Social media is changing how we see Congress

See how a new generation of freshman lawmakers are using social media in a way you don't typically see on Capitol Hill.

Posted: Nov. 21, 2018 12:17 PM
Updated: Nov. 21, 2018 12:22 PM

The best view to watch new-member orientation this year was Instagram, where incoming members of Congress posted shots from behind the scenes.

Reps.-elect Abby Finkenauer shared her experience walking onto the floor of the House for the first time, Dan Crenshaw showed off the official tote bag new members received and Lauren Underwood took a photo with her new colleagues in Illinois' delegation.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez narrated her orientation experience on Instagram story, talking about the meetings she went to and the tours new members were given of sites around Washington. On Sunday, she talked about issues with her followers while making soup in an Instagram livestream.

Before the 116th Congress has even been sworn in, a new generation of incoming lawmakers are using social media in a way you don't typically see on Capitol Hill.

Congress is actually relatively quick to adapt social media, believe it or not. Back in 2009, just 29% of House members and 31% of senators had Twitter accounts, according to a report from Congressional Research Service. But by 2012, at least 83% of all members of Congress were on Twitter. Today, it's 100%.

Instagram isn't as widely used, but it is the fastest-growing social network in Congress. It jumped from 25% use in 2015 to 51% today.

But many congressional Instagram accounts don't appear to be used directly by the members of Congress themselves. Instead, many appear to be staff-run, with posts of TV news hits, graphics and screenshots of tweets. Sen. Bernie Sanders' account is run like a new media publisher, uploading @nowthisnews-style videos that explore political topics. There aren't a lot of selfies, though they have happened, including many by Sen. Cory Booker.

Ocasio-Cortez will enter Congress with more than 800,000 followers, a following that dwarfs some of her soon-to-be colleagues, like Reps. Nancy Pelosi (131K followers), John Lewis (176K) and Maxine Waters (302K). But Ocasio-Cortez said she didn't have "some grand strategy" when she started talking about orientation on Instagram.

"I think it's so important that we humanize our government," she told MSNBC's Chris Hayes. "A lot of times we'll tune into cable news or watch what's going on on TV and all we're reading about is bills and all we're reading about is legislation or the political dynamics, but I think it's really important that when we actually show people that government is a real thing. It's something you can be a part of."

Should the class of 2019 continue posting like this when they're sworn in in January, it could give a selfie-level view of what life is really like in Congress, at a level we haven't seen before.

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