The backlash came swiftly, as it’s wont to do online. People hurled insults, claiming he had done wrong by the dog. Then defenders appeared, pointing out the only other option would have been giving his son away. Then the defenders of the dog advocates showed up and so on and so forth. You know how this goes.
Eventually, Yang’s wife, Evelyn, hopped to his defense with a photo of Grizz on a lawn chair and the caption, “He’s a happy beach dog now but he’ll always be our dog even though he doesn’t live with us! Whenever we visit, grizz always gives me a kiss first and then proceeds to hound Andrew non-stop to play.”
The whole affair left Yang “mystified,” he said.
“It never occurred to me that someone would somehow attack me for posting a picture of my dog that we had to give away. I love Grizzly,” Yang told The Washington Post. “But, you know, you just shrug it off and say that’s social media sometimes.”
What, you may be thinking, does Grizz the pup have to do with serving as mayor of New York City? The answer, of course, is almost nothing. And yet, this has become one of the more memorable moments from Yang’s candidacy thus far.
It’s the natural result of his social media presence. From the beginning of his unlikely presidential bid in 2020, the entrepreneur used his Twitter account less like a politician and more like a regular Joe — creating enough excitement that his online followers dubbed themselves the Yang Gang. Now, in his run for New York mayor, he’s doing much the same — and it can leave him vulnerable to criticism.
If you somehow weren’t familiar with Yang, you’d be forgiven for thinking much of his Twitter account serves to promote an amateur New York City travel blog. Dashed-off photos of the residents and foods of the city litter his feed — giving the account the same DIY feel of your regular user, one who isn’t a front-runner for mayor of America’s largest city but rather someone who’s visiting it. That’s partially by design.
“A lot of social media channels for political figures tend to be quite corporate feeling and a little bit dull and very, very risk-averse. They don’t give you a sense of the personality of the individual,” Yang said. “I have a different experience because I ran for president as something of a nobody, and one of the only ways we could get attention and energy for the campaign was by sharing more about myself on social media.”
Yang, who was born and raised in New York state and lives in Manhattan, writes most of his tweets himself, though he noted that his team will send over drafts occasionally — “for example, if there’s a religious holiday that’s observed by many people in New York City.” He’s dabbled with other forms of social media, such as Instagram and Clubhouse, but Twitter’s his bread and butter “because it’s what most journalists use.”
In that way, he shares some online DNA with the former president.
“[Donald] Trump was pretty unique in good and bad ways. And what we’re seeing with Yang is an appropriation of some of those unique attributes,” said George Washington University media and public affairs professor David Karpf. Trump “was using social media to agenda-set for the rest of the media system and maintain a full focused spotlight on him throughout the primaries.”
“Yang’s got a combination of name recognition from the presidential and a strong instinct for grabbing and maintaining attention,” Karpf added.
Of course, that attention isn’t always positive. One Twitter video he posted, viewed 3.8 million times, showed him buying bananas and green tea with the caption “New York City loves its bodegas!” sparking some to vehemently argue that its poshness actually made it a deli (Eater reported that it self-identifies as both). Earlier this year he was mocked for tweeting, “It’s March 1st.” (It was!)
The same day as his now-infamous Grizz elegy, Yang tweeted, “You know what I hear over and over again — that NYC is not enforcing rules against unlicensed street vendors. I’m for increasing licenses but we should do more for the retailers who are paying rent and trying to survive.”
Unlike his faux pup, this one had political teeth, and some felt the bite. Replied writer Rafi Schwartz, “finally a politician with the courage to take the fight to new york’s most insidiously privileged, coddled class: little old ladies selling churros at the q train union square stop.”
Yang’s big mistake here, said Joe Fuld, president of the Democratic political consulting firm Campaign Workshop, was his attempt to discuss policy on Twitter, which isn’t exactly the land of nuance.
“The thing that often drives regular citizens and politicians to use Twitter is they get immediate feedback,” Fuld said, pointing out that instant engagement isn’t the same as persuasion. In the end, he sees little upside to tackling thorny issues on the medium, likening it to a casino. “There are going to be short-term wins on Twitter, but eventually you’re going to lose.”
Any gaffe wouldn’t have mattered much during a presidential campaign he had no chance of winning — especially since more attention was paid to the social-media actions of the “Yang Gang,” who would often harass supporters of his opponents, a practice Yang publicly decried.
In New York City’s mayoral race, however, Fuld points out he’s a real contender, and what he tweets carries far more weight — especially when it’s about a food industry that’s been “hit super hard” during the pandemic.
And, indeed, his opponents in the race leveraged the tweet to criticize him. City Comptroller Scott Stringer addressed it in a speech in Queens, saying, “He wants to start a crackdown on vendors and send enforcement after the immigrant communities that powered us through the pandemic.” Maya Wiley, former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio, tweeted, “The New Yorkers I’m listening to don’t think vendors in the subway are THE problem.”
Yang calls the tweet something of a learning opportunity, both in how his potential constituents feel and how seriously his social media presence is now perceived.
“That’s a new balance for me. It’s different when you’re the scrappy presidential candidate and no one takes your tweets as policy,” he said. “But in this case, I think people are looking at every word as if it might become policy.”
The dog and vendor tweets could be considered gaffes. But could the attention actually be helpful in a crowded field of 14 candidates?
“There’s a strategic value of maintaining attention, but I don’t think we can take that next step and say, ‘There’s no such thing as bad attention anymore,’” Karpf said.
Yang said he’ll just continue trying to make his tweets as positive as possible, which he sees as something of his brand.
“Remember that people on the other sides of social media avatars are real-life flesh-and-blood human beings with thoughts, feelings, humanity,” Yang said. “It’s so easy to lose sight of that, and if we remember it more, the Internet would be a friendlier place.”