Ocasio-Cortez gains instant stature in Congress, and social media is a key

Why We Wrote This

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has drawn attention, in part, for her use of social media. The congresswoman represents a new kind of politician maximizing this direct line to the public.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a freshman Democrat representing New York's 14th District, takes a selfie with fellow Democrats Rep. Barbara Lee of California and Rep. Ann McLane Kuster of New Hampshire on the first day of the 116th Congress in Washington Jan. 3.

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Like her or not, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the face of a new kind of public official: one who is part politician and part social media influencer, willing to share her personal life as much as her policy positions. Her social following has given her an outsize voice as a congressional Democrat as her party retakes control of the House this week. (She’s bucking the party leadership on one early vote.) The raw style comes with pitfalls – and it’s hard to tell how well it will translate into real influence when it’s time to govern. But politicians have long embraced new forms of communication. Representative Ocasio-Cortez is the latest to build on that history. “A lot of people outside of Washington are mistrustful of this overly self-edited, curated style, where everything you say is poll-tested before you say it,” says Zach Graves of the Lincoln Network, a nonprofit focused on the ties between technology and government. “The personal, empathetic connections that you can make by telling stories that lend themselves well to these platforms are valuable.”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has hardly sat down before she whips out her phone to record the chaos around her. Her fellow members-elect talk above the noise in the packed room. The media jostle each other against the walls.

A minute later, the story pops up on her Instagram feed.

“All right, it’s time to pick out our offices,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez says in the video. “What’s up? We’re getting our numbers!” She means the lottery numbers that decide the order by which new members get to choose their quarters on Capitol Hill.

“People do lucky dances and rituals and such,” she writes in her next post. “Apparently last time someone did a backflip.”

Since her surprise primary victory in June against top House Democrat Joe Crowley, Representative Ocasio-Cortez – and her social media stream – has become a newsmaking machine. Her daily life regularly makes headlines, whether she’s joining sit-ins or doing laundry, giving pep talks or making mac and cheese. In this case, she’s documenting new member orientation week in a series of real-time posts.

Depending on where on the political aisle you stand, she’s either a genius or a joke. But like her or not, Ocasio-Cortez is the face of a new kind of public official: one who is part politician and part social media influencer, fluent in digital strategy and willing to share her personal life as much as her policy positions with the public. And while her raw style comes with pitfalls, Ocasio-Cortez’s outsize stature speaks to its draw – and its potential to change, for better or worse, how politicians communicate with constituents.

“This is a bit of a milestone, for a freshman member to have this kind of impact and following before being sworn in,” says Brad Fitch, president and chief executive of the Congressional Management Foundation. “It may not affect public policy, but another part of [Congress’s] role is to articulate the broader views of constituents in the halls of power. She has certainly already done that.”

And to the degree she successfully cultivates a public following, that may help her very real aspirations to influence the wider debates on public policies, from education to immigration or social justice. Now a sitting House member, she bucked her own party leadership and opposed a rules package Thursday over a spending provision that highlights the divide between the party’s progressive and more centrist wings. [Editor's note: The previous sentence was updated after a rules-package vote.]

“I’m one who believes that the progressive movement is the future and that we have to be fighting for health care as a right, wages, jobs and criminal justice reform, humane immigration," she says. Social media, she adds, keeps her in constant contact with both the movement and her constituents. “Because of that, I can really get a pulse on what’s going on every single day.”

Politicians as media innovators

Technology has always dictated how officials communicate with their constituents. One reason Congress set up the US Postal Service in 1775 was because lawmakers then thought that for democracy to flourish, representatives had to be able to connect easily with the public. The House and Senate were also early adopters of the telephone switchboard, installing them in 1898.

By the 1930s and ’40s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was using radio to broadcast his fireside chats and explain his policies to the American people. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich seized power in the ’90s with the help of C-SPAN, which televised his late-night speeches to an empty House floor.

By 2009, about 30 percent of congress members had Twitter accounts. Today, all of them do, even as the president announces policy decisions online.

Ocasio-Cortez builds on that history, bringing Congress fully into the age of Instagram. Her feed gives an unprecedented look into the life of an elected representative in a way that makes her seem more, not less, human. “She’s tremendously relatable,” says Daniel Schuman, policy director at the social welfare organization Demand Progress. “How often do you get to see inside the Democratic Caucus meeting?”

It helps that Ocasio-Cortez is who she is: a Latina progressive who not only beat out a white, male establishment Democrat, but who also, at 29, became the youngest woman to be elected to Congress. But other members – including 85-year-old Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) of Iowa – have also successfully embraced the medium, which shows how much Americans value what they perceive to be authentic interactions with their leaders.

“A lot of people outside of Washington are mistrustful of this overly self-edited, curated style, where everything you say is poll-tested before you say it,” says Zach Graves, head of policy at the Lincoln Network, a nonprofit that looks into the ways technology and government can work together. “The personal, empathetic connections that you can make by telling stories that lend themselves well to these platforms are valuable.”

Social media: ‘authentic’ but challenging

This direct, “be-yourself” approach to constituent communications could mean better accountability and transparency – at least on paper. In some ways, it is helpful for members to take the temperature of their constituency through social media. And it aligns with the kind of energy that’s swept the Democratic Party’s progressive wing with the arrival of this freshman class, which was elected to take on the establishment and take action in an environment of gridlock, write Casey Burgat and Charles Hunt in a recent analysis for the Brookings Institution.

Still, it can be hard for congressional staff to draw meaningful conclusions from a set of tweets or Instagram comments. There’s no easy way to tell whether a post is from an honest voter or someone with an agenda, posing as one. Social media monitoring also pushes Congress, already experiencing a drain on expertise, to put more resources on messaging instead of on policy and research.    

It’s also easy to draw fire when you’re always the center of attention. Conservative media has loved to hate her, criticizing everything from her plans to support a Green New Deal to her decision to take a week off over the holidays for “self-care.”

It’s not just the right. The Washington Post recently called her out for falsely claiming that the Pentagon had “$21 trillion in accounting errors” that could have gone to financing Medicare For All, one of her keystone issues. She called Politico “fake news” after the site reported that she was looking to unseat Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D) of New York in 2020 – a comment that led Donald Trump Jr. to send his own tweet of sympathy.

And as the new Congress prepared to open, she found herself criticized as a “shiny new object” by outgoing Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, a tiff that highlighted inter-party rifts between centrists and the left.

These tangents have led some to wonder whether or not her style will get in the way of governance. “You can be overexposed, and then you’re seen by your colleagues as a showboat when you want to be more of a workhorse,” especially as a freshman, says Betsy Fischer Martin, executive director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University. “It’ll be interesting to see ... what she’s doing with her platforms.”

Ocasio-Cortez, however, seems to believe in her approach – and the public seems to love it. In less than two months, her Instagram following soared from about 800,000 to 1.2 million. She says she tries not to overthink every post, that her goal is to help the public understand how Congress works from the inside.

“When you’re a normal constituent, one of the biggest frustrations is like, ‘Why can’t we just get Medicare for all passed?’ Or, ‘Why is my representative’s office in such a difficult-to-attain place?’ ” she says. “It’s important to show people what these processes look like.”

Social media can lift that veil, she adds. “It has the potential to really show your authentic member as themselves. And that can be a great thing.”

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