The organization behind the contentious Muslim community center and mosque to be built in Lower Manhattan near Ground Zero came under fire this week for filling the group’s official Twitter page with snide, snarky and what some have called anti-Jewish remarks, despite recently softening their tone after an internal shake-up.
The small staff at Park 51, a New York-based group that teamed up with the Cordoba Initiative to build the much-debated center near Ground Zero, agreed Tuesday in a meeting to take a more “conservative” approach online, according Park 51 spokesman Oz Sultan.
The most recent offending tweets — which have since been removed from the feed — were written in response to a Haaretz story reporting that Park 51 may move the project to a new location further from the site of the 9/11 terror attacks. Park 51 denied the story on Twitter, saying, “Official: Reports by Haaretz are completely false. We are committed to plans of building Park 51 to serve the community of Lower Manhattan.” A follow-up tweet read, “…if Haaretz likes publishing fables, perhaps they could go back to the Yiddish ones with parables.” (Haaretz is a an Israeli news source.)
The Park 51 team issued an apology a short time later and said they were taking one of the interns off the team that handles social media. Despite previous media reports that employees at Park 51 had been fired, Sultan said that with such a small team they could not afford to let anyone go and that the offending intern had simply been “repurposed.”
Sultan, a social media veteran who usually works with cosmetic brands and big-name corporations, has presided over the official Park 51 Twitter feed since mid-July, and has used it to fight smears and defend the organization’s brand, regularly using sharp and defensive language to make his point. Often writing in first person, (a strategy not regularly used when communicating through an institutional Twitter account,) Sultan’s team regularly went after Twitter users who made malicious online attacks on the project.
“Honestly, I think you need to get laid,” one Park 51 tweet read in reaction to a Twitter user who had filled his feed with posts condemning Park 51. “Your anger spouts in every direction. Have you tried a hobby?” A second tweet directed toward the same person: “If you won’t simmer down and be polite daddy will have to put you in the corner.”
“God you’re dense,” another Park 51 tweet read, responding to a different user that had been attacking the project.
“Where’s all this venom stem from?” asked a Park 51 tweet in response to a similar online attack. “Tell me about your mother?”
The feed also regularly reposted other users’ tweets, including one that called Fox News host Greg Gutfeld a “pussy.”
Some Twitter users pleaded with the group to stop using such language, arguing that it was only hurting their cause. The Park 51 team responded to calls that they calm the language, saying that they would not sit back and just let people insult them. It was not long before the official feed spawned a series of unofficial spin-off accounts, some of which were intended to poke fun at the project’s unorthodox strategy.
In an interview with The Daily Caller, Sultan defended his team’s use of the medium, saying that without a fully-functioning blog there just were not other avenues to fend off attacks. Sultan said they will have a new site redesign within the next few weeks.
“Until that is done, Twitter has been the only way to engage,” he said adding that they felt the need to use Twitter for defense “because the attacks and accusations became so outlandish.”
To call the discussion about the project “outlandish” is not an understatement. An online search of key words like “mosque” and “Park51” reveal that thousands of Twitter users have taken to the popular social media site to criticize the initiative, and some have even made death threats. Most of the responses, good and bad, according to Sultan, come from sympathetic Muslim mothers, conservative antagonizers and others who demand that Park 51 denounce terrorism and sharia.
But even if a brand is loaded down with negative responses online, that does not mean that those behind the project should have used Twitter to fight it, social media experts said.
Danny Glover, a new media strategist and editor of the Capitol Hill Tweet Watch Report, said that Park 51 hurt their brand far more by addressing criticism in such a manner.
“I think they clearly missed the boat,” Glover said. “The problem here is that you have someone trying to be snarky when you’re having a serious debate across the country about whether or not this mosque should be where they want it to be. So if you want people to debate serious issues like freedom of religion and free speech and you want people to take you seriously, then you have to tweet like an adult.”
Aziz Poonawalla, a well-known American Muslim blogger who supports the New York project, was also critical of Park 51’s media strategy.
“Their PR has been incompetent (especially on Twitter) and the entire controversy might well have been avoided if they had shown a little restraint instead of trumpeting the proximity to Ground Zero at the outset,” Poonawalla said in an online interview with blogger Scott H. Payne.
One of the main problems with the strategy, Poonawalla told TheDC, was that Park 51 felt the need to respond to almost any criticism thrown at them online. Twitter users, (both friendly and unfriendly) directly mention the project’s Twitter feed hundreds of times per day, according to Sultan.
“There’s no reason you have to reply to every insult or challenge on Twitter,” Poonawalla said in an email to TheDC. “[Y]ou should selectively respond so that every response is a teachable one, an opportunity to spread your point of view and make your argument.”
Sultan admitted that “there are going to be mistakes” when working with an evolving medium like social media, but ultimately defended his team’s online tactics.
“The most popular brands are the ones that are engaging but also have a perspective. For us it’s looking like a double-edged sword,” he said. “How do you engage people who are attacking you with venom and at the same time hurling epithets and insults … how do you engage that without a degree of levity? …We found people who liked the snark, we found people who didn’t like the snark and I gotta tell you about Twitter, you are not going to please everybody.”
Regardless, it appears the days of Park 51’s ruthless snark are over. The feed has cooled down over the past few days, and now contains updates on the progress of the project and polite responses to other users.
Poonawalla said it’s a step in the right direction.
“I think that they should be commended for being responsive to critique and reacting relatively swiftly (it’s only been a couple of weeks). In my view, social media should be used to build a following, and to protect your brand, and not get into pointless arguments with detractors,” he said. “I think that the Park 51 people deserve some credit here for taking corrective action, and I am hopeful they will be similarly responsive to good advice and critique in the future.”
While the group may be getting its act together on the Web, online marketing might be the least of the group’s worries. According to a Politico report Thursday, the group has not raised any of the $100 million needed to construct the community center.