Lapid on Facebook: Direct message or distraction

Experts weigh in on the new Finance Minister's use of social media to get his message across.

Lapid at faction meeting 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Lapid at faction meeting 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Several days have passed since Finance Minister Yair Lapid posted his much-discussed “Ricki Cohen” status on Facebook, but social media experts are in agreement – it was a success.
What Lapid succeeded in doing, however, is another question. Some social media professionals praised the finance minister on Wednesday for connecting to the public by directly releasing messages via Facebook. Others, however, accused him of bolstering his celebrity status and keeping the public discourse shallow.
“In general, the continued use of public communications channels by politicians not just looking for votes is positive, and allows the public to engage with its leadership. This was the Facebook election! Relations established during the campaign still exist, and it’s healthy to use that platform,” strategic consultant Jason Pearlman, who worked with Likud Beytenu in the last election, said.
On Monday Lapid described on his Facebook page a theoretical 37-year-old woman from Hadera named Ricki Cohen who, together with her husband, earn NIS 20,000 and support their three children. Lapid called Mrs. Cohen “middle class,” and said the government must improve the quality of government services, including education, police and health, increase Mrs. Cohen’s quality of life and reduce her cost of living.
Soon after, myriad articles and opposition politicians accused Lapid of being detached from the middle class and its needs. They pointed out the Cohen family’s income puts them above the top 20 percent of earners and that they are not middle class according to the Bank of Israel, but rather upper-middle class.
“Using Facebook is quite brave,” Pearlman said. “Once you post something, it’s just out there. Things can be misconstrued.
It’s a way of packaging and distributing a message, but with a bit less control.”
Ze’ev Yanay, a media adviser and expert in social media, who worked on Labor MK Miki Rosenthal and Histadrut chairman Ofer Eini’s campaigns, said the opposite, pointing to the filters of the editing process and length constraints in traditional media, and explaining that social media “cuts out the middleman,” even though the public is still free to respond.
“In using social media, politicians face the danger of authentic opposition from the public to his or her messages, as well as inauthentic opposition from interest groups that try to hurt the politician’s image by producing fake comments on Facebook, which is the most-read platform today,” Yanay explained.
According to Yanay, the opposition to Lapid’s Facebook post seems like an “orchestrated offensive,” because similar messages are repeated.
Still, “despite the attacks and difficulties, he’s created a new, successful political work tactic.
He understands the meaning of social platforms as the best way to talk to individuals by allowing politicians to go over the traditional media’s head and to learn how the public feels,” Yanay said.
Ori Malkin, a doctoral candidate at the Bar-Ilan University School of Communications and a former social media adviser to politicians such as MK Miri Regev (Likud), said it’s clear that Lapid is familiar with the disadvantages of traditional media, which is “unable to pass on politician’s words as they are, without comment or cynicism.”
“There is no doubt Lapid is aiming at a specific audience – young, middle class, established [financially]. He needs to be aware of other groups that are exposed to his messages, because they are public and the internet is a forum for two-way communications. They can answer and disrupt his messages,” Malkin explained.
According to Malkin, Lapid’s strategy will be successful over time if he “has his finger on the public’s pulse,” pays attention to public opinion, and doesn’t ignore reactions to the messages he relays.
“Lapid’s long posts prove that he wants to be a storyteller, use simple language, and talk to every one of us,” Malkin added.
“Lapid is considered a great communicator because he simply knows how to tell a story.
He shares his thoughts and deliberations with the public.
This is new, effective politics and one of the central reasons for his party’s success.”
Malkin explained that Lapid’s storytelling tactic works because Facebook users are looking for something fun to pique their interest, rather than hard politics.
However, Tal Schneider, writer of the political insider blog “The Plog,” which often covers politicans’ use of social media, said that Lapid’s long texts on Facebook are indicative of his difficulty in transitioning from author, columnist and poet to politician.
“Lapid is using Facebook as a literary tool, and less as a professional one. He needs to move from being a writer on Facebook to someone with the responsibility to implement things,” she said. “Even if he thinks he’s writing prose, people want to know, when the finance minister writes [Mrs.
Cohen makes NIS 20,000] if it’s before or after taxes. It’s not clear if he means middle class or upper-middle class.”
In other words, even if the way Lapid writes hasn’t transitioned from prose to politics, his readers have, Schneider explained, and he needs to give more details.
“He’s charming, but that’s a gimmick, and gimmicks have expiration dates,” she quipped.
“When people start protesting, and he writes a story about a Holocaust survivor, he won’t look so charming anymore.”
Plus, by avoiding the traditional media, and not talking to reporters, Lapid is exposing herself to harsher criticism from the press.
On the other hand, Schneider said Lapid deserves a grace period, and people cannot expect him to write an entire economic plan on social media.
Schneider posited that Lapid intentionally kept his message vague and made sure to post it on the morning of the final day of Passover, during a lull in news, in order to keep himself in headlines, and the actual budget out of them.
“Lapid still wants to be in show business and thinks it’s fun to be a non-stop attraction.
He’s been like that since the day he entered politics last year, and the buzz will continue over time. People get excited over every bit of nonsense he writes,” she said.
“[The Mrs. Cohen Facebook post] seems very wellplanned.
Is this the kind of public discourse he wants? About the definition of the middle class? If so, he succeeded,” Schneider added.
Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, who heads the Media Reform project at the Israel Democracy Institute, took to Facebook to say Lapid did the right thing in continuing to use the social network, which requires “courage and thick skin,” but encourages public discussion.
At the same time, though, Lapid is using Facebook to distract from real issues, Altshuler wrote: “Yair Lapid succeeded.
We’re not talking about the budget, but about Ricki Cohen... we’ll keep talking about Ricki, and make funny Internet memes, and in the meantime, Uri Yogev is being appointed Finance Ministry director-general.
Yanay also pointed out that “after all this, we’re talking about Ricki Cohen and not the budget.”
However, he took a more positive approach, saying that, while the Facebook status had two effects – blurring the discussion of the budget and putting a human face on the issue – he will give Lapid the benefit of the doubt and say the finance minister meant to do the second.