Giving the bird: What the covfefe happened to political discourse?
It was the first day of the state legislative session, and Melissa DeRosa wasn’t happy. Some two dozen environmental activists occupied the executive chamber in the state Capitol to call for new climate change legislation. They were sitting in a hallway outside DeRosa’s office with cardboard life preservers around their necks that read “Save our Future” and a handmade “Trump = Climate Emergency” sign.
Maybe DeRosa, then the governor’s chief of staff, was preoccupied with the Republican president-elect who would be sworn in a few weeks later. Maybe it was because things were about to get busy again in Albany after a quiet holiday. Or she just was annoyed that people were sitting in her hallway. Whatever the reason, the typically civil tweeter lashed out on Twitter.
This counterproductive sham is one of the reasons we lost in 2016...I hope our side gets it together fast...too much st stake https://t.co/UhswilHWPS— Melissa DeRosa (@melissadderosa) January 4, 2017
The responses were quick and numerous.
with all due respect, Melissa, what you perceive as a counterproductive sham is what many others see as democracy in action.— Winnie Wong (@WaywardWinifred) January 4, 2017
I even weighed in with a tweet of my own: “Is it really counterproductive, or are you just concerned it makes your office look bad to casual observers?”
It was, for lack of a better term, a Twitter fight.
DeRosa launched a counterattack, and Rich Azzopardi, a top communications staffer for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, joined the fray. The protesters were barking up the wrong tree, they said. New York was a leader on clean energy and greenhouse gases. And, by the way, DeRosa added, “this kind of stuff makes our side look silly.”
One of the 22 protestors, Sam Adler-Bell, responded on behalf of the group.
Great -how about u schedule a mtg...might b more effective than the cardboard life jackets &disingenuous implication that NY isn't leading— Melissa DeRosa (@melissadderosa) January 4, 2017
She followed up telling Adler-Bell to call her office and she’d be happy to meet.
The activists ended up getting arrested and were charged with disorderly conduct. The Twitter exchange was covered by Gothamist and mentioned in Politico, but the story didn’t create much of a stir. Organized protest is a mainstay of New York politics, and, increasingly, so is fighting on Twitter.
Since soon after its 2006 launch, Twitter has been a place for politicos – the officials, journalists, advocates and everyone else who closely follows governmental goings-on. But one can’t help but notice a growing trend lately in New York: the use of Twitter as a battleground.
In conversations with Twitter users across the political ecosystem – from journalists to academics, press secretaries to elected officials – there was a common thread: It can get ugly on there. While much has been written about the national decline in political discourse, it seems the trend has hit New York too, with Twitter as a primary medium. It’s brought the fierce pushback from press secretaries to journalists out in the open. Twitter has become a new front in the rivalry between Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. And Twitter is even being used by progressive politicians to play up their resistance to the most notorious tweeter of them all: @realDonaldTrump.
Twitter is to President Donald Trump as the radio was to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But the modern-day method of communicating makes it easier for other politicians to respond, giving critics like the de Blasio administration an easy way to display its opposition to the “Tweeter-in-Chief.” While the Cuomo administration is no fan of Trump, Azzopardi and his colleagues tend to stick to policy when it comes to opposing the president. The de Blasio administration – led by its press secretary Eric Phillips – has routinely gone after Trump with a sharper voice.
After a bomb scare at Trump Tower on Dec. 27, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer tweeted that it was “back to work” and thanked the NYPD. “No problem. We’ll send you the bill,” Phillips retorted, alluding to the dispute over whether the federal government would cover the added security costs to the NYPD for securing Trump Tower for the president-elect and his team. The de Blasio administration repeated this strategy on tax day, releasing the mayor’s tax return on the @NYCMayor handle (which the mayor doesn’t personally use) saying “See, President Trump, It’s not that hard.” And the administration routinely attacks Trump’s politics, taking a tone that positions de Blasio among “the resistance.”
The Trump Administration is pushing an unrealistic and mean spirited executive order. If they want a fight, we’ll see them in court.— Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) March 27, 2017
Tweeting is par for the course for Trump, and the comments from de Blasio and Phillips are tame compared to numerous insults the president has tweeted, including about the mayor.
The dynamic hasn’t gone unnoticed by Christina Greer, a Fordham University political science professor who often comments about local politics on Twitter.
“When you have the president of the United States being flippant on Twitter, it’s difficult to hold Eric Phillips to a different standard than the president,” she said. But that doesn’t mean she’s comfortable with all of Trump’s interactions.
“Unfortunately, I just think we’re in a new era of how we communicate with the media and how the media communicates with us,” she said. “Before, we wouldn’t dare think to think about name-calling and snarky remarks, but when it’s coming from the highest office, I think it trickles down into all facets.”
Ben Max, the executive editor of Gotham Gazette, was less forgiving.
“Trump has established a low bar for all sorts of decorum. I don’t think that means we lower it for everybody,” he said. “I don’t think the way Trump uses Twitter to call people names and attack people means that everybody has to slip into that dystopia.”
De Blasio’s tweeted opposition to Trump, though based on their divergent political philosophies, is politically advantageous. And with its low barrier to entry and wide reach among politicos, Twitter is an easy way to signal political opposition – and often in heated terms.
Look no further than New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, a frequent and frequently candid user of Twitter, who has called Trump a “giddy manchild,” and accused “Donnie” of “verbal diarrhea.”
Not sure I want any of what he's smokin. What a joke. https://t.co/TBdMgEaWVb— Melissa MarkViverito (@MMViverito) May 29, 2017
Another avid user is Assemblyman Steven McLaughlin, a Republican from outside Albany, whose favorite theme is attacking Cuomo. He’s called him “#GovernorGutless,” “weak” and a “tyrant narcissist.”
It's like his staff does this to keep the tyrant narcissist happy and occupied. Kind of like giving an infant a pacifier. https://t.co/IKESOkX425— Steve McLaughlin (@SteveMcNY) May 22, 2017
McLaughlin has drawn attention offline as well – at a 2013 press conference he said “Hitler would be proud” of Cuomo – but his online attacks come frequently, and aren’t limited to Cuomo. The assemblyman has called state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker a “hack,” described Chelsea Clinton as a “talentless, clueless, entitled dope” and even tagged state Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a fellow Republican, as #FecklessFlanagan.
Some attacks can spur heated exchanges, like the war of images Independent Democratic Conference spokeswoman Candice Giove and state Senate Democratic spokesman Mike Murphy used of Democratic senators hobnobbing with Republicans as ammo, each attacking the other’s conference for daring to associate with the other party. Murphy and Giove are frequent sparring partners on Twitter, channeling the latest tensions between the mainline Democrats and the breakaway IDC.
DeRosa’s recent promotion to secretary to the governor launched its own Twitter war, with frequent Cuomo critic state Republican Party chairman Ed Cox sharing choice words, calling DeRosa a “petty thug” who “will magnify pol thug Cuomo’s worst traits.”
Azzopardi fired back, in equally personal terms: “proof that too many bloody marys after morning squash reduces tweeting to a 3rd grade level.”
Cox denied a penchant for squash and bloody marys, but the Twitter war grew big enough to spur lobbyist and Cuomo confidante Charlie King to issue a press release calling Cox a “Cox sucker.” His remarks were widely derided and King apologized, admitting that the discourse, which started on Twitter, had become a “race to the bottom.”
One of the major players in that race is Azzopardi, the Cuomo spokesman. Albany observers describe his tweets as insulting, below the belt, attacking, snarky or merely strange. Many of Azzopardi’s tweets could be classified as “rapid response,” an immediate effort to spin, set the record straight or do any of the things that political spokespeople do.
“My job first and foremost is to be accurate and to be honest, but we want to make sure the facts are right,” Azzopardi said of his social media strategy. “And if Twitter is the first draft, you want to be in there.”
Or, as Azzopardi once artfully described in a tweet, “I just try to head off the knucklehead stuff at the pass. Sometimes it works. Sometimes (reporters) hit publish.”
But Azzopardi does not just dispassionately correct inaccurate information on Twitter like a pedantic teacher. He liberally adds snark, commentary and even insults. He has called journalists “petty,” and “tone deaf,” called activists “obnoxious” and even added on a Mafioso “what’s your problem.” He often responds with a meme or a gif – a short, often humorous static or moving image – rather than with the most common tool of the spokesman trade: words.
The gifs? “It’s a tool of the medium,” he said. “And hey, sometimes something is ridiculous enough where that’s the proper response.”
But when asked about his more aggressive responses, Azzopardi stumbled over his words, evidently trying to craft a careful response. “I’m doing a job in an industry that does gets bare-knuckles at times.” He then quoted his former colleague, Josh Vlasto, who said “that he respects tough journalists and he hopes that tough journalists also respect us flacks.”
But apparently there is little respect between Azzopardi and Fred Dicker, a daily radio show host and former New York Post columnist, who once had a friendly relationship with Cuomo. Dicker is one of Azzopardi’s favorite targets, and he seems to relish insulting the veteran reporter, calling him “angry” and a “hypocrite,” urging him to “be a man,” and constantly harping on him for spending most of his time in Florida. Azzopardi’s cover photo on Twitter is a notification showing that Dicker has blocked him on the service.
“When you have the president of the United States being flippant on Twitter, it’s difficult to hold Eric Phillips to a different standard than the president." – Christina Greer, Fordham University Political Science Professor
Dicker emailed a statement to City & State, reading in part: “There's no point in responding to Cuomo's nasty messenger boy because his comments are all precleared by the self-described ‘control freak's control freak.’”
“It’s fighting fire with fire,” Azzopardi says of his tweets to Dicker. “He has made a career out of intimidating people and belittling people and talking flippantly about people. But like most bullies, you find when the fire is turned towards them, they get very thin-skinned and they get very defensive.”
When it’s suggested to Azzopardi that his tweets have been described in much the same way, he laughs. “I have thick skin. I’ll leave it at that.”
But Dicker, whose acerbic nature has always made him a bit of a lone wolf at the Capitol, wasn’t the only one who saw Cuomo’s influence behind Azzopardi’s words.
Matthias Revers, a sociologist, spent years studying the Albany press corps while earning his doctorate at the University at Albany, just as Cuomo was taking office in 2011. Now he’s at Goethe-University in Frankfurt, Germany working as a senior researcher and lecturer (“Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter” to be exact), and has written a number of academic papers about the use of Twitter at the Capitol.
“The Cuomo administration kind of turns public information officers into bullies,” Revers said. “That’s kind of a requirement to that specific job.”
Revers described Twitter as this constant back channel in the Capitol that became an essential tool for reporters during the same-sex marriage debate in 2011. He’s been following Albany less lately, and remembered Azzopardi as a very journalist-friendly spokesman. While he’s still quick to share a joke with reporters on Twitter, Revers noted a change. “I’m surprised!” Revers said. “It seems to me those kind of below-the-belt attacks are a recent thing.”
Azzopardi’s counterpart in New York City is Phillips, who was appointed de Blasio’s press secretary a year ago. Like Azzopardi, he does rapid response, and has been criticized for his “fantastically rude” responses on Twitter. Phillips and Azzopardi publicly sing each other’s praises, but the two – and their colleagues – have often gotten into fights of their own, shining a light into the much-discussed rivalry between Cuomo and de Blasio, with aides acting as emissaries.
For example, when Politico New York reporter Azi Paybarah tweeted in September that Cuomo disagreed with de Blasio’s decision to keep NYPD disciplinary records private, de Blasio’s first deputy press secretary Austin Finan responded that the governor was “out over his skis again.” Azzopardi replied that the mayor was undermining government transparency and damaging his reputation, which Phillips took as an opportunity to suggest that Cuomo is too concerned with his political brand.
The two camps have fought multiple times, insulting job titles, trading barbs on state prisons and de Blasio’s legal woes and, notoriously, assigning blame over the fate of a deer in Harlem. The wild animal died, and “bureaucracy lost.”
Why make these fights public? Phillips declined to comment, but Azzopardi said, “If something gets put out there in real time, you’ve got to fight back in real time. That’s just the reality of the world we live in.”
"Like most bullies, you find when the fire is turned towards them, they get very thin-skinned and they get very defensive.” – Rich Azzopardi, a top communications staffer for Gov. Andrew Cuomo
Twitter is the reality of the world we live in, and Twitter is open to the public. Cuomo and de Blasio have made no secret of disliking each other, but their comments are almost always mediated through the press, through comments made at news conferences or statements given in interviews. There are also private conversations between the offices that do not get seen or heard by the public. But the Twitter fights show the tension between New York’s most powerful executives unmediated, saved in perpetuity.
This, as Paybarah sees it, is Trump’s influence.
“He’s made Twitter in some ways an official platform,” he said. “You can’t just rant about something, drop a couple of F-bombs and say something like ‘I’d like to tear up this treaty, I’d like to tear up these bike lanes.’ You can’t say that on Twitter and then downplay it as like, ‘Oh that’s not real, that’s not serious because I didn’t issue it from my press office.’ … That’s going to be treated the same as if you said it behind a podium.”
Paybarah sees Twitter fights as being beneficial to transparency, particularly when it comes to conversations between press secretaries and journalists.
“There is something, at least, beneficial, entertaining – transparent almost – about having those complaints be aired so publicly,” he said. He explained that when he fights with press secretaries over email – “You’re pulling your hair out, they’re yelling at you in all caps” – it can create doubts about, for example, whether a story actually was unfair. But when the fight is in public, “it’s a meritocracy because you see other people respond. You see other people like and retweet … In some ways, it’s a braver arena in which to have these debates.”
Of course, pushback from government spokespeople is nothing new. They made phone calls to correct, cajole and berate reporters long before Twitter existed, and – as anybody who has spent time in a newsroom can tell you – angry phone calls and emails are still a frequent occurrence. Twitter has brought transparency to the interactions – and harsher language may just be a side effect.
“I think everyone gets comfortable with the medium, but also you get 140 characters,” Azzopardi said. “If some of the language ends up curt, that kind of lends itself to the medium.”
That medium can get nasty. You don’t have to log in for very long on Twitter to see examples of blatant sexism, racism and all sorts of personal insults. Maybe Twitter warfare has grown in New York just because Twitter is a better platform for war than peace.
DeRosa’s tweet about the climate activists in the hallway did give them more attention than they ever would have gotten had she kept her opinions private, and her one attempt at peace by setting up a meeting failed. After multiple times being rescheduled, DeRosa had yet to meet with the activists as of May 25, according to one of the protesters, Dan Sherrell.
But maybe Twitter isn’t to blame. As Azzopardi said, “I fight for every word. I fight for what I believe my perspective is to be a fair representation of my boss. Twitter is just a medium to do it.”