’—political spending that aimed at influencing voters, but where the source of the money and/or the donor is not fully disclosed.”
Someone being paid and trained to promote a partisan viewpoint—no matter how well-intended the influencer or righteous the cause—certainly seems like part of the problem TikTok identified.
It’s easy to see how this specific loophole could be steamrolled through by someone with a lot of money hoping to promote less than benign or good-hearted causes. It’s also easy to see how all of this lines up with an emerging phenomenon: Even as progressive and Democratic-aligned organizations are increasingly interested in fighting “disinformation,” progressive and Democratic-aligned organizations are employing strategies, like covert paid ad campaigns, that would presumably be found distasteful or immoral—or described as disinformation—if utilized by someone from across the aisle. Anything that can be done to highlight the childhood tax credit or promote Ketanji Brown-Jackson can, after all, also very easily, be done to argue for expanded gun rights or to promote the record of Brett Kavanaugh.
In a statement, a spokesperson for TikTok told us, “Advertisers and ad content must follow our Community Guidelines, Advertising Guidelines, and Terms of Service, and content that violates these guidelines will be removed. Political discourse is allowed as long as it complies with our community guidelines and is organic content, meaning there is no sponsorship or paid promotion behind it." After we contacted TikTok, several of the Vocal Media-backed posts were removed.
Hone Strategies founder Joshua Karp, speaking as a spokesperson for Vocal, said the company isn’t doing anything wrong. “Political ads are different from creators advocating on issues they are passionate about,” he wrote in an email. “Speech about issues is not inherently partisan, that’s a longstanding legal precedent.”
In a separate statement, Karp wrote that the FEC and FCC “have not issued definitive guidance” for types of social media communications, and that if they do, Vocal will follow them. The statement reads, in full:
Vocal works across many platforms and follows every law, regulation, and each platform’s rules, including campaign finance disclaimer rules for political content. The FEC or FCC have not issued definitive guidance on many types of social media communications by organizations or causes. In this evolving space, Vocal believes the FEC or FCC should issue guidance to ensure everyone follows the same rules of the road, and will fully follow any regulations that those entities may impose.
Vocal partners with a variety of cause-based nonprofits and organizations, many of which work to educate the public on important issues and support nonprofits providing direct services to vulnerable communities.
Hone Strategies is a communications and strategy agency founded and staffed by ex-Democratic campaign staffers who champion their own “unmatched work ethic and deep understanding of opposition research.” Karp says on LinkedIn that he worked on a number of Democratic campaigns and also for American Bridge 21st Century, a super PAC often described as the opposition research powerhouse of the Democratic party.
(American Bridge was founded by David Brock, the former right-wing operative most famous for purveying a description of Anita Hill as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty” turned Democratic Party fundraiser and researcher who is one of the Clintons’ most enthusiastic fans. Brock, as The Nation once wrote, “prides himself on being as ruthless and amoral as the operatives on the right,” for instance repeatedly trying to smear Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary for non-existent FEC violations and for supposedly not caring about Black people. He’s also styled himself as an enemy of misinformation.)
It’s unclear whether the influencers in these videos are actually “passionate” about the specific issues they’re advocating around; none of the ones we reached out to responded to a request for comment. Karp told us that none of them were using a script: “Vocal Media partners with influencers creating authentic content about issues that are important to the creators themselves, and helps connect these creators with organizations and nonprofits who are working directly on these issues.”
What is clear, however, is that Hone and Vocal are working in a highly specific gray area, where FEC rules and TikTok guidelines don’t quite reach. The videos I was sent clearly promote specific, partisan causes—legislation championed by the Biden White House, its Supreme Court nominee, and, from the Swift influencer, a link to Vote Save America, the Crooked Media project, along with the caption, “Swifties, you know what to do.” But because they’re not out-and-out campaign ads for a specific candidate, they’re unlikely to attract regulatory attention from either the FEC or TikTok.
In the meantime, the ads contribute to a more insidious problem: It’s genuinely difficult on TikTok to understand if the content you’re watching is paid for or sponsored by a third party. Unless you’re shilling toothpaste or tummy tea—in other words, products and services, which the Federal Trade Commission has delivered very clear guidelines to influencers about—disclosure rules still appear to be lightly enforced. And as TikTok becomes an increasingly powerful platform for younger audiences—and as we head into yet another hellish election cycle—it’s clear that the bargain influencers are striking with their sponsors may not be a particularly good deal for the rest of us.
If you were to visit Vocal Media’s website today hoping for more insight on any of this, you’d be temporarily out of luck. When we began our reporting last week, Vocal’s website (Vocalmedia.io) listed the company’s past partners (cached here) and described it as “a creative partner that brings compelling stories & innovative engagement strategies to our network of digital creators. We instigate viral conversations on social media platforms that tap into the power of thriving, diverse, online communities.” (That indelible language is also cached.)
Some time in the last few days, Vocal’s website began rerouting to a different site, Vocal-media.io. That em-dash contains a world of difference: Where there was once a wealth of detail on what Vocal is doing and how it proposes to do it, along with a lengthy list of all the progressive groups with which it partners, the new site reads, simply, “Make your campaigns heard through real voices,” followed by, “Coming very soon.” Karp claimed that this was part of a planned changeover from a Squarespace site to a custom one. “Look for the full new website,” he said, “in a few weeks.”