The Simone Zimmerman Lesson: Will Facebook Destroy a Generation of Promising Political Leaders?

The lesson of Zimmerman's suspension from the Sanders campaign may have less to do with her Israel views than with the lasting consequences of how we use social media.

Simone Zimmerman, former head of Jewish outreach for Bernie Sanders campaign.
Twitter screenshot

Last year, a Pew Research Center survey found that Millennials get more than 60 percent of their political news from Facebook, confirming what we had all begun to suspect: that Facebook is no longer just a depository of baby and beach pics but rather an increasingly politicized space. The Jewish community got a toxic taste of this the previous summer, when a pseudo war played out on Facebook in parallel to the actual war in Gaza. We realized that this, too, is a battlefield, and got used to shouting our opinions, no holds barred.

But that can have consequences, as Simone Zimmerman taught us. Zimmerman, the former national director of J Street U and an outspoken critic of the Israeli government, was named the Jewish outreach coordinator for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign last week, only to be suspended two days later, when a sharply worded Facebook post she'd written a year ago came to light.

The evolution of social media has been a sneaky one. Twitter made clear from the beginning that you were participating in a public forum, but Facebook felt more like a house party whose guest list you controlled. On Twitter, you have followers; on Facebook, everyone’s a friend. Even when posting political articles and making passionate pleas, there’s the illusion of speaking only to your peers.

But that's not necessarily the case, especially for those who aren't fastidious about their privacy settings. In addition, Facebook itself has changed, making a concerted effort to become a space where the U.S. political process plays out. We’ve been slow to understand the implications of these shifts and acknowledge that Facebook is no longer a semi-private diary but rather a public soapbox. With every politics-inflected post, we are shouting in Speakers’ Corner. 

Zimmerman's appointment was celebrated by progressive Jews as an impressive example of Sanders walking the walk after talking the talk of his own concerns and criticisms about Israeli policy and military action. It was also a nod of respect to the generation of Millennials that have made his unlikely campaign a surprisingly sustainable one, despite his New York loss this week. 

Alas, the honeymoon was short-lived, and just days later, Zimmerman was suspended, owing to fierce opposition from the Jewish community’s staunchly pro-Israel camp over her criticism of Israel.

Though some critics tried to bury Zimmerman as soon as her appointment was announced, the nail in the coffin was a Facebook post where Zimmerman wrote: “Bibi Netanyahu is an arrogant, deceptive, cynical, manipulative asshole F**k you, Bibi.” It had been typed in a moment of fury at a time when she was not in the national spotlight, and was not speaking on behalf of anyone other than herself. She edited the original post within 10 hours, yet its original form emerged and promptly got her booted off Sanders’ team.

Those who support Zimmerman see her as the casualty of a dirty campaign by the Jewish right wing to smear anyone who dares be critical of Israel. 

But to credit Ron Lauder and Abe Foxman - two of the loudest voices against Zimmerman - with her dismissal, and to fault Sanders’ campaign for buckling so quickly, ignores the realities of national politics. 

When you enter national politics, you step into a spotlight of intense scrutiny, and when you represent a presidential candidate, you cannot tell the leader of a major U.S. ally to bugger off. As Chemi Shalev argued here, it’s an appropriate deal breaker.

Politicians are often made to answer for something they wrote in, say, a school newspaper, or an interview from decades past (see: Hillary Clinton’s “super predator” comment). But all of these were clearly public statements. With Facebook posts, it hadn't been so clear cut until now. We are entering an era when the people running for office, or those helping to get them there, have been writing unintentional online autobiographies for much of their adult lives, often assuming they are speaking only to their close social circles. 

Photos of inebriated nights, angry diatribes, off-the-cuff quips meant to be funny but perhaps mildly offensive, half-baked musings on politics, sex and religion - for many of us, this is a daily ritual. We’re all doing a great job of incriminating ourselves. We may scramble to erase the evidence when our prominence grows, but remnants will remain. 

Soon, there won’t be a politician around without a trail of thoughts, ideas, comments and jokes from earlier, more anonymous days, that won’t have to be explained, apologized for, or that might end up costing her a job. Which is a shame: Simone Zimmerman would have been an exciting new voice in this election. And who knows how many other promising thinkers we will sacrifice on the Bonfire of the Status Updates? 

Maybe, moving forward, we’ll finally take those privacy settings seriously. Maybe we’ll start treating Facebook like LinkedIn, and post with a bit more diplomacy. Maybe we’ll be more forgiving when someone’s old outburst resurfaces, though that seems unlikely if we disagree with them: we’ll take whatever fodder we can to fell the opposition and, when it comes to politics, there is no statute of limitations.

So Simone Zimmerman is a victim of our communal dysfunction around Israel, in part. But she is also the victim of our new culture of spontaneous sharing and the collective composition of public diaries that never go away. Each of us has skeletons gathering dust way, way, way back on our social media feeds, long forgotten but not gone. And when they are rattled awake and shown to the world, we will have to own them. 

Brian Schaefer is a contributor to Haaretz, based in New York. Follow him on Twitter: @MyTwoLeftFeet