On a recent Tuesday evening, Ashley Sorrondeguy was folding laundry when a notification lit up her phone. New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive darling and youngest woman ever elected to Congress, was live on Instagram. From her home in Massachusetts, Sorrondeguy watched the 29-year-old freshman congresswoman assemble some IKEA furniture while drinking white wine and chatting about everything from President Donald Trump’s tax returns to her Green New Deal proposal. While Sorrondeguy is not one of Ocasio-Cortez’s constituents in New York’s 14th District, she feels a sense of kinship with her. Both women were born in the late 1980s, are of Puerto Rican descent, and share a lot of the same ideology. To Sorrondeguy, Ocasio-Cortez’s social media presence has made her accessible in a way no other lawmaker has in the past. “I always thought that in order to be a politician you needed inside connections or lots of money. It’s really cool to see her in a real light — not just photo ops with lobbyists that other politicians do,” she told Refinery29.
In true millennial fashion, Ocasio-Cortez had already been incredibly effective at connecting with constituents via social media even before she delivered the biggest primary upset of the 2018 election season, a victory which launched her into immediate stardom. Hence, the “AOC” moniker she’s known by. But the Instagramania began in earnest shortly after the election, when she began documenting scenes from the congressional orientation via the app’s stories and livestreams — offering a peek into a process that remains foreign to many people outside the Beltway. There she was, a “girl from the Bronx,” as she often refers to herself, exploring the tunnels below the U.S. Capitol, posing in front of Shirley Chisholm’s portrait, nerding out about the office lottery process and guides on how to be an effective member of Congress. This is around the time that Liz, a 30-year-old from Miami, FL, got hooked. “The most interesting part to me has been the behind-the-scenes of what it means to be a representative, how things work, and why they work as they do,” she told Refinery29. “She will sometimes talk about her day and say, ‘I have this office and it’s not set up yet.’ Or when she went to chase [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell. Here she was, actually on the job. It’s something that I had not seen before.”
Ocasio-Cortez currently has 3.9 million Twitter followers and 3.2 million Instagram followers. Thousands engage with her tweets, which are usually quick clapbacks or short explanatory threads. Her Instagram stories and livestreams are another monster altogether, with hundreds replying in real time as the congresswoman explains policy and current news while making dinner or tending to a community garden. (Refinery29 asked Ocasio-Cortez’s office for details about her social media engagement, but they declined to comment for this story.) The congresswoman said earlier this week she’s pulling back, limiting her interactions to the workweek, but she has definitely left her mark.
Other lawmakers have noticed AOC’s success on Instagram and have attempted to engage with their constituents in a similar way. Think of Sen. Elizabeth Warren drinking beer in her kitchen while doing a Q&A or Beto O’Rourke getting his teeth cleaned while discussing the U.S.-Mexico border. Jennifer Grygiel, a social media expert and assistant professor of communications at Syracuse University, said it makes sense that Ocasio-Cortez’s main platforms are Instagram and Twitter. (This week, she said she quit Facebook.) “The ability to engage people on Twitter is often the ability to engage influencers, who can carry her message on social media but also possibly bring it into neighborhoods and communities not only in the United States, but around the world,” Grygiel told Refinery29. “Instagram is rising because of its memetic force. A lot of imagery there is shared through visual-based memes. A lot of people think that an internet meme is a picture with a silly joke on it, but a word is a meme…branding for a policy like the Green New Deal is also a meme. Her ability to have a biting response is memetic in nature. People are excited about her because she has shown that strength.”
However, Grygiel cautioned about the impact of Ocasio-Cortez cutting out the middleman, i.e. the press, when delivering her message to constituents. While her strategy does differ from President Trump’s aggressive and meme-filled Twitter use, Grygiel argues the gatekeeping can quickly become a slippery slope. “AOC has grown into a position where she can manage her relationship with the free press. She’s able to put out her message and get her view and narrative into the public by way of social media,” they said. “But there’s risk in this. As good as her platform is and as good as she might be as an elected official, some of her practices, [such as] not granting comment, is showing a selective gatekeeping, and maybe avoiding the hard questions coming from the free press. We want our public officials to really engage with the free press… And I would encourage her [to do so].”
Questions about the impact of this approach on the press aside, some of the people who follow her social media activity almost religiously admire her effectiveness. While Liz considers herself a progressive, she doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with Ocasio-Cortez. “I don’t always agree with AOC on all of her politics. But I’m so interested in seeing how she communicates what she believes in, not so much in the what but in the how,” Liz explained, giving as an example what she has found to be a lackluster response on the part of the congresswoman to the crisis in Venezuela. “A lot of the times, the reason why I keep watching is because she breaks down things in everyday language, she speaks authentically, she gives you her opinion and then backs it up with what her constituents want — which is what she’s there to do. She is explaining things in a conversational way, which I take away for my own work but also when talking with my friends and family about the issues I care about.”
Hadiya Afzal, a 19-year-old student from Chicago, IL, has been following Ocasio-Cortez’s career long before she won her primary. She said the congresswoman’s ability to connect is due in part to her past life as an educator and organizer, and it's something other lawmakers should also try. “I want other politicians not to take her techniques, but the motivation behind it,” Afzal told Refinery29.
The pull of Ocasio-Cortez’s social media presence is also tied to the issue of diverse representation, or lack thereof, in politics. Karla, a 27-year-old from Nashville, TN, has not seen a lot of young Latinas running for office and winning in her state. Ocasio-Cortez has filled that space to an extent. Karla met Ocasio-Cortez last January in Washington, D.C. Despite her obvious stardom, the congresswoman “opened the door with a donut and a cup of coffee in her hand.” Karla says it was the same type of approachable behavior that she has seen on social media. “She’s telling us about her day, but she happens to be a congresswoman. It makes the process more accessible,” Karla said. “It gives me hope. There are not many in our community who are encouraging people like us, with our backgrounds, to run for office.” The duo snapped a pic — which led Karla to start dating her partner, Ángel. The way the couple tells it, Ángel, 30, pretty much slid into Karla’s DMs after seeing the photo and told her he was also an AOC fan. They met up for a date and magic ensued. Now, one of their favorite pastimes is tuning in whenever Ocasio-Cortez is live on Instagram. Both of them are political nerds and discussing the congresswoman’s policies has brought them closer together.
Ángel said: “She seems like a familiar friend you’re talking to, it’s really relatable. There are a lot of politicians who already try to use social media in that way, but it doesn’t seem natural when they do it. It was easy for us to connect with her that way. Who our age doesn’t assemble IKEA furniture by themselves with a glass of wine in hand?”
When asked about their favorite livestream, the couple pointed to the video of Ocasio-Cortez repotting her plants. “We were talking about getting plants. Typical dude that I am, I had plastic plants,” Ángel said. Karla interjected: “Not only is she awesome, but she also loves plants!” The day after watching her livestream, the couple set out to buy Ángel’s “first plant children” both for his office and his apartment. “They are alive, in case you were wondering,” he said.
*Some last names have been withheld out of privacy reasons.