A Congresswoman's Bad Form on Social Media

Missing the teachable moments

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by Charles Ellison | Publisher’s Riff | @ellisonreport

The most important lesson drawn from the past 24-hours of bad tweets, retweets and charges of anti-Semitism is captured in this one tweet …

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), freshly elected to replace outgoing Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) upon his election as Attorney General of Minnesota, certainly wasn’t prepared for the firestorm of controversy she ignited when tweeting about pro-Israel advocacy on Capitol Hill …

Was it intentionally “anti-Semitic?” It was definitely a clumsy, sophomoric and irresponsible attempt at digital attention grabbing by a sitting Member of Congress. Hence, less than two full months into her first official term as a Congresswoman, Omar is off to the worst start … over a tweet. Rather than being widely regarded as a capable policymaker who is wisely learning the ropes of Congress while occasionally landing well-placed commentary on the state of things, Omar becomes a stereotype. She finds herself paraded as accidental “bigot,” her Muslim background ridiculed and watched more heavily under a cloud of suspicion. The incident speaks volumes to the perpetual dangers of social media and its use by political leaders.

However, both Omar and her critics missed an important teachable moment opportunity.

On How To Talk About Israel

First: those in the pro-Israel advocacy community need to explain what exactly constitutes an “anti-Semitic” remark? And should critique of controversial Israeli government policy automatically warrant the snap assertion that it is “anti-Semitic?” It shouldn’t when the public guidance is limited, and advocates shouldn’t assume the public knows the definition. There’s abundant confusion in the public space on that question. Some comments are more obvious than others. But there are things said that carry much more nuance, and without much guidance on why it was offensive in the first place. And so, critics of Israeli government actions on issues such as the treatment of Palestinians risk stepping into the debate unknowingly blind.

Certainly, everyone should have the right to intelligently critique the decisions and actions of sovereign governments. There’s nothing wrong with that, we do it all the time. Governments, by their nature, are imperfect. They exist to maintain order and keep civil societies erect; but they also exist to absorb citizen questioning and criticism. As a sovereign government and member of the global community, it is what it is: Israel - like any other nation - should expect that. Hence, it might be important during discussions like these for everyone, to first, make a distinction between the State of Israel and the Jewish community. Second: have a functional definition of what anti-Semitism means so everyone knows the particular ground rules.

The reflex to that occasional critique is understandable: the mass genocide of six million plus Jews in Europe during World War II is still fresh in the collective Jewish mind. Israel itself is a nation the size of New Jersey that is in a constant state of war, surrounded by geopolitical opponents who seek its destruction. It’s enough to put any population on edge. But, once again, that nation houses a fully functional government that’s subject to scrutiny and questioning like any other government. It should expect criticism in relation to the Palestinian population and other issues. Expectations should be set on that and people who have those conversations publicly shouldn’t fear reprisal.

Meanwhile, snarky, tongue-in-cheek references to pro-Israel advocacy in Washington gets no one, including Omar’s constituents, any closer to a comprehensive understanding of the very complex politics in the Middle East or related lobbying efforts on that topic. To simply leave it, hip-hop-cryptically, at “It’s all about the Benjamins” doesn’t offer any additional information on the situation. Those who don’t know are left either scratching their heads or feeling outrage over a topic they don’t fully understand.

On Lobbying and Advocacy

Omar could have used the moment as an opportunity to a School House Rock moment. Or, simply, teach constituents and others that this is how Congress works: there are countless interest groups who influence policymakers and policy making, some are more successful than others. So, instead of a corny tweet, she could’ve explained any concerns she had about pro-Israel advocacy organization influence, like the Center for Responsive Politics does here to capture total pro-Israel lobbying in 2018 ….

Or total direct contributions to candidates during the 2018 cycle …

This Is How The Game Works

There was also a missed opportunity to provide a tutorial on how influencer relations, lobbying and advocacy work on Capitol Hill. Maybe a useful tweet with an image of a flowchart like this could help the average voter understand how complex this process is, and how lobbying is an integral part of lawmaking - for better or worse …

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Instead, Omar’s attempt at raising her public profile through social media spectacularly backfired. Citizens walked away from it without any new insights into the inner workings of Congress. It’s a cautionary tale, as well, for how policymakers should proceed on social media: Do they use it primarily as a way to amplify their image and showcase their ability at self-branding? Or, should they look to it primarily as an effective mass public information tool to provide useful intelligence to the citizenry?