The Millennial Social Media Game in Politics: How is it being played?

9 mins read

What started as spaces for sharing, connecting, and reconnecting have evolved into powerful tools for campaign and governance. In the age of millennials, social media has evidently become more powerful tools in politics and many politicians have been learning how to play the game. 

The past generation of baby boomers have slowly been learning the millennial style of politics taking cues from the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other young Congress members who had built their political career through social media. 

Last 2019 election, the US recorded the most diverse Congress in history and also by far, the youngest. The 116th Congress was composed of twenty-five members under the millennial generation who were born in the 1980s and who are more comfortable with social media according to Katherine Gypson in her article for VOA News last year. 

She also added how Ocasio-Cortez is taking the lead on this game drawing national headlines by “politically sparring with critics, live streaming her home cooking, and talking about her plans for a ‘Green New Deal’.” She is also consistently posting videos of the behind-the-scenes of her life as a freshman lawmaker.

Dave Karpf, associate professor of media and public affairs at The George Washington University, noted how AOC is utilizing social media. He said, “Ocasio-Cortez stands out among everyone else. What she’s doing is really quite groundbreaking in a way that we’re quickly seeing others try to imitate.”

He also added, “There’s an authenticity that she brings to that, that comes from starting out as an Instagram user and then developing this audience and using the communication tools she has to communicate with them. Rather than the other way around.”

Just this recent election season, AOC again won a seat in Congress representing the 14th District of New York against Republican John Cummings and Serve America Movement Michelle Caruso-Cabrera. During her campaign, AOC logged on to Twitch to play Among Us and encouraged viewers to vote. Joe Biden who has a 6 million advantage in popular votes against Donald Trump has also used the same technique by collaborating KindaFunnyGames to create a Biden-themed Island in the popular Nintendo game “Animal Crossing: New Horizons.”

In the age of social media, AOC and other local and state officeholders who are under 35 are using these platforms to campaign, represent, and connect with their constituents according to a recent interview research by the Young Elected Leaders (YELP), an initiative of the Eagleton Institute of Politics Center for Youth Political Participation at Rutgers University at New Brunswick. 

“Social media matters in the new age of politics.”

Being able to fluently maneuver through social media has increased the odds and opportunities for younger politicians to stamp their name in the political arena and also change the way they lead. 

In a statistics report by Backlinko, social media platforms have doubled their user base, jumping from 2.07 billion in 2015 to 3.81 billion in 2020. In the US alone, 70% of the population have social network accounts translating to over 231.47 million people with a 3.1% growth from 2019 to 2020. 

This has enabled younger politicians to introduce themselves to a wider audience, reach potential supporters, and run for office. 

First, in a recent extension of a 2002 Research on America’s Young Elected Leaders, young local and state officeholders between 2016 and 2020 said that their use of social media had given them the leg up by gaining recognition when they were the “new, inexperienced, and unfamiliar candidate.” 

Second, social media have provided them a cost-effective platform that can reach a large number of voters without bleeding financially by investing in traditional campaign media such as TV and radio. In particular, millennials face serious economic challenges including substantial debt which put them on a disadvantage against older competitors who possess both the financial resources and professional network. 

Third, these platforms have empowered young politicians “to transform motivations into actual runs for office” according to Brittany Anlar of The Washington Post. In an interview with young local and state officeholders from 2016 to 2020, motivations to run came from a variety of reasons though prominent themes were the strong desire to give back to their communities by serving through public office and frustrations with “partisan” politics at the national level. 

The powerful combination of lower campaign costs and familiarity with social media had won these politicians seats in the Congress, a rising trend backed by an ongoing quantitative data collection by the YELP team. According to the data, there has been an increase on the number of young congressional candidates in 2020 compared to the 2018 midterm elections which had already produced record numbers of women, young people, and people of color elected to Congress. That is, 8.8% of all 2020 congressional candidates are 35 or younger, a 3.4% percentage point increase from 2018. 

“Social media allows a more immediate way to connect with constituents.”

Katherine Gypson pointed out that “social media could have the most influence by shortening the distance between elected officials and voters bringing everyone closer to the political process.”

Using the direct messaging feature across Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter, young politicians are able to respond quickly to problems faced by their constituents and also gives them a closer perspective on the everyday issues that matter to those who follow them. This feature has also enabled them to connect with each other working towards a more cooperative form of governance unlike the divisive older counterpart. 

“As a group, these young officeholders embody characteristics descriptive of their generation: a desire for responsiveness and quick resolution and disgust with partisan bickering that inhibits action. All of that is visible in how they use social media to connect quickly, any place or time of day and with anyone,” said Anlar who is also a PhD candidate in political science at Rutgers University and lead research assistant for YELP. 

“Social media helps build trust and magnify visible representation.”

While social media is still treated by most as a means to recruit voters, young politicians like AOC are shifting the narrative and strategies by using these platforms to show transparency. During her first stint as a Congresswoman, AOC used Instagram Live to take her followers in the post-election process of preparing for Congress which Gypson called “demystifying an often obscure process so that voters could better understand what’s asked of elected officials.”

According to Molly O’Rourke, executive in residence at the American University School of Communication, “The way new members of Congress – particularly the younger, new Democratic women in Congress – are using social media is emblematic of their new approach to leadership.” She also added, “They have a distinct policy agenda and they have a kind of outsider appeal. So they’re not going to play the game of communication by the same set of rules.”

The social media game played by the young politicians does not stop after they have been elected. They use it “to organize how they do their jobs – in ways that can help them serve and represent their constituents.”

Thomas Lake

Resident tech nerd for the SF Times.