John Fetterman’s TikTok Whisperer – The New York Times

Newt Gingrich was not happy. It was the night of Dec. 6, minutes before the U.S. Senate race in Georgia was called for Raphael Warnock, and over on the Fox News show “Hannity,” the finger-pointing for Herschel Walker’s imminent loss had begun. One major culprit: TikTok.

TikTok? The Chinese-owned social media platform, which hadn’t even existed at the beginning of Donald J. Trump’s presidency, should be banned “for national security reasons,” Mr. Gingrich said. “But as long as it’s legal,” he continued, “we have to learn to compete in a place like that, because that’s where Generation Z gets such a high percent of their information.”

“We have to learn how to be competitive within it,” he added.

That is one — and likely the only — point on which Mr. Gingrich and Annie Wu Henry would agree.

At 26, Ms. Henry — or @Annie_Wu_22, as she’s known on Twitter, Instagram and TikTok — had been a relatively low-level staffer since July on Senator-elect John Fetterman’s campaign against Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate race, when she took over Mr. Fetterman’s TikTok account.

“John already had this amazing comms team working for him, and he himself had been a Twitter guy for years,” Ms. Henry, said on a video call from her apartment in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia. She was wearing sweats and a hoodie (“very on-brand today,” she said with laugh). “But we were able to move his voice and his message to other platforms,” she said.

And those other platforms were even “more important than it might have been normally,” Ms. Henry said, because Mr. Fetterman couldn’t be out on the trail after his stroke in May.

Ms. Henry quickly became, according to Mr. Fetterman’s director of communications, Joe Calvello, their “TikTok Queen.” The account accrued more than 240,000 followers in three months, with three million likes and tens of millions of views. Ms. Henry’s was able to make the fun serious, and the serious fun; and her motto — in life and on TikTok — is “embrace the cringe.” That is, let the world see you as your messy, authentic self.

Of course you need to have a candidate who’s willing to let you do this. “John isn’t an Instagram dude” — polished, carefully curated — “and it also wouldn’t be him to put him on TikTok dancing around,” she said. “But if we can use a kind of a weird, quirky sound and edit our messages to be a little, well, not messy, but not superrefined, it aligns with who he is, who this campaign is.”

Some of her hits: the video of Dr. Oz boasting about growing up “south of Philadelphia” followed by a map showing that on the other side of the water is … New Jersey, overlaid with Smash Mouth’s “All Star” (“Somebody once told me the world is going to roll me/I ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed”).

Another one of her more cutting examples: a trippy TikTok duet of the heavy metal puppets in Psychostick’s “Numbers (I Can Only Count to Four)” with Dr. Oz being unable to count the number of houses he owns.

While she did not create Mr. Fetterman’s response to Dr. Oz’s infamous crudités video, in which he complains about the price of “crudités” and conflates the Philly grocery stores Wegmans and Redner’s, she did have a eureka fund-raising moment. For any donation above $5, donors would receive a sticker that read: “Wegners: Let Them Eat Crudité.” Very quickly, the money rolled in.

“Annie is like this generational force,” said a young political operative known as Memes. He runs a Twitter account called @OrganizerMemes, an aggregator for clever political images and texts, which also serves as a place where harried young staffers can vent without being outed to their bosses. (Memes is 25, works in politics and would like to keep his job, hence the anonymity.)

He considers Ms. Henry a close friend, though they just met non-virtually for the first time in Georgia, when Ms. Henry made a last-minute decision to fly to Georgia and help get out the Asian vote for Senator Warnock during the runoff.

“Young people are often not trusted on campaigns to do stuff,” Memes said. “Annie is what happens when you trust young people to do what they’re good at.”

Ms. Henry grew up in a rural, deeply conservative town in York County, Pa., the only child of Tom and Beth Henry, both special education teachers. She was adopted in China at 13 months.

When her exhausted and thrilled parents were handed their new daughter, Mr. Henry said, the nurse told them, “This one is very proud, she will get what she wants in life.”

From a very early age, her parents said, injustice would make her head explode. Her liberal but devoutly Methodist parents despaired when they could not get their daughter to go to church with them once she learned what gay marriage was, and that their church wouldn’t allow it.

“I think because she was adopted in China and we had very few other ethnic races in our town, she might have felt like an underdog herself,” her father said. “Sometimes she was picked on. But when she saw someone else being picked on, she was furious.”

She got her first smartphone in high school and was tweeting about the 2012 election before she could vote. Four years ago, she led the Black Lives Matter protests in her mostly white hometown.

And it was her father who first told her about Mr. Fetterman. “When he was mayor of Braddock, I admired him for really helping people who were down and out, for standing up for the common person,” Mr. Henry said. “When he announced he was thinking about running for Senate, I told Annie, ‘This is a man you need to think about. This is someone you can support.’”

She graduated from Lehigh University in 2018 — her honors thesis was about the intersection of identity and social media — and then worked a series of jobs: organizing for a couple of local Philadelphia politicians and doing social media for a bridal company to pay the bills.

At the beginning of the pandemic, she wrote an essay that got attention about dealing with her ethnicity for the first time and feeling truly afraid as an Asian American in a country where the president was calling Covid-19 “the China Flu.” Wearing a mask in public, she would remind herself to “look friendly” and not sneeze or cough.

Last year, she made her first viral tweet with a friend: a Stop Asian Hate meme that got millions of views, helped along by reposts from celebrities including Chrissy Teigen and Ellen Pompeo.

Sophie Ota, Mr. Fetterman’s digital director, hired her at the end of July. The next few months, Ms. Henry said, were a blur. There were no days off. There was no time to check out what pundits were saying about the predicted “red wave,” and Ms. Henry and other staff members assiduously tuned out the news.

Ms. Henry was also one of the only people on the campaign who had a car, which meant she was driving co-workers from one part of the state to the other, logging about 1,000 miles a week; the joke was that she had memorized the Pennsylvania turnpike, and knew all the best rest stops and coffee joints. (At one point the compliance officer, who checks on staffers’ expenses, looked at how many lattes she was buying and wanted to know who she was buying coffee for every day. They were just for her.)

While she and Mr. Fetterman were often in different places, she would turn up at events early so she could shoot and post photos of the crowds, the lines, the people. At most events there was a tracker: a guy from the Oz team who monitored the goings-on.

“That’s really common,” Ms. Henry said, “but this guy was there mostly to see if he could record John messing up words so they could make fun of John’s health. He recorded John’s kids too. There are ways to do this where you’re not rude and disrespectful.” Ms. Henry had a final word of contempt: “And he was using a camcorder.

Ms Henry has a fairly high online profile apart from her Fetterman connection. Her personal Instagram account (which has more than 80,000 followers) alternates information on how to get involved fighting racism and protecting abortion rights with selfies with rally pals like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker or the actress Kerry Washington.

And Ms. Henry is not shy about supporting low-paying political work with a side hustle or two. She has teamed up not only with nonprofits that promote reproductive rights or protect democracy, but also with the occasional skin cream or vibrator manufacturer.

Political tchotchkes and pop culture references — “just little references to people I look up to — fill her apartment. Her doormat reads, “In this house, we understand that basic human rights are not political issues and that science is a matter of fact not opinion. Welcome.”

Taylor Swift merch is scattered around, and signed copies of books by Jimmy Carter and Gloria Steinem lie on the coffee table. Next to her door is a tote bag that reads: “Friends Don’t Let Friends Miss Elections.”

She is trying to catch up on her real life after the blur of the past few months — answering emails, paying a speeding ticket and, perhaps most important, snagging tickets to the upcoming Taylor Swift concert. (She and Mr. Fetterman’s wife, Giselle, have “text bonded” over Taylor Swift, she said.) She is single and jobless, but like many of her ‌peers, not panicked.

“I don’t know how this is going to play out, and I don’t necessarily want to know,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll have this, like, one big dream job forever.” She said she doesn’t think she wants to work on the Hill, though a recent Instagram post features her looking very Jackie O, mysteriously visiting the White House.

And she is enjoying that first taste of celebrity. She said that she had recently been walking down the street and a man rolled down his window and yelled, “Are you Annie?” “I said ‘Yes,’ but kinda surprised/confused,” she texted to me. Then he shouted, “Thanks for all you did,” and sped off.