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Chicago historian and personality Shermann "Dilla" Thomas

Shermann “Dilla” Thomas is among hundreds of social media influencers Democrats are courting to cover the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

In bid for young voters, Democrats offer social media influencers access to August convention

It’s part of a critical voter outreach plan in place since President Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign as Biden combats Donald Trump and his army of online supporters.

At a Democratic National Convention media walkthrough of the United Center last month, local content creators and social media influencers were given a private tour of their convention working space: a skybox next to major networks like ABC and NBC.

The local influencers, most of whom do not post political commentary, were told, “If you are posting something critical of [President Joe] Biden or Democrats, you know, knock yourself out,” Shermann “Dilla” Thomas, a popular Chicago social media influencer, recalled.

“The only thing they really said at the United Center was kind of, ‘Give folks a chance to answer some of those questions,’” Thomas said. “‘Since you have the credentials essential to be at the DNC, instead of maybe posting your opinion about a thing, you know, fact-check your opinion,’ or give them an opportunity to kind of rebut what you have to say.”

Thomas is among hundreds of influencers the Biden campaign, the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic National Convention Committee are courting. And beginning Friday, influencers will be able to apply for media credentials for the first time in convention history.

It’s part of a critical voter outreach plan that’s been in place since President Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign and has extended into the halls of the White House — as Biden combats former president Donald Trump and his army of social media influencers.

An estimated 32% of people between 18 and 29 got their news from TikTok last year, according to a Pew Research Center poll. And a poll conducted by the University of Chicago’s GenForward late last month found Biden has lost support from young Black and Latino voters compared to 2020.

Democrats are banking on a gambit. While they can’t control content, access and communication with influencers will help them reach tuned out voters in huge numbers, especially in key battleground states. It’s also a way to get ahead of critical content — and potentially debunk misinformation.

Thomas, who has 111,000 followers on TikTok and 84,000 followers on Instagram, proudly calls himself a Chicago urban historian and runs Chicago Mahogany Tours, which he said he started because he got “tired of people ragging on the city and not being fully aware of its history.”

He said he plans to use his convention credentials to post videos about Chicago history and also detail the ways in which organizers are spending money outside of downtown.

“Both Democrats and Republicans are courting minority votes. I can’t speak to that for Milwaukee. But how much money is the DNC spending with minorities and women and immigrant cultures here in Chicago for this big convention out here that they’re spending millions of dollars?” Thomas asked.

Despite the potential for negative posts, a convention spokesperson said there is respect for creators to produce their own content — just as there is a respect for the freedom of the press to cover the convention.

Samantha Lampkin, a journalist, media consultant and social media influencer who posts on Instagram, Facebook and X, also plans to apply for a credential. Lampkin focuses on lifestyle posts on social media but also hosts a monthly political show on CAN-TV called “Chicago Politics.”

“My whole goal is to humanize what it is to be part of the DNC from my lens to the average Chicago resident who may just go to work every day or [is] clicking and moving their thumbs through social media,” Lampkin said. “I want to know, why is this such a big deal? Why do we fight for it and that type of thing, like why people need to care.”

Since 2020, the White House has held briefings and roundtables with TikTok and social media influencers. The president has also conducted interviews with TikTok creators, including Daniel Mac, and the White House last year hosted its first Christmas party for influencers.

The Biden campaign recently invited 20 content creators to a fundraiser featuring Biden and former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton that had a combined following of 85 million. They also recently invited a TikTok creator to tour campaign headquarters.

The campaign said it began working with influencers late last year, in an earlier and larger effort than 2020, and it has now partnered with more than 550 creators. The campaign plans to spend millions on those efforts. The goal is to build relationships and create a coalition of outside voices who will have an impact closer to the election.

Influencers will be granted credentials by the convention campaign committee and will have the same access and information that traditional media receives, which will include access to surrogates and VIPs.

In Chicago, the convention campaign committee has hired full-time staffers, specifically assigned to influencer engagement. A convention spokesperson said a team will lead influencer engagement and will work closely with the Biden campaign and the campaign committee’s digital partnership teams. Volunteers will help with on-site support during the convention.

A spokesperson did not disclose how many credentials will be granted to influencers.

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