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Army recruiters on TikTok dance around ban to reach Gen Z

TikTok, owned by China-based ByteDance. (Dreamstime/TNS)
November 21, 2021

U.S. Army recruiters are using TikTok to find young Americans and persuade them to enlist, despite an express order banning official use of the China-based social media platform.

The practice highlights a growing challenge facing recruiters: how to reach young Americans who don’t care if their favorite app is made in China, or controlled by it.

Army leaders say they must “meet new recruits where they are”—meaning, on social media—to woo them away from the private sector and into uniform. They even know what apps are favored by their demographic targets.

“They’re on TikTok,” Maj. Gen. Kevin Vereen, who leads Army Recruiting Command, said recently, “and they’re doing other things with Twitter.”

By one estimate, more than half of Generation Z—including the 17- to 24-year-olds the Army needs—use TikTok, the short-video sharing platform developed by Beijing-based ByteDance. But the Army is not on TikTok, thanks to a ban born of national-security concerns that some critics now argue were overblown or have gone unsubstantiated. And that’s limiting recruiters’ ability to go where roughly half of their prime targets spend at least part of their day.

“We’ve got to learn them. We’ve got to understand,” Vereen said at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual meeting, in October. “We do know that most of Generation Z lives in the virtual space, they live online, they live with social media. And so we have to be savvy with how we evolve in our recruiting operations.”

Some recruiters already on TikTok aren’t waiting for Army regulations to change.

“We’re already behind,” said Sgt. Georgia Varoucha, a recruiter with the New Jersey Army National Guard. “To me, we’re already ten years behind. Even if the Army allows it right now we’re still behind.”

Varoucha, who goes by “@njrecruiter Georgia V.” on TikTok, boasts nearly half a million followers and 9.6 million “likes.” The average TikTok user has 1,000 to 5,000 followers.

Varoucha said she ends up in her sergeant major’s office semi-regularly to answer for some of the videos on her TikTok page. But at the end of the day, the app isn’t downloaded on her government phone, it’s a personal page, she’s not representing the uniform poorly in any way, and her videos get leads.

“Realistically, all they care about is the numbers,” Varoucha said. While her TikTok account took roughly six months to really get off the ground and start resulting in leads, it now accounts for 45 percent of the recruits she draws in.

“If you can be in multiple places at once, why not? And that’s what TikTok does,” Varoucha said. “You create a video, you put it out there, you do your high school visits, and the video is working for you.”

Varoucha is far from alone. A quick TikTok search for “army recruiter” turns up a scrolling page of uniformed personnel in recruiting offices across the country with usernames like sgvrecruiter91706sandiegoarmyrecruiterwavyrecruitersfcwellsarmy, and blackhawkdown_us.

According to the Army, they’re all still violating its policy.

“The Army banned the use of TikTok on government devices in late December 2019. Per our policy, recruiters are only allowed to conduct official business using government devices, so at this time, they should not be using TikTok for recruiting purposes either from their government or personal devices,” Kelli Bland, director of public affairs for U.S. Army Recruiting Command told Defense One.

But Varoucha’s success on TikTok drew the Army’s attention. She was recently asked to join a team in Arkansas that is developing the next generation of social-media-recruiting strategies—and the strategy integrates some of what Varoucha has learned via TikTok. But the Army’s adoption of new social media strategies isn’t fast enough, Varoucha said.

This new effort is meant to build on other “evolved” strategies that the Army has given its recruiters in recent years. These include crafting a persona online, showing what they do in their “real lives,” and striving to be “authentic.”

“They’re wearing a uniform, but they’re showing what they do in their real lives,” said Vereen, the Army’s recruiting commander. “We’ve told recruiting [non-commissioned officers] to sometimes stay away from military content on social media and show their families, show their houses, show their pets. It’s amazing the misperceptions men and women have about the military.”

The Army is even trying to deploy its Gen Z social media users to convince others to join up.

“We’re using their own peers to help recruit them,” he said. “Early on, we were using leadership: a lot of older folks… And if there’s anything we’ve learned, it’s that they’re definitely not like me. They’re definitely not like the older generation.”

But Gen Z peers aren’t officially allowed to use the social media platforms their civilian counterparts spend up to five hours a day perusing.

In November 2019, the Army was proud to share how it was using TikTok and “memes” to reach new recruits despite a growing chorus of warnings about how the company that makes TikTok—and all of the data it collects—ultimately was controlled by China’s government.

“My recruiters find [TikTok] extremely helpful, when it comes to putting short videos together, to promote the Army and a recruiting message…associated with music,” Maj. Gen. Frank Muth, Vereen’s predecessor as commander of Recruiting Command, told Military.com.

But one month earlier, two key senators had expressed concerns about the app. “With over 110 million downloads in the U.S. alone, TikTok is a potential counterintelligence threat we cannot ignore,” Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Tom Cotton wrote to the acting Director of National Intelligence.

By December, the Defense Department had issued new guidance against using TikTok and the Army had imposed its own ban. The following summer, President Donald Trump attempted to impose a wider ban that was frozen by the courts.

But many have since softened their opinions about TikTok’s actual harm. In June, President Joe Biden revoked the ban, and recent studies have found no national-security threat associated with TikTok.

But the Army’s ban on recruiters remains in place.

Bland, the Army Recruiting Command spokesperson, provided a list of platforms recruiters are able to use, including Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, SnapChat, and Clubhouse—but Vereen noted that only the first two of those are effective with the youngest potential recruits.

“As you look at Facebook, it’s a great platform. But Generation Z’s not there,” Vereen said.

The Army did not respond to Defense One‘s questions about the gap between its recruiting strategy and current policy on TikTok.

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