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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Has Mastered the Politics of Digital Intimacy

The congresswoman-elect connects with young voters, promoting progressive positions while chopping peppers and making noodles.
Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez celebrates her victory at La Boom night club in Queens, New York, on November 6th, 2018.

Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez celebrates her victory at La Boom nightclub in Queens, New York, on November 6th, 2018.

A few days before Thanksgiving, newly elected New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went live on her Instagram feed to cook dinner and chat with her hundreds of thousands of followers. She took questions on topics ranging from the challenges of entering Congress, to the specifics of progressive policy goals like the newly dubbed #GreenNewDeal, to whatever else came up. She made mac-and-cheese in her Instant Pot. The next day she used Twitter to thank attendees of the Instagram Q&A, but if you'd missed it, too bad: Instagram Live Videos are only available after the fact if the account holder chooses to save a replay and make it public. The same is true with Instagram Stories, which by default vanish from the site after 24 hours, unless the user saves them as a "highlight." Right now, Ocasio-Cortez has only five of her many stories saved at the top of her account. If you want to keep track of the congresswoman-elect, you'd better stay logged in.

Ocasio-Cortez is perfecting what I've started to call "the politics of digital intimacy": She is using the immediacy and ephemeral nature of live chats and "stories" to intensify and expand her networks of political support. Her followers feel as if they are being invited into her life, participating with her as she enters the halls of Congress as an outsider, sharing in her triumphs and cheering as she overcomes obstacles. Journalists and political rivals are trying to shame Ocasio-Cortez or catch her in a gaffe, but so far largely to no avail. One pundit tried to claim that Ocasio-Cortez was dressed too nicely for someone who'd claimed to be struggling financially with the move to Washington. Fox News' Laura Ingraham called it "wacky" that progressives like Ocasio-Cortez support ideas like free college and health care. CNBC wrote a bizarre story chiding her for lacking in personal savings.

In all cases, Ocasio-Cortez leveraged her social media skills to perform political jiu-jitsu, using the momentum of her opponents' attacks to elevate her own profile ever higher. Instead of being just one of many freshman representatives, she's now a national figure, connecting with young voters, promoting progressive positions while chopping peppers and making noodles.

Ocasio-Cortez seems to be the first major politician whose rise to prominence came through live video chats and disappearing Instagram stories, but the pattern is familiar to anyone who follows the world of entertainment. Celebrities have been crafting these digitally intimate communities of shared affinity through chats and backstage videos since the development of the technology. As a recent example, at least part of Lin-Manuel Miranda's rise to global celebrity came through his frequent use of Facebook Live to chat with fans. I caught a few such chats early on, when Miranda had just a couple hundred thousand followers, and there was a feeling of closeness between the fans and this phenomenally talented man. He seemed giddy with excitement that people were taking his art seriously, that mega-famous rappers were chatting with him about lyrics and participating in his Hamilton Mixtape by re-imagining his songs. However illusory it was, I felt like I was part of something. I'm hearing a similar kind of energy from Ocasio-Cortez fans, but this time it's channeled toward political activism.

An Xiao Mina, author of the forthcoming Memes to Movements: How the World's Most Viral Media is Changing Social Protest and Power and a research affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, says that Ocasio-Cortez's use of Instagram is definitely new among politicians in the United States. But Mina has also been tracking this kind of online community-building in activist movements around the world. For example, she was just in Buenos Aires following activists working to legalize abortion in Argentina. They use Instagram Stories to personalize the movement, allowing individuals to "project" their narratives into the community. Mina tells me that Instagram allows a creator to "shift from a broadcast diffusion model to a social diffusion model." The audience feels like the creator's "friend and their companion, [as though you are] getting a window into their life."

Mina says that Ocasio-Cortez is masterful at projecting authenticity: "[When] she makes ramen or mac-and-cheese in an instant pot, she's a total Millennial, a busy person. There's an intimacy that's conveyed from that that's different than what a traditional representative would typically do." The free flow of chat, though, is at least partly an illusion. Ocasio-Cortez decides what to answer, what to ignore, and whether to pin or keep the chat or video. Like reality television, Mina says, the chats feel more "real" than they are.

As more and more politicians adopt this medium, Mina says she's concerned about accountability. "Should there be a public archive or public record [of Ocasio-Cortez' chats] as soon as she's a public official? The notion of accountability gets really really tricky with disappearing stories," Mina says, though of course politicians have always tried to restrict which of their speeches and meetings get recorded or broadcast. She doesn’t believe there's clear legal guidance for what public officials are required to do in terms of preserving access to Instagram videos or stories, much as there wasn't around presidential use of Twitter until President Donald Trump took office. After the president was sued over his habit of blocking critics, last May, a judge ruled that the president could not block people from @realdonaldtrump if he was going to use it as an official account.

Mina thinks there could easily be similar legal questions around disappearing stories and chats, if not necessarily with Ocasio-Cortez's accounts.

Every new form of media has eventually re-shaped political communication. From Franklin Roosevelt's fireside chats, to John F. Kennedy's telegenic smile, all the way to Trump's Twitter feed, politicians who master new media have gained advantages over their less-plugged-in rivals. Trump's use of his Twitter feed has allowed him to reach his core followers without filter, but he also uses tweets to redirect, and often confound, the national media. He also uses it to lie, insult, foment violence, brag, and whine. Though Ocasio-Cortez, like Trump, uses social media to keep her followers mobilized, everything else is different. She sticks to principles, encourages allies, fact-checks false accusations, and raises money for worthy causes. It’s not just about her, but about her movement, and the moment in which we find ourselves. The virtual community is under her direction, but the sense of connection is powerful. Through vanishing stories and video chats, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez makes you feel like you belong with her in the room where the ramen happens.