Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor in the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University, writes about issues affecting women and social media. She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion at CNN.
Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democrat, is campaigning against Republican TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz in one of the highest-stakes elections in the upcoming midterms. Fetterman’s congressional campaign gives the Democrats a chance to pick up a seat in the US Senate, where they currently have a paper-thin majority – and the reason he just might do it could come down to his cheeky social media strategy.
Fetterman’s Twitter account combines policy stances with dashes of his “everyman” personality – all while humorously trolling his opponent. By repeatedly chipping away at Oz’s legitimacy as a Pennsylvania resident, Fetterman has successfully shaped and controlled the narrative, even when he’s been off the campaign trail for two months due to a life-threatening stroke. It’s an inspired approach, and I really hope other Democrats are taking notes.
Let’s be clear: There’s plenty for Fetterman to criticize about Oz, a physician and media personality who has long peddled dubious medical claims. In 2014, a study published in the British Medical Journal found that 54% of the recommendations Oz made on “The Dr. Oz Show” were either inconclusive or lacking in supporting evidence. Oz, who has been endorsed by former President Donald Trump, has also cast doubt on the legitimacy of the 2020 election. “I have discussed it with President Trump, and we cannot move on,” he said in a primary debate. “We have to be serious about what happened in 2020.” It’s downright terrifying that someone with Oz’s inability or unwillingness to rely on facts could be in a position to cast critical votes affecting people across the nation.
But Fetterman’s hardest-hitting social media attacks accuse Oz of something else altogether: being from New Jersey (Oz says he moved to Pennsylvania in 2020 after living in the Garden State for decades). Fetterman’s campaign enlisted the help of Nicole Polizzi – the “Jersey Shore” star known as “Snooki” – to create a video wishing Oz well on his move “from New Jersey to Pennsylvania to look for a new job.” Fetterman also started a petition to induct Dr. Oz into the New Jersey Hall of Fame, and released a campaign video on Twitter featuring clips of Dr. Oz talking about his New Jersey roots.
When Oz ate at Pat’s and Geno’s, Philadelphia’s two most famous cheesesteak joints, Fetterman tweeted that doing so is “a rite of passage for every tourist.” (His comment was spot on. As Matthew Cantor wrote in The Guardian, “Any local can list at least five cheesesteak places they’ve deemed better than those two.”) And before the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, Fetterman tweeted that the players “might have a *famous* fan cheering them on from Cliffside Park, NJ.”
The strategy is brilliant for several reasons. First, the ribs are memorable. The creative approach shows an understanding of how to cut through the firehose of information to go viral, reaching even voters who don’t pay close attention to politics. By driving home the notion that Oz isn’t really from their state – and by extension, wouldn’t represent the people of Pennsylvania as well – Fetterman has made this a central issue that will likely stand out in voters’ minds come Election Day.
This also allows Fetterman – who has broken out of what we typically expect from politicians (see the trademark hoodie and shorts) – to present himself as a down-to-earth candidate who understands the needs of everyday Pennsylvanians. This is in sharp contrast to the image Fetterman paints of Oz as an out-of-touch celebrity who owns mansions. Never mind that Fetterman grew up in an affluent suburb and earned a graduate degree from Harvard. His ability to make references to the convenience store chain Sheetz or use “yinz” while calling for the federal minimum wage to be raised conveys the very authenticity he accuses his opponent of lacking.
The element of jest is also savvy. His tweets suggest that Oz (who has peddled misinformation and made some questionable attacks) simply isn’t someone who Fetterman takes too seriously – and the implicit message is that neither should the rest of us. That’s a devastating blow to Oz. But because it’s being conveyed with humor, Fetterman doesn’t come off poorly for going on the attack.
What’s just as relevant as the strategy Fetterman has taken is the one he’s chosen not to deploy. Oz’s parents were born in Turkey and Oz identifies as Muslim, but Fetterman isn’t suggesting Oz isn’t American – a tactic Trump, who has an ugly record of attacking people from different racial, ethnic and religious groups, famously deployed against former President Barack Obama. The contrast with the behavior of Trump – who is aligned with Oz – sends a powerful message about Fetterman’s values.
Instead, Fetterman has been emphasizing kitchen table issues while giving people something to laugh about. Oz, on the other hand, has been deploying tired Republican tactics of fear, amping up concerns about how Fetterman would handle crime and calling his policies “radical” and “socialist.”
There’s evidence Fetterman’s approach may be working: the lieutenant governor, who has been sidelined for two months due to his health, has raised $11 million in the last three months, compared to Oz, who brought in nearly $4 million.
Get our free weekly newsletter
Fetterman’s strategy is one that other Democrats – who badly need a unified message going into the midterms – should be learning from. Remember when Trump’s tweets would lead the day’s headlines? The Biden White House simply isn’t shaping the narrative in the same way. It should try to control the national conversation by using Twitter in the way Trump did so successfully – but instead of the rancor, outrageousness and constant controversies, it should try injecting some of the personality, flair and creativity we’ve seen from Fetterman’s campaign.
Fetterman has found a way to rib Oz while playing it cool. He lets voters know that they shouldn’t take Oz too seriously – but instead of the mudslinging that turns people off from politics, he has some fun while still making his message clear. Here’s hoping other Democrats take a page from his playbook.