People

How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez played Trump at his own social media game – and won

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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The 29-year-old congresswoman is a digital native and and it shows in the way she is using technology to open up the world of legislature 

There’s been a lot of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez news recently.

The 29-year-old congresswoman from the Bronx has said that she is glad that President Trump’s government shutdown has given her “free time to make trouble”. She’s appeared on Stephen Colbert’s chat show, given a passionate speech at the Women’s March in New York and hit back at writer and director Aaron Sorkin, who said in an interview that he thought she and other young democrats should “act like adults”. (“If we don’t show up for people, why should you feel entitled to their vote">Twitter.) 

But buried underneath all this news was an interesting tidbit about a recent shakeup in the engagement rankings of politicians on Twitter. The most engaged politician on Twitter is, unsurprisingly, trigger-happy Trump, fan of an all-caps tweet or the single, plaintive “Sad!” 

But in the second spot is Ocasio-Cortez. In a month, she racked up almost 12 million Twitter impressions, a number dwarfing the politician in third place, 2020 presidential hopeful Kamala Harris with her 4.6 million impressions. 

No-one who follows Ocasio-Cortez on Twitter will be surprised. 

She is a fierce presence on the feed, who writes all her impassioned tweets herself and actively engages with both positive and negative commentary about her. She has more than two million followers. She responds to media outlets criticising her with incisive shutdowns. She spotlights the platforms that are important to her, from climate change to LGBTQI rights. She opens up the political process to her followers, inviting them inside the hallowed Capitol Building halls alongside her. She shares viral videos of herself dancing. She uses emojis. She speaks fluent meme.

It’s not surprising that Ocasio-Cortez is the second most engaged politician on Twitter. She’s good at Twitter. But it is surprising when you realise that this time last year her Twitter presence wasn’t even on anyone’s radar. Because this time last year Ocasio-Cortez hadn’t yet quit Flats Fix, the Midtown margarita bar where she was working, to run for congress. This time last year, Ocasio-Cortez was a complete unknown.

Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitter is good, which is why she has spent the last week giving her fellow Democrats lessons in social media. (“The below pic is a selfie,” California congressman Ted Lieu tweeted excitedly after their successful session.)

It’s not the only piece of technology that the congresswoman is using to open the world of politics up to her followers. This week, she entered a live stream of a gamer playing Nintendo’s Donkey Kong 64 on Twitch to raise awareness for trans rights, raising $340,000 (£262,919) for charity Mermaids in the process. 

As journalist Peter Sterne put it, the appearance showcased Ocasio-Cortez’s commitment to “meet people wherever they are (Twitter, Instagram, protests, community meetings, Twitch streams) to talk to people about [her] ideas… It’s not just about being good at social media. It’s about evangelising - being so concerned about the status quo and so dedicated to the fight for racial/economic/environmental justice that you’re willing to go anywhere to talk about it.” 

But it’s on Instagram that Ocasio-Cortez is doing some of her best work. She understands that it isn’t a platform merely for posting green smoothies and motivational quote tiles. The real drawcard of Instagram lies in the window that it provides for humans - we essentially nosy creatures - into the lives of others.

For Ocasio-Cortez, that means an Instagram live answering fan questions while cooking an Instant Pot ramen and eating it (The recipe was later uploaded to her Pinterest account.) It means stories elucidating the voting process in congress or explaining her stances on key issues like climate change, tax rates and wage inequality. It means sharing tips on how to get into politics with her followers. It means using a live captioning app so that her stories are accessible to all. 

It also means completely losing it in a livestream when Valentina from RuPaul’s Drag Race dropped into the chatroom.

“Oh my God,” Ocasio-Cortez said, grinning. “I can’t believe she’s on my livestream right now. Oh my God. Amazing. Girl, tonight the lip sync, you turned it out. It was incredible. You make me so proud. You make me feel amazing about being Latina, about being America, about being todo. It was in-cred-i-ble. You did such an amazing job. I’m so excited… Oh my goodness. This is like the most amazing thing ever.” 

Follow Ocasio-Cortez for long enough and you’ll notice a familiarity to what she shares. She compares Congress to Hogwarts and gets excited over a bag of swag handed out to new representatives. She poses for selfies with her peers, praising them for the work they are doing. She zooms in real close to a particularly nice-looking pizza she’s having for dinner, happily found in her district of the Bronx.

It’s familiar because this is how women like you and I use Instagram: with ease and without artifice. Following Ocasio-Cortez is like following a friend (with fantastic taste in eyewear) who just happened to get elected into the House of Representatives, whereas following Trump is an exhausting, weary exercise in staying abreast of a man’s angry, bigoted rants. 

The way Ocasio-Cortez navigates and processes that journey through the halls of power is through social media, which is the way that most women navigate and process their life right now. By using Instagram this way, she is dismantling some of politics’ closed-off, archly masculine coding and opening the world up to her millions of followers in a way that is authentic and approachable.

In all of Ocasio-Cortez’s relaxed videos is the same, persistent message: Politics is for anyone and everyone. It’s for women like me and women like you. So what are you waiting for? 

Images: Getty

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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.

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