How social media and ‘attention economy’ politics are redefining power in Washington

Today’s political rising stars are harnessing the power of posting to drive their own news cycles and build fan bases for themselves online.

In politics, money is power, but content may yet be king.

You see it in the House, where the biggest fundraisers these days include not only influential senior members in leadership positions, but also new and newish members who know how to use the internet and get booked on cable news.

We’ve entered an age of “attention economy” politics, where lawmakers can drive their own news cycles and build fan bases for themselves in ways that have a real-world effect. Social media has upended the power structure in politics.

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“You know about relatively new members way before you ever did in the past,” said Casey Burgat, legislative affairs program director at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management. “It’s a way for relatively new members to develop a national brand, to get out not only on social media, get on cable news, far sooner and with fewer accomplishments than they ever have in the past.”

While retweets might not equal endorsements, the most recent Federal Election Commission campaign finance reports show they can translate into dollars.

The No. 3 House fundraiser in the first quarter of 2021, behind Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi (who raised more than $4 million) and minority whip Rep. Steve Scalise ($3.22 million), R-La., was Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a freshman Republican from Georgia who brought in $3.21 million in her first three months in office. She came in ahead of the No. 4 fundraiser, Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy ($2.9 million), R-Calif., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ($2.79 million), D-N.Y., one of the most-followed American politicians on social media today in just her second term, who rounded out the top five.

Unlike Pelosi or Scalise, Greene doesn’t wield much formal power in Washington. She was stripped of her assignments on the Budget and Education and Labor committees in February after the House voted to remove her over past support for conspiracy theories and violence against Democrats. Still, she has made a name for herself, sporting masks with eye-catching (if sometimes inaccurate) messages, like “Trump Won” (he did not), “Censored” (while speaking on the House floor) and “This Mask is as Useless as Joe Biden.” (the CDC recommends wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19). After proposing a bill that would cut Dr. Anthony Fauci’s salary to $0 until he was removed as National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director, she wore a “Fire Fauci” mask.

Greene also posts occasional viral videos, like one in February of her putting up a sign reading “There are TWO genders: MALE & FEMALE ‘Trust The Science!’” outside of her office and across the hall from a transgender pride flag from Rep. Marie Newman, D-Ill., whose daughter is transgender. The video received more than 8 million views.

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Greene’s fundraising numbers this quarter appear to have been goosed in part by donations from email lists they had rented from other organizations and not their own grassroots support, according to a spending analysis from ProPublica. Still, she’s tapping into excitement made possible by her celebrity, Twitter feed and ability to make news.

Communicating vs. legislating

Congressional leadership is well aware of the shift, even if they don’t all buy into it. Pelosi has dismissed the social media power of the “Squad” of young House progressives including Ocasio-Cortez, saying they “pose for holy pictures” and “have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” while only representing a handful of votes in the chamber. Ocasio-Cortez once responded to Pelosi’s dismissal, tweeting that their “public ‘whatever’” was really public sentiment that could meaningfully effect change.

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., the third highest-ranking House Republican, said social media has warped Washington’s incentive structure in ways that aren’t healthy for the parties or government.

“We’re in this era of celebrity on Twitter and social media across the board,” Cheney said during a livestream with the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service earlier this month. “Too often the incentives run towards who can make the biggest splash on Twitter.”

Some of today’s rising stars have talked about their emphasis on communications. In his book “Firebrand,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., wrote that “Stagecraft is statecraft” and “if you aren’t making news, you aren’t governing.” He also wrote that, “It’s impossible to get canceled if you’re on every channel,” which might explain his communications strategy after news broke that he was being investigated for whether he broke federal sex trafficking laws. That night, Gaetz denied the allegations during an interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who called it “one of the weirdest interviews I’ve ever conducted.”

Freshman Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., told his colleagues in a letter obtained by Time that he built his staff “around comms rather than legislation.”

Lawmakers across the board are investing more in communications now than they have in the past. A study published in Legislative Studies Quarterly in 2020 found that over a more than 20-year period, the percentage of “representational staff,” including communications and constituency services, has remained high, while the percentage of legislative and administrative staff, or jobs like legislative directors, chiefs of staff, office managers, and schedulers, has fallen.

A chart from that study shows the change between the 103rd Congress in 1993 to 1995 to the 113th Congress from 2013 to 2015, with “representational staff” in yellow. MRA stands for “Members’ Representational Allowance,” or the budget members have to run their offices.

The 116th Congress, which ended in January, was one of the least legislatively productive Congresses of the past 50 years, but the most active on social media, with a record 2.2 million tweets and Facebook posts, according to Pew Research Center. The bulk of audience engagement came from the 10% most followed members.

‘Consumed with content’

Democrats learned about the power of social media in large part from Ocasio-Cortez, while Republicans saw how effective former President Donald Trump was at promoting a message tailored to a narrow audience online and sought to follow suit, said one senior House Republican aide who spoke on condition of anonymity to freely discuss how social media is changing Congress.

“More members recognize why this is an effective strategy,” the aide said. “It’s definitely a change with how things used to be for sure. You really do have 435 individual voices that have the ability to change a news cycle or impact what’s being discussed. That’s very different and it’s a new phenomenon and I think it’s absolutely something we have to live with.”

Members and parties are “more consumed with content,” the aide said, and it’s part of a larger trend that follows the rise of cable news, the power of Twitter to set the news agenda going back to the 2012 presidential campaign, and Trump’s presidency.

In the future, more politicians might arrive to elected office with followings they already built. In Georgia, retired Army captain, Republican House candidate and YouTuber Harold Earls has more than half a million subscribers on a family channel his wife started in 2014. The channel’s most-viewed video is a pregnancy announcement, but in one of their latest videos, “What This Means For Our Family,” Earls and his wife, Rachel, talk about his candidacy and how they plan to address it on the channel.

Earls said since posting about his candidacy, more than 400 people reached out to volunteer, and he said he views their vlogs as good for his candidacy because it lets voters see him in a more authentic way.

“A lot of times, we only see, ‘Hi, I’m candidate so-and-so,’ we never see who this person actually is as a person,” he said. “I feel pretty confident that I can stand on my own two feet and say, ‘You can see who I am as a dad, you can see who I am as a husband.’”

Earls said viewers can see the intimate and raw moments of his life and judge for themselves.

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“People can take character attacks at me all they want to, but I know I have terabytes and terabytes of footage that they can go and watch of my entire life and judge the type of man and leader that I am,” he said.

The heightened role digital strategy plays in politics isn’t going away, but as the White House has shown, the politician isn’t the only one who can get a message out to the masses.

Then-candidate Joe Biden promised “You won’t have to worry about my tweets when I’m president” during the 2020 campaign, and his @POTUS account makes far less news than @realDonaldTrump did. Still, Biden reaches the public with help from influencers with audiences that don’t overlap his. As a candidate, Biden worked with an outside firm on influencer outreach, and since taking office, his administration has continued the strategy, like when it dispatched Fauci to talk on Instagram Live with actor Eugenio Derbez.

Social media has been changing politics for over a decade, but we’ve only recently begun to see its early long-term effects. A rising generation of digitally adept politicians and political professionals are upending traditional power centers like congressional leadership and the national parties. And, for better or worse, social media posts have emerged as a potent tool for amassing and wielding political power.

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