When the White House invited a group of 30 leading TikTok stars, some without backgrounds in journalism, for a modified news briefing on Russia's invasion of Ukraine last week, the Biden administration pre-screened their questions, several of the attendees told FOX Business.
"I was asked to submit questions before the briefing, for the sake of time, not (as I was told) content, but since I did at the very last minute, I didn't hear back about them," Jules Suzdaltsev, a U.S.-based influencer who was born in Kyiv, told FOX Business. "I wanted to ask what line Russia would have to cross to get the U.S. to take direct military action."
Multiple influencers on the call said they were asked to provide their questions beforehand. Some refused. Only a few had the opportunity to ask their questions of the White House officials during the 50-minute briefing last week, a recording of which the Washington Post published online.
Last year, the White House Press Office took flak for allegedly attempting to screen questions from professional journalists ahead of its daily news briefings.
Several of the TikTokers have had journalistic training and experience. Officials on the call included two media relations veterans, White House press secretary Jen Psaki and Matt Miller, a communications adviser for the National Security Council, as well as Rob Flaherty, the White House director of digital strategy.
Jules Terpak, another attendee with a following of over 271,000 who has been critical of misinformation on her channel, said the meeting ended before she got a chance to ask her pre-screened question about the authenticity of some TikTok videos emerging during the conflict.
"I wanted to get their take on handling the videos gaining reach from anonymous accounts on TikTok that are framed as being from the current situation, meanwhile being from a very different timeline," she told FOX Business. "You see little to no questioning in the comment sections because people are unsure if this really did just happen."
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Videos can go viral instantly on TikTok, Terpak said, even from accounts that had been unknown, unverified or had no established credibility.
"I’ve seen a few Twitter threads trying to debunk these videos as they come, but believe there needs to be more verified sources scouring these platforms and taking a ‘thread’-like approach to vet these videos," she said.
After the briefing, the influencers returned to their platforms armed with a simplified version of the White House’s official take on events.
"I would characterize it as halfway between a traditional press briefing and a town hall," Suzdaltsev said. "I think their instinct to engage creators is a good one, and I can recognize the difficulty in trying to discuss current events of this scale with a mix of journalists and non-journalists."
Suzdaltsev has been covering news of from home country on his TikTok channel, Good Morning Bad News – with more than 1 million followers.
Ellie Zeiler, an 18-year-old with more than 10 million followers on TikTok, was another attendee.
While the briefing focused mainly on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, she asked another question on many people's minds, about record levels of inflation and what they mean for young people.
But the answer she got from Psaki veered the topic back to the invasion and hammered home the assertion that while there were other factors involved with inflation, Vladimir Putin was to blame for rising gas prices because he invaded Ukraine and invited international sanctions.
Zeiler posted a video in which she aimed to answer the question, "Why is gas so expensive?"
"Why is gas so expensive, and why is the United States inflation rate at a four-time decade high?" she begins the video. "I had the opportunity to ask the White House why gas down the street is $7 and here’s what they said."
She said the first, "obvious reason," is that demand is going up as the COVID-19 pandemic winds down and people resume traveling.
"But the call was predominantly about Ukraine and Russia, so how does that relate?" she continued. "Russia is one of the top three producers of oil and it is actually their No. 1 revenue source. Now, with Putin starting this horrific fight between Ukraine and Russia, nobody wants to work with him and do international trade."
Zeiler's manager did not respond to requests for comment.
The Washington Post was first to report the meeting and published a 51-minute recording of the call. Flaherty, the White House director of digital strategy, told the TikTokers that the format would be similar to "a background call for reporters" and that he saw their reach as "a critically important avenue" to the American public.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.