One lawmaker is the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, the third most powerful person in American politics. The other lawmaker is a brand-new member of Congress, who ran for public office for the first time last year.
But in terms of social media influence, New York Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has the clear lead, passing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in number of Twitter followers this past week.
The 116th Congress is the most diverse in U.S. history and also one of the youngest. Twenty-five members of the new Congress are millennials, part of the generation born in the 1980s and later who are more comfortable with social media.
Ocasio-Cortez leads this pack of newcomers, drawing national headlines by politically sparring with critics, livestreaming her home cooking, and talking about her plans for a “Green New Deal.” The videos she posts give voters a glimpse of her personal life while providing behind-the-scenes primers on life as a freshman lawmaker.
”Ocasio-Cortez stands out among everyone else. What she’s doing is really quite groundbreaking in a way that we’re quickly seeing others try to imitate,” said Dave Karpf, associate professor of media and public affairs at The George Washington University.
“There’s an authenticity that she brings to that, that comes from starting out as an Instagram user and then developing this audience and using the communication tools she has to communicate with them. Rather than the other way around,” Karpf said.
The 29-year-old Ocasio-Cortez used Instagram Live to take her followers through the post-election process of preparing to serve in Congress, demystifying an often obscure process so that voters could better understand what’s asked of elected officials.
“The way new members of Congress — particularly the younger, new Democratic women in Congress — are using social media is emblematic of their new approach to leadership,” said Molly O’Rourke, executive in residence at the American University School of Communication. “They have a distinct policy agenda and they have a kind of outsider appeal. So they’re not going to play the game of communication by the same set of rules.”
Ocasio-Cortez also used social media to make light of the anonymous release of a video of her dancing while she was in college. Detractors online said the video showed she was not serious. She responded by dancing in front of her new congressional office, writing “having fun shouldn’t be disqualifying or illegal.”
O’Rourke said that video response “reinforces her authenticity and her credibility as a messenger who has unique appeal to a certain set of people, especially [young] voters and voters of color who are really ready to see those barriers torn down.”
Republicans savvy, too
But Democrats are not the only lawmakers who are savvy at social media. President Trump’s use of Twitter has revolutionized the platform as a space for real-time policy debates, convincing Republicans lawmakers of the power of getting their message out in new ways.
Freshman Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a Republican from Texas, has a lively Twitter feed where he recently featured one of his hobbies: ax-throwing. Crenshaw a former Navy SEAL who lost an eye fighting in Afghanistan also used social media platforms to call out comedy show “Saturday Night Live” for mocking his combat injury and to push back on a House Democrat’s criticism of President Trump.
But in terms of power on Twitter, the president cannot be replicated.
“I don’t think many people are ready to replicate it because it’s so unique to him,” O’Rourke says of Trump’s Twitter feed. “I think other Republicans and some Democrats are in awe that it’s had some success for him but I don’t think anyone is particularly ready to model it because it’s a very distinctive brand for him.”
Avenue to power
Traditionally, communications and media are one of the two avenues for lawmakers to build political power.
“We’ve always had politicians who are very good at the legislative maneuvering and also politicians who are very good at setting the agenda through playing to the media,” Karpf said. He pointed out that new members of Congress such as Ocasio-Cortez don’t have the structural power to marshal votes or lead committees, two forms of power that help shape a party’s political agenda.
“There are types of power that Nancy Pelosi has that aren’t measured by Twitter, nor should they be,” Karpf said.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters Tuesday “the fact that a lot of people are following both Speaker Pelosi and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is a good thing, and I would hope people would continue to keep listening to their thoughts.”
It’s clear from the Twitter conversation sparked by Ocasio-Cortez’ call for a 70 percent tax rate that media visibility has its benefits.
O’Rourke said it may be too early in this new Congress to see if Ocasio-Cortez’ social media clout can be translated into power to set the agenda.
Ultimately, social media could have the most influence by shortening the distance between elected officials and voters bringing everyone closer to the political process.
“I’m hopeful,” said O’Rourke, “given our record levels of cynicism and feelings about elected leaders that that can start to break down barriers.”