Congress and social media are coming together.
Instagram politicians reach way beyond election district boundaries. I created a list of all 27 US Representatives from New York showing a real-time update of Instagram follower counts. [Note: This list pulls in a lot of data from Instagram, so it takes like 8 seconds to load. Please be patient.] Tech notes at the end.
There was a point during the Thanksgiving weekend when Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio Cortez was gaining over 500 new Instagram followers per hour. She now has more followers on Instagram than constituents in the Bronx and Queens, New York. I’ll discuss her specific case further, but this article is focused upon the whole phenomenon of IG politicians and how we experience them.
I once saw a PBS documentary about Henry Ford. In it a woman said that before the Model T came along America was a mostly poor, agrarian country with muddy roads. By her account people didn’t know each other very well because they didn’t have an easy way to meet. Instagram, and the rest of the socials, are like a political accelerator pedal for candidates and electeds who figure out how to step on it just right.
So I decided to look at the Instagram feed for each member of the New York delegation to the 116th US Congress (session starts in January 2019), and see if I could discern any sort of patterns.
Representative-Elect Alexandria Ocasio Cortez is in an Instagram class of one.
As of this writing, Rep-Elect Ocasio Cortez has more than 50 times more Instagram followers (880k and climbing hourly) than the second most IG popular New York member of Congress – Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn, with 18k followers. She has 11 times more Instagram followers than the other 26 New York Representatives, combined. Excluding Cortez, the average New York Representative has just under 3k followers. Rep-elect Ocasio Cortez has 300 times more Instagram visibility than the entire rest of the New York delegation. And the job starts in January 2019.
Rep. Eliot Engel is social media savvy, but not on Instagram.
In the next Congressional District north of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’ , where I live, our dear friend Rep. Eliot Engel just won an uncontested re-election in CD-16. He is the ONLY member of the New York Congressional Delegation with no Instagram account. I checked over and over. He is genuinely active on Twitter, and he has a well curated Facebook page with 62k followers, but Instagram is not his thing. Engel has been connecting with voters using a flat-out honest narrative for over 30 years. I would argue he has been doing the same thing as his neighbor in the 14th Congressional District for decades, reaching out to voters on their exact level, successfully. If you can’t speak social media like a native, maybe there’s some wisdom to choosing your venue carefully.
Boring Instagram photos will not get you a political following.
In between these Instagram fame extremities (Ocasio Cortez v Engel), there is a middle 25 members of Congress from New York that have Instagram feeds loaded with smiling photos – Me with so-and-so. Me giving a trophy to so-and-so. Me with the head of the union. Me with the cops. Me at the dedication ceremony. And so on. Here’s a bit of advice to the politicos and their consultants. If you’re going to use Instagram at all, put some interesting photos up there, please. Don’t just hand your iPhone to your aid and say “get a picture of this”. In other words, don’t be boring. Use Facebook for that. Even a selfie is better than a staged “me-with” photo shot by an aid from 10 feet away. They have a place, but don’t over-rotate on photos like this one:
View this post on Instagram
Successful politicians on Instagram mix it up.
Antonio Delgado is on the right track. He’s using Instagram to explain who HE is. He’s got photos HE took, including some family photos, and you get to see what HE sees. Yes, there are a few schlocky “me with so-and-so” pictures, but even those support the deeper story he’s ‘Gramming up. There is also some professionally produced content in there, but in the main, you will learn something about this person’s world view by subscribing to his Instagram feed, and that’s the whole idea. Sample:
View this post on Instagram
People can’t take their eyes off politicians that use Instagram Stories, but very few “Story”.
The golden nugget of Instagram is Instagram Stories. In case you’re not Insta-inclined, that means photos and videos that vanish after 24 hours by default, and show up on your phone with a notification, so you feel like you’ve got an inside track on the very latest thing from the person who is IG-Storying. It’s loaded with kitchy emojis, logos and other software gimmicks. People get a dopamine hit when they watch Stories, and then they want more. The politician that figures out how to use Stories can win the war for attention on the Internet. Reps Meeks, Delgado and Clarke are Story-ers. Rep.-Elect Ocasio Cortez is all over IG-Story, of course.
More Instagram followers does not equal electoral victory, but it’s a financial gateway.
Beto O’Rourke had 3x the followers of Ted Cruz. Beto lost the race for Senator from Texas. However, it means something that Antonio Delgado (8702 followers) beat incumbent Rep Jon Faso (682 followers). Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-NY22) (1050 followers) was ousted by Anthony Brindisi (2171 followers). My theory is that they have larger followings because of an interconnectedness within their districts AND through awareness within the national political affinity groups. For Democrats this means Indivisible groups, National Democratic Committee members and so on. If your message catches fire, the out of district attention allows you to use the rest of the country like an ATM machine, to raise money to take back home into your election race. The financial implications of a massive Instagram subscriber base are profound.
BONUS OBSERVATION: “Live on Instagram” can make politicians into people magnets.
Back to my Ford analogy. Instagram allows us to engage politicians in a way we seldom did before, just like the Model T gave Americans a way to know their non-adjacent neighbors over 100 years ago. If Instagram is a vehicle, and IG-Stories is an accelerant, then IG-Live is a jet engine. While I was developing this blog article, and the companion IG locator page, on the eve of Thankgiving Alexandria Ocasio Cortez launched a live broadcast. She and a campaign aid were cooking and talking about politics and whatever, with an audience of over 2500 Instagram followers. In the hours afterward her follower count was soaring.
There are approximately 711k human beings residing in each US Congressional District. With nearly 900k Instagram followers and climbing, it’s clear Ms. Ocasio Cortez is being heard on an international stage. Only Facebook itself could know exactly how many of her Instagram followers are constituents of New York’s 14th Congressional District. As people get to know their elected officials better through the Internet, those political subdivision lines won’t mean exactly what they do today.
If you’re a Web development person, this is for you. I created the list using a PHP call that I found on Stack OverFlow. It pulls in data from Instagram, scrapes it and displays the number of IG followers. The only problem is there are 27 members of Congress, and the 27 PHP calls slow down the page load. To drive the load time to an barely acceptable 7 seconds, I used the PHP on about half of the rows in the table, and for the rest I use estimates. The members with small very IG followings aren’t changing very fast anyway. If you know a less resource intensive way to fetch the Instagram statistics, I would love to hear from you. Here’s the code:
$raw = file_get_contents(‘https://www.instagram.com/redbluetalk’); //replace with user
By Martin Falbisoner – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28359031