Why you should care
Because being informed is the foundation of any functioning democracy. How can we get there?
Two years ago the TSA, suffering little lost love from the citizens it serves, quietly set up an Instagram account. Nowadays, while we can’t quite say we adore the agency or its sometimes-too-intimate pat-downs, we must admit that all the contraband pix — the artfully positioned throwing stars, the gleaming revolvers, the pair of rusty hatchets some moron put in his carry-on — have given us a grudging appreciation for its work. TSA on Instagram? Call us a follower.
Now let’s think of another federal institution that’s supposed to serve the American people but can seem hopelessly opaque, irrelevant and wasteful. Yes, we’re talking about Congress, which earlier this year only narrowly dodged another pricey shutdown (the last one cost taxpayers a whopping $24 billion). Approval ratings are in the tank, with some 79 percent of Americans believing most of its members are out of touch, and many, we suppose, preferring not to think of them at all.
You know what could help? Instagram. We’re talking selfies of Ted Cruz and Kirsten Gillibrand. A 20-second video of congressional debate. A well “Toaster”ed 1080px by 1080px, with a senator drafting a bill. Hell, we’d love to see what Claire McCaskill is eating for lunch — so long as the caption then tells us something of substance about what’s happening that day in the big dome. The idea here is to give the average citizen some sense of what Congress actually does when its members aren’t bickering over matters picayune. Cry for the past, anti-futurists, but Instagram holds sway over many people’s collective attention — 400 million active users monthly, including, of course, realdonaldtrump.
We tried to ask Congress’ social media department if it thought Congressgram was a good idea … but it turns out there’s no office for social-media outreach. Instead, each legislator has a different social media account — umbrella organization, be damned. Could Congress’ collective-action problem be any sharper?
As it is, politicians’ use of Instagram seems limited to self-promotion and winning our votes, not educating us on how they would vote. But Instagram has enormous potential to inform, increase transparency and engage constituents. Right now, constituents are as informed as college debt is fun. “People resort mainly to information short-cuts to make voting decisions,” Costas Panagopoulos, a political science professor at Fordham University says. Plus, it’s cheap.
Of course, a big danger lurks: A congressional Instagram feed could mutate into just another platform for partisan bickering. We’re imagining internecine jockeying for “likes,” and bickering over unflattering photos, or oversimplified captions. All of this, obviously, would suck for voters who are “sick of polarization,” says Jack Myers, the author of Hooked Up, a book about the Internet, millennials and politics. And naturally, posts wouldn’t substitute for actual representation.
For Congress, though, there does seem to be one big perk: If the news is ever bad, slap on high saturation and the right filter and it’ll look good.