Twenty-seven days before the 2020 presidential election, a new account called @TikTokforBiden posted its first video. In it, a sunny mosaic of young TikTok personalities overlaid with text introduced the group and its goals: “registering young people to vote, raising awareness about the election, and eventually, putting Joe Biden in the White House!” To date, that video has been viewed 2.4 million times.
It started with a Zoom meeting. Originally, Aidan Kohn-Murphy, then a high school junior at Georgetown Day School living in Upper Northwest Washington, D.C., set up a call to discuss the details of a phone bank he was coordinating in support of the Biden campaign. About 200 social media creators attended.
“[I realized] this is probably bigger than a phone bank, so I got a course release from school for that month and a half and ran TikTok for Biden full time, which eventually became Gen-Z [for Change],” he says.
Gen-Z for Change is the nonprofit Kohn-Murphy, 18, founded and runs. Since the election, the @TikTokforBiden handle has become @GenZforChange, and the group’s identity has shifted away from focusing on Joe Biden and the election to emphasizing social change in a broader sense. But between Oct. 7 and Nov. 3 of 2020, Kohn-Murphy and his co-creators released more than 100 videos under the @TikTokforBiden handle. One, which shows teens dance-walking with the words “gen z going to VOTE BLUE at the polls” at the top of the frame, was played 1.6 million times, and it wasn’t the only video of theirs to achieve such lofty numbers, or more.
Kohn-Murphy’s political proficiency is perhaps unsurprising for the child of two politically involved parents—his mother directs the legal clinics at George Washington University, and his father, who served as former D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray’s chief of staff, is Georgetown University’s vice president for government relations and community engagement. Kohn-Murphy, an incoming Harvard freshman, gave his first testimony when he was in first grade, appealing to the Council of the District of Columbia to reinstate chocolate milk in public schools. As he sees it, much of his age cohort living outside Washington, D.C., grew up experiencing politics as something adults talked about. “[In Washington], politics was what the kids were discussing, too,” he says. Kohn-Murphy went on to work for Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey’s 2020 campaign and participated in U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin’s Democracy Summer program.
Known for its lively bursts of video content, TikTok seems a uniquely advantageous medium for political messaging. “It is easier to go viral on TikTok than on any other platform,” Kohn-Murphy says.
Today, Gen-Z for Change has a core staff of 17 and many more in its “coalition,” or collaborative network. The group’s recent projects include setting up a website that helped direct “randomized tips”—predominantly autogenerated song lyrics—to Laura Ingraham’s parent portal email address, which the Fox News host said was for parents to “share what your children are seeing and hearing in the classroom.” Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin got similar treatment when he set up an email address for parents “to send any instances…where there are inherently divisive practices in their schools,” widely understood to refer to the study of racism in America.
Gen-Z also works on campaigns in support of refugees, worker unionization and reproductive rights. Its members plan to collaborate with their political strategy associate, Jack Petocz, to organize in opposition of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the state’s gubernatorial election this November. (Petocz has also organized school walkouts protesting the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida. “I was promptly escorted off of my campus for distributing pride flags at my personal rally [on May 3],” he says. “Despite this abuse of power, I’ve continued organizing and fighting for my community.”) Earlier this year, Gen-Z helped recruit creators for a White House Zoom call on the war in Ukraine.
Kohn-Murphy seems to remain grounded, and to be hanging on to his sense of humor; his personal TikTok handle, which has more than 302,000 followers, is Aidanpleasestoptalking. His high school theater teacher, Laura Rosberg, who doubled as his adviser—“also my office roommate, because I commandeered a desk in the theater office at my school,” Kohn-Murphy says—describes him both as someone who becomes “claimed by a cause and feels this incredible necessity to right wrongs” and as a kid who is unafraid to be goofy, “a natural young performer.”
On social media, these qualities are often complementary—not that there haven’t been missteps. “There are absolutely things that I’ve posted and people have responded and been like, ‘Aidan, this is a moment to listen and to support. This isn’t something that you need to be at the forefront of’ …I’m a white man, and I have a lot of privilege, and my life experiences are in many ways very limited.” He tries hard to receive criticism thoughtfully and to learn from mistakes, he says.
As Kohn-Murphy transitions to college, his work at Gen-Z won’t differ dramatically. Most of it occurs online as it is, which is, perhaps, the point. “I think that Gen-Z is in communication in a way that other generations haven’t been.”
This story appears in the July/August 2022 issue of Bethesda Magazine.