21st Century Fireside Chats
When we think of social media, we think of wasted hours filtering our faces and posts about dogs and recipes replacing real news from around the world. Still, the 2018 midterms proved that Facebook, Twitter and the like are good for at least one thing: making politics more transparent and accessible to the masses.
If you’ve been following politics over the past few weeks, you may have heard about newly-elected Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s now-famous Instagram stories. Since arriving on Capitol Hill, Ocasio-Cortez has been posting regularly about her congressional orientation process and hosting live video streams in which she discusses policy and answers questions for nearly five thousand of her constituents and fans. Some have heralded her use of social media as a new method for increasing transparency in the “behind the scenes” processes of Congress.Her social media following has grown significantly since she began documenting these procedures on Instagram. Her social media savvy has shone through in other ways as well: Ocasio-Cortez regularly and directly responds to critics and answers questions on Twitter, where she has over a million followers. Many of her responses go viral, much to the joy of her followers and supporters.
Ocasio-Cortez is not the only politician capitalizing on social media to expand her base. Beto O’Rourke mastered this skill as well in the recent Texas Senate contest. While the latter didn’t employ Instagram in the same ways as Ocasio-Cortez, he regularly streamed videos on Facebook Live of him engaging in both silly and serious activities. From skateboarding in the parking lot of Whataburger and air drumming to Baba O’Riley to answering questions from constituents, O’Rourke showcased both his professionalism and relatability. The congressman also utilized Twitter in a way that greatly increased his visibility. First, a video of him talking about kneeling NFL players went viral, then a tweet from Travis Scott that simply said “BETTTTTOOOOOOO” received nearly 44 thousand retweets and 150 thousand likes. He was even endorsed by Beyoncé.
The use of social media platforms as a tool for interacting with a constituency is not just meaningful for increasing access to politicians — some people call Ocasio-Cortez’s Instagram stories ”21st century fireside chats” — but also because it will become an incredibly powerful tool for fundraising. O’Rourke raised 70 million dollars for a Senate campaign without accepting PAC or corporate money. It’s hard to chalk that level of fundraising up to him merely being a good politician. He also came within three points of beating Ted Cruz in Texas with record turnout, which is as indicative of his approachability as of his policy preferences. This surge had a massive effect on those connected to O’Rourke too: it helped elect Democrats up and down the ballot in many key counties in Texas. Much of this increase in turnout had to do with his visibility and national acclaim — visibility that started on social media.
Democratic politicians are not alone in leveraging social media as a tool for campaigning transparently. Ben Sasse, a Republican Senator from Nebraska, has a personal Twitter account that he uses to talk to his followers, tweet out jokes and pictures, and paint himself as a relatable politician. Ocasio-Cortez, O’Rourke, and Sasse have each figured out how to harness the power of social media not as politicians, but as influencers. And it’s paying off.
Considering the success of all three, it grows increasingly difficult to ignore the political impact social media messaging can bring about. Further, politicians will genuinely have to learn how to use social media in order to run successful campaigns - the days of well-curated teams of interns may be behind us. In order to turn out the voter numbers needed to win, both parties will have to figure out how to get the two soon-to-be largest voting blocks — millenials and Gen Z — to actually vote. For Ocasio-Cortez, it was social media. In future campaigns, candidates ought to take note of their successes and start speaking the language that their constituents understand.