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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Goes to Washington: Instagram Stories Become a Populist Tool

For the new breed of ordinary citizen-turned-politician, Instagram is creating a new kind of currency to take on our reality TV President.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, running for Congress for New York City'Future of the City' rally and youth march by Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, USA - 02 Dec 2017

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

M. Stan Reaves/REX/Shutterstock

In her first week in Washington D.C. as Congresswoman–elect, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — the 29-year old waitress who shocked the Democratic Party by upsetting popular Caucus Chair Joe Crowley in the primary for New York’s 14th congressional district — fired up her social media presence. As she explored her new turf, she shared her orientation experience with 780,000 followers followers via Instagram Stories. Whereas the default of most elected officials is to position themselves as experts on the levers of power, Ocasio-Cortez invited her supporters along for the ride as she got her bearings.

Ocasio-Cortez documented her first week in Washington in a way that was relatable on every level: from mundane everyday matters – like figuring out how to get around D.C. to financially balancing the big career change before her congressional salary kicked in – to immediate decisions she learned she would need to make in the coming weeks.

Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Instagram Stories

Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Instagram Stories


There are very practical reasons for politicians, especially Democrats, to turn to Instagram to communicate with supporters. Since being introduced in the summer of 2016, Instagram Stories – users post photos and videos that disappear after 24 hours – now has 400 million daily users. Sixty percent of 18-29 year-olds are regular users of Instagram, while The Center For American Progress estimates that by the 2020 election, 90 million millennials will be eligible to vote and could potentially comprise close to 40 percent of the electorate. They are also a generation that strongly disapproves of President Trump, at a rate 60-70 percent depending on the poll.

There are also very practical reasons for Ocasio-Cortez to turn to Instragram Stories that extend beyond demographics. Social media and communications experts often advise public figures, or those hoping to build a public profile, to pick the medium that best fits their voice and message. For better or worse, there is no better example of than Donald Trump’s reliance on Twitter – a social media platform that serves as the pulse that the media checks to read the heartbeat of the news cycle.

For President Trump, who feeds off cable news chatter, his concise gut reactions play to Twitter’s strength and becomes an effective tool for injecting himself into the news cycle – framing, inflaming, or distracting by causing outrage and impassioned support that fuels the sharp partisanship he uses to his advantage. In 2016, Trump’s unfiltered reactions exploited an electorate ready to revolt against poll-tested politicians many believed were in the pocket of special interests.

In the wake of that 2016 victory, a new type of Democratic candidate ran for office in 2018. Ocasio-Cortez becoming the most prominent of the dozens of candidate one would never expect to run for Congress – ordinary working Americans with great personal stories and who refused to take corporate donations.

“You have to remember, Trump won connecting with voters about a system that doesn’t listen to them,” said democratic political consultant Cayce McCabe, in interview with IndieWire about campaign ads. “We can wring our hands about the irony of some billionaire in a gold tower with his policies being their champion, but the only way we’ll take it back is helping tell the story of authentic candidates who the voters believe will actually fight to change the system.”

Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Instagram Stories

Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Instagram Stories


For someone like Ocasio-Cortez, who earlier this month rode an anti-Trump populism to victory, the move to D.C. could be treacherous as they become part of the political system they railed against. It’s in this light that the “Ms. Ocasio-Cortez Goes To Washington” approach to her Instagram has the potential to be so effective. By demystifying government, bringing followers inside the process, as if they, like Ocasio-Cortez, are having the inner workings unveiled to them. It’s essentially a form of real-time, first-person documentary filmmaking with an interactive hook.

For example, in one series of Instagram Stories on Friday, the Congresswoman-elect discussed how she was learning that she would have to make a handful of critical hires and develop a strategic plan for her congressional office before being sworn in. She then posted a poll to her followers: “What would you rather your Congressmember do better? Provide services or introduce legislation?” It’s the type of political dilemma most rising stars pretend they don’t have to face, but the Congresswoman-elect put on the table for discussion with her supporters as she contemplated how to staff her office.

The handmade, personal visual presentation of Ocasio-Cortez’s Instagram feed is the perfect fit of form meets content. In much the way that Franklin D. Roosevelt used the intimacy of radio to conduct his fireside chats with the American public, the Congresswoman-elect enacts an immediate, candid mode of address by holding her phone in selfie-mode while cooking black bean soup.

At a time when the current president has demonstrated his executive bonafides as a reality TV star,  the visual authenticity of Democratic officials’ newest breed has become especially significant. Dating back to her viral campaign commercials, Ocasio-Cortez and others favored a cinematic language with ample cinema verite; they employed documentary filmmakers over political consultants. So while a fresh kind of Democrat offers up unique personal stories, the format those stories take matters just as much to their ongoing appeal.

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