The Media Today

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dominates the conversation

January 11, 2019

When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez exploded onto the scene last June with a New York primary victory over Rep. Joe Crowley, chair of the House Democratic caucus, many in the media wondered why they’d failed to see her coming. While left-leaning outlets such as The Intercept, Splinter, and The Young Turks had paid attention to Ocasio-Cortez’s longshot bid, more mainstream publications had overlooked both her campaign and the radically progressive platform it touted. “Abolish ICE” and “Medicare for all” quickly entered the lexicon of the political press.

Seven months later, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez fills column inches as a disrupter in Washington. In addition to her agenda, plenty of ink has spilled on her social media game: prominent media and tech writers have lined up recently to hail it as a mini-revolution in political communication. Where Trump, is “online,” Ocasio-Cortez is “Extremely Online,” Kara Swisher writes in her New York Times column. Ocasio-Cortez’s #relatable video content humanizes her, Swisher adds, whereas Trump’s disembodied tweets make him look “more and more like a giant cartoon bobblehead.”

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The right-wing mediasphere, which had become accustomed to its own viral dominance, has developed an obsession with Ocasio-Cortez. Other top targets, like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, have rarely dignified its ire with a response, yet Ocasio-Cortez, backed by her many supporters on social media, has proved adept at drowning out the noise with blaring counter-noise. When critics tag a “scandal” to her, she quickly turns it around—and scores points with her fans in the process.

When, in November, a Washington Examiner reporter shared a picture of Ocasio-Cortez dressed in normal clothes with the caption “that don’t look like a girl who struggles,” he was, as Vice put it, “ratio’d into oblivion” on Twitter—reigniting a debate on salaries for incoming lawmakers. Last week, after an “Anonymous Q” Twitter account shared a video of Ocasio-Cortez dancing in college, she filmed and tweeted an update; this time to the song “War (What Is It Good For).” This week, the Daily Caller found itself on the end of another Ocasio-Cortez clapback after sharing a hoax “nude selfie” of her in the bath that had already been comprehensively debunked. Ocasio-Cortez used this episode to draw attention to the heightened scrutiny women face in leadership positions. “No wonder they defended [Brett] Kavanaugh so fiercely,” she wrote.

Responses to these conflagrations represent only a small portion of Ocasio-Cortez’s online presence: she’s on social media day-in, day-out, sharing everything from serious policy points to cooking tips, using the informality of the latter to boost the appeal of the former. As BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel (who yesterday announced he is headed to the Times opinion desk) writes, all these posts are “agenda-setting.” Ocasio-Cortez has not limited herself to social forums: last weekend, she used a high-profile 60 Minutes interview with Anderson Cooper to suggest tax rates as high as 70 percent to fund a “Green New Deal”; on Tuesday, soon after Trump’s Oval Office address to the nation, Ocasio-Cortez went on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show, drawing attention to the separation of families at the border. Taken together, it all begins to seem like one big, personalized, multimedia feedback loop.

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That’s quite a lot for a Congresswoman just now wrapping up her first week. Despite being a newbie in Congress, she’s been effective in speaking for her colleagues. Last weekend, she told Cooper that she does not see herself as a “flamethrower” but as a “consensus builder.” Nonetheless, both her policy platform and communication style show she’s intent on burning the status quo. Ocasio-Cortez intends to dominate the conversation, and not let it dominate her.

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Below, more on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:

  • A disrupter: Wired’s Antonio García Martínez writes that “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a social media marketing genius, and very likely a harbinger of a new American political reality … The same way florid, hours-long public oratory (echoed by the newfangled telegraph and newspapers) was the route to power for Lincoln in 1860, the preeningly candid self-display of streaming social media will be the route to power in 2020 and beyond.”
  • On fact-checking: When Cooper fact-checked an old Ocasio-Cortez tweet on Medicare for all, she drew criticism for responding “I think there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.” Writing for New York’s Intelligencer, Eric Levitz argues that she has a point. “Which truths and falsehoods the mainstream press chooses to spotlight—and which it leaves unscrutinized—does reflect the ideological biases of the “objective” press,” he writes. “While Medicare for All’s proponents are constantly confronted with the fiscal implications of their preferred policy, opponents of dramatically expanding the public sector’s role in health care are rarely confronted with the humanitarian implications of leaving nearly 30 million Americans uninsured.”
  • The status quo: Ocasio-Cortez created a new Instagram account yesterday, blaming “House rules” for having to mothball her old one. “The Members’ Congressional Handbook doesn’t explicitly say that lawmakers are required to make new accounts, but in most cases it’s easier to separate their government resources and personal ones in order to avoid ethics violations,” The Verge’s Makena Kelly explains.
  • Pulling teeth: Braving a new #relatable frontier yesterday, Beto O’Rourke broadcast his dental appointment in an Instagram Story. Some people wish he hadn’t. “A sudden rush of extremely online candidates could leave some politicians oversharing,” The Daily Beast’s Kelly Weill writes. “When everyone is uploading folksy videos from their kitchens, it takes an otherwise questionable Teeth Video to cut through the noise.”

Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.