WALLINGFORD — Republican state Rep. Craig Fishbein faced a range of criticism Monday, from state and local political leaders to internet commentators, after he shared an internet meme on Twitter over the weekend with a racial message.
Memes are images or videos overlaid with text that are shared and often spread quickly on social media.
Fishbein retweeted a meme on Saturday showing an image of presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden giving a speech with the words “If you aren’t setting fire to buildings.. ..THEN YOU AIN’T BLACK” on top of the image.
The tweet originated from a Twitter user called 45TrueAmerican, who lists his or her location as in Connecticut. Fishbein removed the retweet Monday evening after characterizing it as “offensive, period” in a statement.
Fishbein said Monday that the meme “mischaracterized recent comments from a presidential candidate and related them to protests in response to the unimaginable and very tragic death of George Floyd in Minnesota.”
On May 22, Biden made a statement on the radio program “The Breakfast Club” that many interpreted as insensitive to black voters and presumptive that black Americans would vote for him.
“If you’ve got a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or for Trump, then you ain’t black,” Biden said. He apologized later that day.
George Floyd died May 25 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, after being handcuffed and held face down on a city street by police officers, one of whom kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes.
His arrest was captured on video, and his death sparked ongoing nationwide protests against racism and police brutality that have often erupted into violence.
“I shared the meme without comment in a subtle attempt to point out a double standard regarding political speech,” Fishbein said. “Without explanation, there was no context. I was wrong.”
Fishbein represents the 90th District, which includes parts of Wallingford and Cheshire, and was first elected in 2016. He’s currently vice chair of the Connecticut General Assembly Conservative Caucus and has been a member of the Wallingford Town Council since 2009.
J.R. Romano, state Republican Party chairman, said Monday that while he “completely disagree(s) with the sentiment” of the meme, he criticized the Record-Journal and other media outlets for not questioning state Democratic elected leaders at the time about Biden’s statement.
“It’s disturbing that the Connecticut media didn’t ask a single Democrat about the original comment” by Biden, he said.
The state Democratic Party, which is undergoing a change in leadership as Chairwoman Nancy Wyman steps down, didn’t issue a formal statement on the meme. Wyman didn’t respond to a request for comment.
A social media post from the party’s account called the meme “overtly racist.”
“The CT GOP is the Party of Trump, through and through. Vote them out,” the post stated.
Adam Chiara, assistant professor of communications at the University of Hartford, said Twitter is unlike other social media platforms because users often use retweets to signal endorsement for the content they are sharing, but not originating.
Fishbein’s profile biography section on his account has said, even before Monday, that retweets are not endorsements.
Twitter users are able to add a comment displayed above a retweet to explain or to put into context why they are retweeting something.
“If you just do a straight retweet, the way it is interpreted is that is an endorsement, or that you believe that, and you are sharing with all your followers,” Chiara said. “That is the agreement we’ve pretty much come to as a society.”
He added that Twitter, as a conversational platform, is often used to start discussions, but also has a reputation for being used to provoke or get a reaction.
“Twitter’s not the place that we think about for sharing pictures of family or videos of grandkids,” he said. “Twitter is the place we think about for discussion and usually very charged discussion.”