Here’s an incomplete summary of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s social feeds in the last 24 hours: 30-plus tweets that include news articles about working-class voters; well-meaning jabs at Brooklyn residents for their “bespoke quiche spots;” explainers on top tax rates; retweeted promos for an upcoming interview; developing policy proposals about a Green New Deal; a series of tweets dunking on a CNN journalist for a misleading remark about her policies; a six-tweet thread criticizing false equivalency in media fact checking. Over on Instagram Ocasio-Cortez posted a photo of her swearing-in with the caption, “We open doors so others can walk through them” as well as a 9-part Instagram Story walking her audience through the experience of watching her first ‘60 Minutes’ profile (“I’m terrified”). Arguments, news, some earnest self-promotion, policy explanation, and a touch of media criticism — not bad for a Sunday evening into Monday morning.
My colleague Katherine Miller described the visceral appeal of Ocasio-Cortez’s Instagram as a fun experiment in living vicariously through the congresswoman’s rise. “She’s acting like a regular person. She embodies this surrealist thing of, like, ‘WHAT IF…you were elected to Congress? What would happen next? What would you do?’” It’s good entertainment and a clever way to get 4,500 concurrent viewers to listen to her a policy discussion 9 p.m. on a random Wednesday. In other words, it’s a refreshing, natural mode of politicking that feels perfectly of the moment.
But for those who’ve been paying attention to the new, online dynamics of our fractured and chaotic political media ecosystem over the past three years, there’s something familiar about Ocasio-Cortez’s extremely online persona that goes well beyond entertainment. It appears to be immediate, organic, and unfiltered. Her feeds are equal parts proactive and reactive. And, crucially, they are relentless, keeping Ocasio-Cortez in the news cycle. She’s an insurgent, internet-native political force. Which makes her a perfect foil for a different, oxygen-sucking brand of political warfare: the pro-Trump media.
To be clear, these entities are far from carbon copies — one is a sitting congresswoman and the other is a loose conglomeration of shock jocks, media personalities, conspiracy theorists, and trolls arguing on behalf of a billionaire president with a 41 percent approval rating and a 53 percent disapproval rating. And while the tone, tenor, and endgame of their politics are vastly different — one pushes tax legislation, the other Trump propaganda and stories about Clinton-adjacent pizza parlor child sex dungeons — they both know how to captivate and play to their audiences, leveraging the power of their followings, and deflecting criticism and staying on the offensive at all costs. That means being unafraid to get in the mix. Here’s how my colleague described Ocasio-Cortez’s prowess on Twitter: “She argues in threads, dunks on semi-randos, and is ready to mock the attempted sick own, harvesting and redirecting its power.” Sound familiar?
The pro-Trump media seems to think so. Back in November, when Ocasio-Cortez was still a congresswoman-elect, pro-Trump pundits were already remarking on her talents. “AOC is using social media to show exactly what the transition to power is like, and will give a front-row seat to her day to day experience in Congress,” pro-Trump Twitter personality Jack Posobiec tweeted, calling her livestreams a form of “reality politics” and hinting that Trump has been urged to do the same.
“Reality politics” echoes the “reality news” moniker the pro-Trump media used for itself around the time of the president’s inauguration. At the time, Mike Cernovich, another pro-Trump media personality, described it as “raw, low-production-value/high-entertainment-value content…They want it GoPro’d and Facebook Live’d — they want it unfiltered,” he said. The appeal, he and others explained, was two-fold: First, this content is not a simple sound-byte, so there’s little fear of being taken out of context. It feels genuine and transparent, particularly if you’re live-streaming all the time. More importantly, it’s agenda-setting. Constant content creation forces your opponent to respond to you.
It’s a strategy that’s working fantastically well for Ocasio-Cortez, who’s pulled off the rare Trump-era feat of dominating online and cable news cycles virtually every day since she was sworn into office last week.
And she’s leveraging that coverage to float trial balloons on various policy topics, like a Green New Deal or a progressive tax rate. Tweets, dunks, and livestreams beget media appearances and coverage; the media appearances and coverage beget more tweets, dunks, and livestreams. The cycle repeats. And it works. As Cernovich tweeted last week, “Everyone is talking about AOC’s tax plan….and she’s 29 and got sworn in a day ago. Lololol do people even understand this all?”
While the savvier in MAGAland understand Ocasio-Cortez is a worthy adversary, some of their colleagues in the pro-Trump media appear to have had their brains scrambled by the congresswoman’s sudden prominence in the political conversation. Last week, an unknown Guy Fawkes–avatared Twitter account called “Anonymous Q” posted a decade-old video of Ocasio-Cortez dancing as a college student. The intent was to portray her as unserious and unworthy of office. It backfired — catastrophically. “Anonymous Q” was quickly ratioed into oblivion while Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitter response racked up five million views in as many hours.
Similarly, on Sunday night the pro-Trump publication Gateway Pundit published an “exclusive” article claiming Ocasio-Cortez went by “Sandy” instead of Alexandra during her college years. The story was billed as a scandalous reveal. But like the “Anonymous Q” tweet, it was largely laughed off the internet as another bungled attack. Meanwhile, more substantive criticisms, struggle to take root — in part because Ocasio-Cortez is quick to acknowledge missteps, but also because she’s constantly moving forward, advancing her argument, tweaking the agenda and otherwise antiquating those cable news chyrons that might seek to belittle her. As Infowars editor Paul Joseph Watson lamented on Twitter last November, “All these lame efforts to roast Ocasio-Cortez are only making her (and socialism) look better.”
And now the pro-Trump media, which just two years ago had proclaimed itself a sort of new new media, is looking an awful lot like its traditional cable counterpart — old and out of touch. Like the Parkland teens last year, Ocasio-Cortez wields her generational stance as a weapon — she’s born of the internet and instinctively excels at modern political information warfare. She leans into conflict and she’s quick with a quote retweet. Last November she dismissed some critical tweets from Sarah Palin as “grandpa emails.” She’s playing by the new rules of the internet while septuagenarian pundits on Fox Business are tsk-tsking and calling her “little girl.”
Perhaps all this simply boils down to ‘being good at social media’ — Ocasio-Cortez is certainly that. It’s unclear if her strategy is sustainable (constant online sparring is a high risk/high reward game) or whether it translates into the kind of governance and progressive legislation that made her the youngest House Representative in history (though the Green New Deal she’s championed has quickly become a litmus test for Democratic presidential hopefuls). But as Trump and his media apparatus have demonstrated repeatedly, when our political discussion is so easily influenced by what happens on Twitter, the ability to dominate that conversation becomes the ability to dictate the news cycle. And that, for better or worse, looks a lot like power.