'I Was At The White House TikTok Briefing'

My name on TikTok,"Gen Z Historian" is one that I made up. I love history, studied it at Yale University and I have always talked about topics relevant to Generation Z. But I can see there's a bit of an oxymoronic element to the name.

TikTok is a platform where I had really enjoyed watching and engaging, especially around racial justice and similar topics. I thought it would also be a place where I would enjoy making content. And I found that to be true. I definitely do work outside of TikTok, but social media is now my main source of giving to the world.

While I was at Yale, I served as the school's first Black student body president and I was involved in a lot of advocacy, particularly with student activists who were fighting for marginalized communities both on and off campus. So, my first TikTok was posted around Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2021 and was about King's legacy, and how the quotes we see from him are typically his most palatable and pacifistic. His more radical or tense quotes are often obscured. My first video went viral and received more than 1.4 million views. Since then, I have created hundreds more pieces of educational content and built a fun career where I can travel and work for myself.

But I had not been in touch with the White House before I got an email on March 9th, asking if I was free the following day for a White House briefing on Ukraine. I think my initial reaction was excitement, but then I realized I needed to maximize this opportunity, because my audience are mostly Black people, indigenous people and people of color from marginalized communities in the U.S.

Holding The White House to account

On the Zoom call on the day, National Security Council staffers and White House press secretary Jen Psaki gave us a brief overview of what the goals of the event were, and updated us about Ukraine, obviously from an American perspective. I hadn't expected President Joe Biden to be there as the event was described as a press briefing, which I never considered a direct responsibility of the president to host.

A lot of the discourse I have seen on TikTok was around frustration that the Ukraine crisis was receiving an imbalance of coverage and support compared to say, domestic issues in the U.S; for example, reparations related to slavery. So, I wanted to hold the government to task for that so my question centered around that and how Americans could be incentivized to support Ukraine.

The first thing Jen Psaki and the administration said in response was that this is the biggest invasion since World War Two, and the ramifications of what happens in Ukraine will have global consequences that will affect everyone in the United States. So it's of extreme national interest to make sure that people of Ukraine are able to push back against this Russian invasion. I feel like had they stopped there, I would have appreciated it more. I think it was an honest, direct answer. But then they started to add more to the answer that made me more skeptical and more uneasy about their approach to responding. There were a few red herrings that made it seem like giving more attention and support to other crises was beyond their capacity. There was also a general lack of acknowledgement of the U.S. government's role in perpetuating other geopolitical issues.

Still, I think I was able to answer the question that my audience had in their mind. At least, I shared to them what the White House would say to that question.

Most of the influencers were political commentators of some sort but after the briefing, I felt like a lot of the recaps from influencers were not critical. They seemed to repeat exactly what the White House was saying. When I saw a lot of the conservative fallout from the event, saying that people were being used as pawns by the White House, it was hard to argue against that when the information being repeated about the session is just what we were told verbatim, without criticism.

I had the assumption going in that other creators coming out of this event would all have the same level of journalistic integrity and criticism in creating their content. There were definitely some who did, but a lot of them didn't. And that disappointed me, because then it delegitimizes people's trust in our ability as TikTokers to be critical thinkers.

TikTok Influencer Kahlil Greene
TikTok Influencer Kahlil Greene attended the press briefing Joe Biden's White House administration gave to TikTok influencers in March 2021. Kahlil Greene

I personally tried to make sure all of my content about the event was curated in a very specific, sensitive way where I had fact checked everything and approached it critically. But I think over time, it got to the "wrong side" of TikTok, the space your haters are in, and then a few conspiracies surrounding my White House attendance emerged. The most common conspiracy has been that we were being brainwashed into warmongering on behalf of the Biden administration and their political interests. Whenever I tried to respond that we weren't being controlled and had agency over how we reported on the event, these skeptics would respond, "That's exactly what someone brainwashed would say."

The backlash and misogyny against Ellie Zeiler

I feel that a lot of the backlash and hate directed towards Ellie Zeiler was fueled by misogyny. People were looking down on her as a young woman, in this new space, especially because her content is mostly centered around dancing, and fun. Perhaps she could have been more critical, maybe in terms of providing a different perspective, but I don't think what she did was wrong. She said what she had asked the White House, and what the White House responded. She didn't say that these were facts her followers had to believe. I don't think there was anything wrong with her content.

On the other hand, Marcus DiPaola's content is typically as a talking head sharing information. And I think he did share what the White House said directly, without criticism or opinions. That was more disappointing to me than something similar coming from Ellie.

As someone who studied American history, and who's well aware of how government propaganda does work, my perspective comes from this idea of omission of facts or different opinions having an impact. It's important to share all those different facts and opinions whenever you share a piece of information. I think that is a level of responsibility that comes with having the opportunity to listen to the White House talk about a war.

Why TikTok influencers should be briefed by The White House

Although I strongly believe there is a place for TikTok creators in political discourse, I do also want people to be aware that just because someone creates content about news, politics or history on TikTok, doesn't mean that they are trustworthy or have journalistic integrity, or are responsible in sharing information. The main way to determine the quality of their reporting is by assessing the process that they use when sharing information. In my videos, I share what happened, I share additional facts that might be relevant and I hopefully share counter arguments and respond to those who engage in the comments, especially if it's a sensitive topic; such as a war.

War is a time where information is a part of the conflict. And you have to be sensitive about how you handle that.

My response to anyone who is critical about the White House hosting TikTokers is that the criticism should be leveled at certain individual TikTok influencers based on the process they use for information sharing. It shouldn't be leveled at every single person on the basis that they use TikTok. I don't think the White House did anything wrong by approaching TikTok influencers. And if anything, I'll give the decision makers credit, because most of the people there had a background in sharing news and politics in one way or another.

TikTok Influencer Kahlil Greene
TikTok influencer Kahlil 'The Gen Z Historian' Greene. Kahlil Greene

I absolutely think they should continue on. I think their process should involve the public being able to watch these things. I think there was a leaked recording, but in future, these events should be open to the public, everyone should be aware of what's going on and the information should be presented in a way that the general public can understand.

Younger people can have a harder time being taken seriously in more serious fields, but a large part of my platform grew from my commentary a round topics like Juneteenth, the federal holiday that celebrates end of slavery. Juneteenth is a great first step for the U.S. in acknowledging the harm towards Black Americans resulting from slavery and the legacies of slavery, but I think that needs to be supplemented with material and financial compensation for the people and the descendants of those who went through slavery. In future, I hope to push for reparations and similar policies surrounding that.

People may have this idea that TikTok is just for dancing and lip sync, maybe backflips. But there are news reporters, artists and academics all using these platforms and building huge audiences. I think it's time the public acknowledges that.

Kahlil Greene is the 'Gen Z Historian' and the first Black student body president in Yale University's 318-year history. You can follow him on TikTok @kahlilgreene and Instagram @kahlil.greene.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Jenny Haward