They haven’t even been sworn into office yet, but already a group of Democratic freshmen are schooling their congressional colleagues on how to use social media.
By providing up-close-and-personal photos and short videos of the new member orientation process on Instagram, four newly-elected Democratic women of color — Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — are amassing followings that dwarf most members of Congress.
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Ocasio-Cortez, who gained national notice in June with her upset primary victory over of New York Rep. Joe Crowley, has 572,000 followers on Instagram — more followers than House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (130,000) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (137,000) combined. Ocasio-Cortez’s total has grown by nearly 20,000 in the last day alone.
Omar, who along with Tlaib shares the distinction of being the first Muslim woman elected to Congress, is also outpacing the two top House leaders: she’s got 159,000 followers.
All of them have capitalized on the rush of interest in the new Democratic House majority elected last week. But they’ve also tapped into a vein of interest in their own historic elections and their collective power.
“It’s smart on their part, and here’s why. All of them ran campaigns that everybody, and women in particular, were so personally invested in,” political consultant Mary Anne Marsh said. “They were so invested in every step in this journey, and they want to continue it with them.”
Well over two-thirds of people ages 18 to 24 use Instagram in the United States, according to a report from the Pew Research Center published in March. And Instagram use is on the rise among adults more broadly. Thirty-five percent of U.S. adults say they use Instagram, up from 28 percent in 2016.
Despite Instagram’s popularity among millennials and young Americans, many House members don’t even have an Instagram presence. Nearly all members are on Facebook or Twitter (about 98 percent), but only about half (47 percent) are on Instagram, according to an October report from the Congressional Research Service.
“Instagram allows you to share the journey, and you feel like you’re with them every step of the way,” Marsh said. “You’re pulling back the curtain and allowing people to view it in real time. You’re able to demystify what goes on in Washington.”
And as the party gets younger and more diverse with this new wave of House members, their communication strategies are shifting, too. Instead of going radio-silent after their grassroots campaigns, new members are taking followers along with them to orientation. That’s no coincidence, Marsh said, because politics became more personal after President Donald Trump was elected, evidenced by the rise in large-scale activism like the Women’s March and historically high voter turnout.
Aside from giving a behind-the-scenes look at what the first days in Congress are like, Ocasio-Cortez and other freshman lawmakers are using Instagram to humanize themselves in a way that previous members of Congress haven’t in the past.
On her Instagram story, where temporary photos and videos last for 24 hours, Ocasio-Cortez posted videos jokingly calling the passages that connect congressional buildings “secret underground tunnels” and captioned a video from the Capitol “Welcome to Hogwarts.” She shared a close-up of Thomas Jefferson’s copy of Plato’s Republic at the Library of Congress and another “SQUAD” photo with Tlaib, Congresswoman-elect Lucy McBath of Georgia, and Congresswoman-elect Deb Haaland of New Mexico.
Many of these new lawmakers have been in contact since primary season. Ocasio-Cortez quickly endorsed Pressley after her own win over the summer, and she also endorsed Tlaib and Omar.
“They all have powerful voices in their own right and every single one of them went to represent their district, but also to raise their voices on a larger platform in Congress,” Marsh said. “All these new women, many of whom are women of color, are coming to Washington and they are going to change Congress and what happens in this country.”
And when these new lawmakers got to Washington this week, they were already spending time together in orientation meetings. Pressley posted a photo of herself leaning in for a selfie with Ocasio-Cortez, Omar and Tlaib with the hashtag #NMO2018. Click over to Ocasio-Cortez’s profile and there’s a photo of the four congresswomen with the caption “Squad” and a video of them walking down the hallway together and waving.
The early publicity has been positive: The Cut summed up their Instagram posts in this headline: “Your Cool New Congresswomen Are Already Hanging Out.”
Pressley also posted a candid photo of herself to Instagram sitting in a meeting at orientation with the caption, “Good morning, Washington.” It has more than 16,500 likes and 337 comments — a stunning number of likes for a post from a member of Congress.
Pressley reaches upwards of 93,000 followers with her Instagram posts. To put that in context, the soon-to-be congresswoman has more Instagram followers than anyone else in the Massachusetts House delegation; Rep. Joe Kennedy III trails Pressley with 53,000 followers, outspoken Pelosi critic Rep. Seth Moulton has 5,600 followers, Rep. Katherine Clark, gunning for the number five House leadership spot, has 3,000 followers and Congresswoman-elect Lori Trahan has 857 followers. The most senior member of the delegation, Rep. Rich Neal, has just 282 followers — and has never posted anything.
In one Instagram story photo captioned “just a few freshman orientation essentials,” Pressley showed a to-go cup from Hill favorite Compass Coffee, a “bring your own chair” pin, an “indivisible” pen and a notebook arranged neatly on the table with a “Washington, D.C.” location tag.
Ocasio-Cortez has posted frequently on her Instagram story from orientation about everything from her decision to protest outside Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office to the tote bags and new phones every new member gets. The New York Democratic socialist explained to her followers how new lawmakers can choose from a short list of high-security devices like tablets and phones, which come in a navy blue tote bag. “You also get a freshman yearbook. It really is like orientation,” Ocasio-Cortez says in the video, flipping through the New Member Pictorial Directory. “And I get a folder with my ID, like a college ID.”
Ocasio-Cortez was one of several lawmakers who posted selfies from the new member dinner, and photos with the painting of trailblazing Rep. Shirley Chisholm in the Capitol. She documented the night down to the minute — a picture from the bus ride home included a 10:34 p.m. timestamp.
Republican Congressman-elect Dan Crenshaw, who grabbed headlines when he fired back at a dig from SNL star Pete Davidson last week, posted on Instagram twice from orientation. He also shared a photo of that same tote bag emblazoned with “UNITED STATES CONGRESS” with the caption “Guess what’s in the bag…” That same bag also showed up on Tlaib’s Instagram story with the caption “Just got real.”
Haaland posted several photos from orientation on Tuesday night, including a shot with Kansas Congresswoman-elect Sharice Davids. Haaland and Davids are the first Native American women elected to Congress. Davids posted several photos to Instagram on Tuesday, including a picture of her and Haaland’s new IDs side by side.
Omar posted a selfie to her Instagram story from the new member dinner with Congressman-elect Dean Phillips, a fellow Minnesotan, cluing in her followers that he “helped retire” Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen via a caption. Also on Tuesday, Omar posted a black-and-white candid photo from a new member meeting, where she is sitting in a meeting between Haaland and Pressley with the caption “we did not come to play.”
Crenshaw posted a black and white selfie from the rotunda with the caption “name that background!” and added he toured the House floor with Speaker Paul Ryan after taking the photo. Ryan welcomed a new member on Instagram, too. He posted a candid photo with Republican Utah Senator-elect Mitt Romney, writing “an old friend dropped by to ask for directions to his new office.”
“To many people, what goes on in Congress is still a mystery, and it shouldn’t be because it affects everybody’s lives every day,” Marsh said. “People wanted to be a part of their campaigns, they want to be part of the great work they’re going to do. They want to see the good, the bad, the ugly, to go along on this journey with them and help them again when it comes time.”