Meet the Teen Who Schooled the Professional-Selection Motion on TikTok
The email sent to hundreds of reproductive rights organizations last year contained a strong warning: anti-abortion groups had picked up on TikTok and were “extremely attractive” to the platform’s young audiences.
“There is serious untapped potential here and you should take advantage of it,” it says.
Perhaps even more surprising than the message was the identity of its author: a 15-year-old California high school student who was stuck at home because of the pandemic and, like many Americans, had been drawn into the app.
Another surprise: the abortion rights movement listened to them.
Now, a year and a half after sending that email, Mehtaab Kaur is a high school graduate juggling homework, polo riding practice, and consulting with stakeholders on how to harness the power of the video-sharing service.
“I initially planned it so that they would just jump into the app,” Kaur told The Daily Beast. “But I’ve found that a lot of these organizations don’t understand TikTok.”
“And that’s where I came in,” she added.
“AbortionTok” – the term pro-choice advocates use to describe their place on the app – has grown steadily over the past few years as access to abortion has waned in the US. The most popular accounts have more than half a million followers and regularly collect tens of thousands of likes. Last month, when an anti-abortion group set up a leader line to catch violations of a restrictive abortion law in Texas, activists on TikTok flooded it with hoaxes and Shrek memes. The site was taken down within a week.
But it wasn’t always like that. Before Kaur and other advocates joined the app, anti-abortion groups like LiveAction had an oversized voice among TikTok’s mostly young, liberal audience. At the time of Kaur’s email, Live Action had over 80,000 followers; the anti-abortion apparel line A Chance at Life had nearly 48,000. (You now have over 477,000, or nearly 125,000.) In her email, Kaur explained the extent of the problem: “Don’t say you should be concerned, but you should be concerned.”
But the teenager also knew that pro-choice accounts were gaining traction on TikTok much faster than pro-life accounts – “that’s a literal fact,” she wrote. She urged the organizations she emailed – including the Guttmacher Institute, several abortion funds, and every branch of NARAL and Planned Parenthood she could find – to create accounts and post videos. (Thirty to 40 second videos are best, she wrote, 15 is acceptable; it was probably a good idea to have a younger employee handle the account.)
“I don’t want to create any urgency, but I can’t allow pro-life organizations to openly spread lies about an app that is being compromised by so many younger and impressionable kids,” she wrote.
“Everyone was telling me how they got this email from this bossy 16 year old who said, ‘Why aren’t you on TikTok?’ And I thought to myself, I have to find this teenager. “
– Eleanor Grano from Janes Due Process
At the same time that Kaur was doing her publicity work, several other advocates were slowly coming up with the app on their own. Noticing the hundreds of millions of people who came to TikTok during the pandemic, Denise Rodriguez, the communications manager at Texas Equal Access Fund, hired a class of interns to create content-only content for the app. A group of clinic escorts in North Carolina went viral several times for their videos making fun of anti-abortion protesters.
Eleanor Grano, program manager for abortion rights advocacy Jane’s Due Process, set out to create a pro-abortion “hype house” – Gen Z language for groups that band together to create TikTok content. But every time she reached out to an organization to join, she said she got the same response.
“Everyone was telling me how they got this email from this bossy 16-year-old who said, ‘Why aren’t you on TikTok?'” She said. “And I thought I had to find this teenager.”
Kaur stands out among her peers for her courage and single-minded focus on abortion. An article in the New York Times last summer described the apathy of some teenagers on the subject; A survey quoted found that Generation Z women consider mass shootings, climate change, education and racial inequality to be increasingly important to them than abortion.
But for Kaur the subject is personal: when she was 13, an aunt in India was impregnated by a man who did not want to marry her; She ended up killing herself by ingesting arsenic. The incident gave her the weight of the stigma surrounding abortion and unwanted pregnancies, reminding her that these issues are closer to home than you might think. “There is this huge campaign: ‘[Everyone knows] someone who had an abortion, ‘”said Kaur. “It’s the same with me, but I know someone who couldn’t have an abortion and had to live with the consequences of it.”
Despite her apparent passion, Kaur’s cold email campaign didn’t take off immediately. Many organizations said they didn’t have time for any other social media app; some said they wanted to join but didn’t know how. One of those people was Whitney Shanahan from ProChoice with Heart.
Shanahan’s group, founded in response to a proposed six-week abortion ban in Ohio, often held protests in which pregnant women scribbled the words “Pro-Choice” on their stomachs with lipstick. The footage of the protests had gone viral on other social media platforms, but Shanahan knew nothing about Gen Z’s favorite app. “When.” [Kaur] Reached out his hand to me and said, ‘We need pro chociers like you on TikTok’. I think I said to her, ‘What is TikTok?’ “Shanahan recalled.
At Kaur’s urging, Shanahan agreed to download the app and upload some of her old protest footage. It started immediately. From there, Shanahan set out to master TikTok, with Kaur as her advisor. Almost exclusively via Instagram DM, Kaur guided her through TikTok basics such as sounds, dance moves, and hashtags. “She was basically a tour guide,” Shanahan said.
Today Shanahan has one of the most popular pro-choice accounts on TikTok with more than half a million followers. She estimates that 99 percent of her advocacy is now done through the app, which she often uploads several times a day. And she says she owes everything to Kaur. “I would never have gone to TikTok if I hadn’t gotten an Instagram message from her,” she said.
Grano, Jane’s due process manager, eventually got in touch with Kaur and persuaded her to join their hype house. There the teenager acted as a resident Gen Z correspondent, covering what sounds and styles were trending and how they could match them to pro-choice content. She and Grano also developed several lectures on how to use the app and presented them to abortion funds and at reproductive rights conferences.
Some of their recommendations contradict traditional pro-choice tactics. While older generations were taught to treat abortion as a serious, personal problem, TikTok activists often joke about it and even record fake abortion dates. And while many pro-choice groups use an argumentative tone to convince skeptics, Kaur tells their customers that TikTok is not about convincing the viewer, but rather making them feel something.
“I tell people, ‘If you want to get people addicted, try to give them hope, make them proud, and try to express those emotions in the video you are making,'” she said.
“When you get the feeling right, they will remember and carry on this conversation with other people they know and it will spread like wildfire.”
Grano said her biggest struggle is to convince millennial activists to let go a little. The generation that grew up on Instagram is often too preoccupied with aesthetics, she said, forgetting that the way to connect with younger viewers is through authenticity. On TikTok, she said, “You can have your hair uncombed and talk about something and Gen Z will listen.”
But they can get their older customers to cooperate, saying both Kaur and Grano are always worth getting them onto TikTok. The beauty of the app, Kaur explained, lies in its largely trapped audience: viewers don’t have to follow your organization or search for it to find your content – if you use the algorithm correctly, it will simply appear on their “For” You ” Page. Once it’s there, she said, “everyone is guaranteed to give you at least five seconds before scrolling.”
Today, Kaur balances her social media counseling with a more typical high school activity: applying to colleges. She says she wants to major in marketing and apply it to nonprofits. She writes her college admission essay about her passion for activism.
Even if Kaur gets on with her life, her legacy will live on in AbortionTok. Paige Alexandria, creator of the popular pro-choice account @abortioncounselor, called Kaur a “catalyst” for AbortionTok and even praised her during a presentation last year.
Amelia Bonow, the founder of Shout Your Abortion, credits Kaur for inspiring her to start an artist residency for TikTok developers. She remembers the email she received from the confident teenager.
“She didn’t just say, ‘You should do this,'” Bonow said via email. “She was basically saying, ‘If you call yourself an abortion culture change organization and you’re not on Tik Tok, please take multiple seats.'”
“And based on her cold email game at age 15,” she added, “I’ve decided to support Mahi Beth as President of the United States in 2040.”