This 26-year-old former truck driver is running for Congress, and he's betting big that TikTok will help get him elected

Joshua Collins

Joshua Collins for Congress

Joshua Collins is a former truck driver running for Congress in Washington.

Joshua Collins was working as a delivery driver dropping supplies off at a Subway when he made up his mind to run for office. He was listening to a podcast featuring Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, and he remembers Sanders saying that young, working class people capable of running had a responsibility to do just that.

Now, he's running an unconventional campaign, banking on the free and low-cost publicity he can get on TikTok in place of spending any money on traditional ads. Politico predicts $1 billion in spending in races for the House of Representatives in 2020, but Collins says the money he's raising is going towards paying his staff, and not ads. 

He started building up his social media at that point, thinking he'd run for local office. Then, he saw the surprising momentum of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her congressional race against a 10-term incumbent, and he told himself that if she won her race, he'd run for Congress, too. 

He got involved politically, and said he had been in his representative's office many times. "The Green New Deal was probably the number one thing" that he talked to his rep about, he said to the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA). 

Facing an incumbent would make for an especially tough race, so when the congressman, Rep. Denny Heck, a Democrat, announced he would retire last month, Collins' campaign viewed it as a victory. At the time, he was Heck's only primary challenger. Collins said that he believed portions of Heck's retirement announcement were about Collins challenging his seat. Heck wrote "Success seems to be measured by how many Twitter followers one has which are largely gained by saying increasingly outrageous things, the more personal the better. There are simply too many hyperbolic adjectives and too few nouns. Civility is out. Compromise is out. All or nothing is in."

TikTok hasn't really caught on with politicians for a few reasons. It only recently joined the likes of Twitter and Instagram as major social media apps, launching in the US in 2018. It evolved from video-sharing app Musical.ly, where users lip-synced along to 15-second audio tracks. China's ByteDance bought Musical.ly in 2017 and folded it into TikTok. ByteDance is considered the most valuable private company in the world, worth an estimated $75 billion. The app has also been plagued by security concerns over reports of censorship at the request of the Chinese government. Several senators have asked for investigations into TikTok as a counterintelligence risk, and the Army and Navy have both barred TikTok from government phones. 

Now, Collins is preparing for his August primary against the three other Democratic candidates who have filed to run. Washington's 10th district was only created in 2011, and has never been held by anyone but Heck. Ballotpedia rated the district as "safely Democratic," so the primary will likely be the effective election. Other Democrats who've announced their candidacies are Kristine Reeves, who resigned from the state legislature to run, and former Tacoma Mayor and CEO of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce Marilyn Strickland. On January 15, Phil Gardner, who worked on Heck's campaign and in his office, announced he was running. In articles announcing each of these candidacies, Collins is mentioned mostly as an afterthought, noting that he is "a socialist running as a Democrat." Gardner seems to have the most in common with Collins, as he is also young at 28 years old, and he told the Seattle Times that he would prioritize health care and "getting serious about the climate emergency," both key issues for Collins as well.

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Collins wants to tell young people that they're 'not crazy.'

At 26, Collins is on the young side of congressional candidates (members of the House must be at least 25), and he's passionate about getting even younger people involved in politics. Social media has been a useful tool to do that. Although he has nearly 60,000 followers on Twitter, more than double his TikTok following, he finds he gets "much more enthusiastic reactions on TikTok, and livestreams on TikTok go a lot better" than on other platforms. He said that its audience grew up online and so connected more with his message.

Collins' TikTok following is overall younger than his Twitter following, and they're also more radical. While he still gets some trolls in the comments, the reaction is overall positive, he says, and his leftist views don't stand out as much. Last month, BuzzFeed reported on TikTok users who use the short video format to explain socialism, criticize billionaires, or talk about problems with capitalism. Watching these videos, Collins fits right in.

He has specifically been posting about a potential war with Iran after the US claimed responsibility for the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani earlier this month. Collins says he sees the way the right and center talk about a war with Iran are like a "national gaslighting," so he wants to assure young people that they're "not crazy" to be scared and think that war might be a bad idea.

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TikTok has been a source of fundraising and volunteers, and Collins is taking a gamble that it'll work so well he won't need to advertise using traditional methods.

The campaign only launched a TikTok in September, but Collins says they receive more volunteers via TikTok than any other platform.

"I interact with a lot of people who've never gone to any meetings, they don't know anything except what they see online," so it's crucial to "reach them with good messaging." And it seems to be working. In addition to volunteers, the campaign has raised about $5,000 through the fundraising link on Instagram and TikTok. That figure isn't huge, but it becomes more impressive considering the young age of most of Collins' TikTok following. Collins told Business Insider that the campaign has raised over $128,000 so far, which mostly goes toward his staff. According to the most recent FEC filings, the campaign had raised over $43,000 by the end of September, and spent about $12,000. Aside from repaying an $800 loan, the rest was categorized as "operating expenditures," which Collins says goes toward paying his staff.

Collins is hopeful that TikTok will be such an effective marketing tool that it will make up for the campaign's lack of ads and mailers. In the short time he's been using the app, Collins has gotten better at using TikTok. Some of his videos have gone semi-viral, which he believes is good for himself and socialist messaging overall, but he also needs to reach his constituents to win. Collins and his team have focused on using "effective hashtags" on videos, like "Washington state," "Olympia," and "Tacoma." TikTok's own locations data makes videos more likely to be seen by people who live nearby, which can lead to more local views.

Collins and his campaign are gambling on TikTok and social media to compensate for a lack of traditional advertising. He made the unusual and potentially risky choice not to spend any money on advertising, which is corroborated by FEC filings. TikTok is still young and untested as an a source of political influence, so it's uncertain whether Collins' gamble will pay off.

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Though the videos are central to his campaign, Collins says his TikToks are all him, not a group effort

"Everything I post is 100% me, there's no conversation with the team," Collins told Business Insider about his popular TikToks. Since the campaign isn't spending money on ads, social media is the main way Collins gets his name out, but he still makes all of his videos himself. The most planning that goes into a TikTok, he says, is that sometimes he'll think of an idea and write it down to make later.

Collins says the only help he's had was buying a Ring light, which improves lighting in videos.

Posting is easy for him, because he "grew up using memes and the Internet." Before running for office, Collins says he didn't post much, but he used to browse League of Legends and Reddit all the time.

Collins told Business Insider that he will keep making TikToks if he's elected.

@joshua4congress

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Sitting politicians tell him to "stop wasting time on social media."

Collins says most of the advice he gets from politicians tells him social media is "for kids," and that he should stop wasting time and focus on his campaign. He notes, though, that social media is overwhelmingly where he fund-raises and gets volunteers, so for him, it is campaigning.

It's not as if other politicians can afford to avoid social media, either. "Every politician is making Instagram stories but me," Collins joked, noting that even presidential campaigns have a presence on the app. But Collins says he tries to max out the benefit off each social media platform. TikToks, crucially, can be reposted on Twitter and Facebook, while Instagram stories cannot. His Facebook audience is mostly older people, and rural young people, a group less likely to be exposed to TikTok, so he says they "think I'm the funniest person ever."

In this campaign, Collins appears to be the most active on social media. Gardner and Reeves both have Twitter accounts, but Business Insider was unable to find TikTok accounts associated with any of Collins' competitors.

He understands why some politicians with larger followings might be reluctant to join a more casual platform like TikTok, or engage in memes. "Imagine if Bernie [Sanders] or Liz [Warren] posted a cringe TikTok!" he said. Even he has to be careful of what he posts.

"I can't even go into a Taco Bell without some 17 year old being like 'I saw your TikToks.'"

@joshua4congress

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