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While states ban TikTok, this Washington state agency says it helps them reach young people

A screenshot of a TikTok video showing a snow-covered car with eyes and a mouth superimposed on it, and the words 'Some drivers: Not me! I don't need chains!'
A screenshot from a TikTok posted on Washington State Department of Transportation's TikTok in November of 2022, featuring content strategist DeAnna Dailey's eyes, mouth, and voice. This video has over 600,000 views.

States around the U.S. are banningthe social media app TikTok on government devices over privacy concerns and its ties to China. The federal government is preparingto impose its own ban for federal government phones.

But in Washington state, one government organization with a popular TikTok said using the app helps them reach young people.

The Washington State Department of Transportation has a very active social media presence across multiple platforms. The state agency responds to people complaining, answers questions about when roads will be open and shares construction updates.

For a while, WSDOT's social media team treated TikTok like they treated Twitter or Facebook. But a few months ago they started experimenting – leaning into the weird Gen Z zeitgeist.

Like using Taylor Swift to remind people to put on their chains in the snow.

The most popular TikTok – with 2.6 million views – simply scores video of the end of 22 years of road work on the Tacoma stretch of I-5 in September, with music from the culminating moment of the Lion King.

The strategy is starting to work – their following went from under 5,000 six months ago to over 60,000 today, according to DeAnna Dailey, a content strategist at WSDOT.

Dailey said 70% of WSDOT's followers on TikTok are under age 34, and half of those are under age 24. That means they’re connecting with younger drivers who might not know things like the fact that it’s illegal to pass snowplows.

Dailey and her young coworkers come up with most of the ideas. WSDOT's social media manager, Mike Allende, said TikTok is important – but he doesn’t really understand it.

"Sometimes I have to go to DeAnna or my kid or somebody and be like, I don't know what this means," Allende said in a KNKX interview with Dailey.

Dailey laughed.

"Just now, I was translating into regular mainstream language when people say, 'oh, how come I didn't know this?' What they actually say is 'not me just learning this on FYP,'" she said.

For you non-TikTok users: FYP is the "For You" page, TikTok’s main timeline.

WSDOT plans to continue using TikTok for the immediate future, as their IT team hasn't yet deemed it a threat and the state legislature has not taken any action to ban it on government devices.

Scott Greenstone is a former KNKX reporter. His reporting focused on under-covered communities, and spotlighting the powerful people making decisions that affect all of us throughout Western Washington.