Dallas-Fort Worth social media influencer Parker James is an entertainer first, but this month he’s also an unlikely educator for millions of young TikTok users.
The Texas Department of State Health Services is partnering with influential social media stars like James to spread factual information across Twitter, Facebook, TikTok and Instagram to teach younger Texans about COVID-19 and proven ways to stay safe as in-person classroom instruction is set to begin this fall.
The state is offering payments in the “thousands” to influencers who will wrap facts about coronavirus safety into their own individual brand and share it with their audiences, said James, whose TikTok following exceeds six million. It’s a “discount” from his typical corporate sponsorship deal but James said he isn’t doing it for the cash.
“I haven’t really been out since this all started,” James told The Dallas Morning News. He’s being exceptionally cautious because he has a family member with a compromised immune system and who is therefore more vulnerable to COVID-19.
“A lot of kids my age are pretty well-educated and they do listen,” said the Mansfield resident. “But of course you can’t really ignore what’s going on in the news about those kids that are doing the big frat parties and not wearing masks or social distancing.”
James is known recently for creating videos based around his child-like persona “Steven” in which the 19-year-old uses a popular TikTok camera filter that modulates his voice to a higher pitch and enlarges his eyes and mouth. Steven is CEO of “Dino Club,” and his Dino Club fans are his “buddies.”
He posted a video on Aug. 8 in which Steven lectures several stuffed animal students on proper use of masks and hand sanitizer. The video has since racked up more than 3 million views.
The response has been overwhelmingly positive, James said.
“The negativity, it’s not not nearly as common as you would think. There are people that are like, ‘No one’s going to make me wear a mask.’ I don’t really know how to respond to those people. I just kind of ignore them,” he said.
Five-time Olympic medalist and Plano native Nastia Liukin has also partnered with the state, sharing a video with her nearly 95,000 TikTok followers in late July.
“Wearing a mask is easier than doing this,” Liukin said in the video before performing a gymnastics stunt across a kitchen island. She also provides tips on how to properly wear the mask.
“Wearing a cloth face mask protects you and others,” Liukin said in the video, which has been viewed 2.7 million times.
The state has spent $6.3 million on a public awareness campaign in English and Spanish for its #StayHomeTexas and #HealthyTexas efforts, said spokeswoman Lyndsey Rosales. Those campaigns began in March and will last through February.
As of July 6, the department’s messaging has been viewed 363.9 million times, with 108.6 million coming from minority audiences, Rosales said.
TikTok, now mired in controversy over the potential for the Chinese government to collect data on U.S. users, has emerged as one of the most popular apps in the world. It’s the No. 1 most-downloaded app in 2020, and has been downloaded 165 million times in the U.S. since 2017, according to mobile app research firm SensorTower. More than two-thirds of the app’s users are between the ages of 13-25, according to data shared by Hootsuite.
On TikTok, James has built a following of 6.1 million followers in roughly the last two years all while intentionally crafting his brand to be accessible for all ages. Outside of TikTok, James is a rock musician and said the pandemic has cut into his ability to perform for crowds.
His own high school senior year was also cut short by the pandemic, and he’s hopeful students returning to in-person instruction in the fall will be as safe as possible.
“The more you social distance … the more you stay safe,” James said. “And the better you are with going about that and caring about other people, the sooner this will all be over.”