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Young politicians hustle to keep followers under House social media rules

Young politicians hustle to keep followers under House social media rules


Members are creating new accounts to avoid breaking House rules

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House Of Representatives Convenes For First Session Of 2019 To Elect Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) As Speaker Of The House
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Today, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-NY) Instagram followers got an unexpected message from the newly elected congresswoman — she created a new Instagram account for official government business.

Ocasio-Cortez’s announcement came on her personal Instagram account, @ocasio2018, on Thursday by way of an Insta-story. “House Rules say I can’t post IG stories from my personal account while I’m in my office,” she wrote on a screenshot from her new official account. “So I’ll post on-the-job IG stories from @repocasiocortez.”

This isn’t the first official account she’s created since she took her oath of office. Ocasio-Cortez also has a new Twitter account (@RepAOC) that was created last week for official government business.

She’s not the only lawmaker juggling multiple accounts. Members of Congress were sworn into office on January 3rd and many freshman have already set up new social media accounts, starting fresh and rebuilding the massive followings they created on the campaign trail. These official accounts must clearly state in their bios that the person it represents is a member of Congress, according to the longstanding guidelines in the Members’ Congressional Handbook. Many of the social media darlings from the past election, like Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX), have tweeted out messages citing these ethics rules, asking for fans to follow them to new accounts as they embark on their first year under the Capitol dome.

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 rules do prohibit lawmakers from using any of their newfound government resources to maintain their personal accounts, whether that be their new staff or office funds.

You can typically tell the distinction between an official and personal congressional account by the handle. A member’s title like “Rep.” or “Sen.” usually sits before their name on the government-maintained account. For example, Sen. Ben Sasse’s (R-NE) personal account is just his name, @bensasse, and his official account is @SenSasse. Congressional staff members are only allowed to post onto the official account, which is strictly for government business. Anything having to do with re-election or grassroots lobbying must stay on the personal accounts.

So far, Reps. Ocasio-Cortez and Crenshaw haven’t suffered too much under the rules. Crenshaw’s official congressional Twitter account has already acquired about half of his formerly 243,000 followers. Ocasio-Cortez still posts from her personal account to over 2 million followers, @AOC, and seems to let her staff handle the content on her official one (@RepAOC) with just over 40,000 followers. Her new Instagram was launched today and already has over 66,000 followers, a fraction of the 1.7 million on her personal account.

Facebook and Twitter have been standard platforms for politicians looking to build followings, but throughout the past few months, lawmakers have made headlines for their use of Instagram. Most lawmakers have an official Instagram account, but the bulk of the viral content and memes are generated from their personal accounts. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) recently cracked open a beer with her husband on her personal account, but sticks to photos with constituents and policy talk on her official one. Beto O’Rourke caused a stir by interviewing his dental hygienist on his personal account, but if he were still in the House, he’d be expected to keep it off of his government page.

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Beto O’Rourke go on Instagram to speak directly with their followers.
Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Beto O’Rourke go on Instagram to speak directly with their followers.

But when it comes to the presence congressional committees have on social media, there’s little guidance for members and their staff. The House Administration says that any committee website or social media account “must be recognizably derivative or representative of the name of the Committee sponsoring the Website,” and that the names of these pages cannot be deceptive, slogans, or imply that the body endorses any commercial products.

These rules were confusing for some people on Twitter last week after bodies like the House Science Committee switched up their handles. What was previously @HouseScience, was changed by Republican staff to @HouseScienceGOP.

Followers of the account, who expected it to represent the entire committee, were tweeting out messages suggesting that the Republicans had stolen the account or refused to hand it over to the Democrats, who are now in the majority. “The outgoing committee switched the name of the account instead of handing it over to the Dems, taking all the followers with them,” one user wrote. But that wasn’t the case. The Republicans had always owned the account in question, but only changed the name to properly identify their new status as the minority, according to a Democratic spokesperson for the committee.

If the House Administration rules don’t provide guidance, committees make their own rules, and so long as both parties are in agreement, Twitter helps make any changes necessary as new congressional sessions begin.

Updated 1/10/19 at 4:50 p.m. EST: Corrected official government Twitter handle for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Updated 1/11/19 at 4:27 p.m. EST: Updated to change which party the spokesperson represented.