Diplomacy in the Age of Twitter

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Amr Abdallah Dalsh / REUTERS

Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi at the presidential palace in Cairo October 8, 2012,

For the second time in seven months, the U.S. embassy in Cairo got itself into Twitter trouble. The unusually combative Twitter feed on Tuesday criticized the Egyptian government’s imprisonment of comedian Bassem Youssef for mocking President Mohamed Morsi, drawing a sharp rebuke from the Egyptian government.

The embassy linked to a clip of The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart making fun of Morsi for the arrest, a tweet that Egyptian authorities immediately objected to, voicing their criticism – where else? – on Twitter. “It’s inappropriate for a diplomatic mission to engage in such negative political propaganda,” Morsi’s office tweeted. “Another undiplomatic & unwise move by @USEmbassyCairo, taking sides in an ongoing investigation & disregarding Egyptian law & culture,” the Fredom and Justice Party, the political wing of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement, wrote.

The embassy’s page was taken down over night and restored Wednesday morning sans the offending tweet. Foreign Policy Magazine’s Josh Rogin reported that U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson made the decision to take down the feed unilaterally and that Washington later urged her to reinstate it lest it appear the U.S. was caving to political pressure.

The U.S. has repeatedly expressed concern that Morsi is infringing on freedoms of the press, women and minorities. The subject has been raised with Morsi in almost every meeting with U.S. officials since he took office. Morsi always pledges to work on the issues, but in practice the human rights situation has gotten worse as Morsi’s hold on power has weakened in the face of growing opposition protests and violence.

Flying off the handle on Twitter is a risk for any high profile user and the staff at the U.S. embassy in Cairo knows this as well as anyone. On Sept. 11 last year as the Cairo embassy was under siege, the Twitter feed attempted to calm the crowds by apologizing for the California-made video mocking the Prophet Mohamed that set off the violence. Republican President nominee Mitt Romney latched onto those tweets and accused the Obama Administration of apologizing for freedom of speech to the Muslim world. The author of those tweets, Larry Schwartz, was recalled to Washington, but the aggressive tone of the embassy’s Twitter feed continued.

Twitter snark and sarcasm in the diplomatic arena are especially perilous given the risk of causing an international incident, as the embassy has seen over the last 24 hours. Diplomacy has always been the art of politesse and subtly, two words that are virtually incompatible with Twitter.

Five years ago nary an embassy – U.S. or otherwise – was on Twitter. But after a big push by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to get her ambassadors and embassies tweeting, most U.S. embassies around the world now actively tweet, flickr, tumlr and facebook. Likewise, many foreign embassies and ambassadors have taken to social media, as the Washington Diplomat explored in this story. While most posts are bland reception photos, greetings and cultural exchanges, the downside to diplomacy by social media is it’s harder to control the message.

20 comments
nasebaITseries
nasebaITseries

@iBadawi For an embassy to be politically motivated is odd - obviously they would be offended - even needs to culturally sensitive

cherchezbeaute
cherchezbeaute

@musicalhouses "Diplomacy has always been the art of politesse and subtly, two words that are virtually incompatible with Twitter." Truth!

KWilsonPR
KWilsonPR

The relationship btwn Egypt's gov't & digital is fascinating. Terrific piece RT @TIME Diplomacy in the age of Twitter ti.me/17dJf85

deconstructiva
deconstructiva

Alas, while Twitter can succeed in diplomacy if embraced well, where it does fail is HERE in the comments - see Zeke's Obama salary / sequestation post (and this one could easily go rogue too). Tweets posted as comments don't mesh with conversations (formats, people posting two from two unrelated platforms) and just clutter the page. 

j2lovesfriday
j2lovesfriday

@JNSmall Jay, thanks for twitter diplomacy swamp post, hope you get good comments (but I hope this tweet does not post as a comment there).

deconstructiva
deconstructiva

A good dovetail to this basic concept - how to use twitter / social media - is the recent resolution by the SEC for companies wanting to post public disclosures online, mostly with Facebook and Twitter. (I wonder if not-quite-so-tech-savvy companies would still use listserv, BBS, and usenet, but I digress again). Netflix posted info. on Facebook awhile back but didn't announce it ahead of time. New rules allow this if you announce where to find it. Twitter can be used to link to a longer post, such as on Facebook, meshing the two services.

http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-04-02/business/sns-rt-us-usa-sec-socialbre9310uj-20130402_1_howard-lindzon-reg-fd-social-media

deconstructiva
deconstructiva

Thanks, Jay. Govt. officials have trouble with social media but ordinary folks know how to use it, especially protesters - social media is great for them to get the message out (such as Arab protesters posting on Youtube from Iran, Egypt, etc.). No doubt that's why some govts. try to block it, coincidence? Twitter is only a waste of time if you wish it to be. Many use it for links but it was meant from day 1 to be a short, frequent conservation (answer to "what are you doing?").

But as Obama's online chats and petitions prove, social media can be great for govts. to stay in touch directly with the people, always a good thing (unless you're a repressive regime trying to stay in power, but I digress) ...and for reporters to stay in touch with readers too. Though kudos to YOU, Jay, for being the most responsive here in engaging commentariat (Alex Altman is good too), now if only others follow suit. Though alas, twitter and livefyre don't mix well when tweets post here as blog comments.


Sue_N
Sue_N

@deconstructiva I hate the Twitter comments that flood these pages. They're drive-by comments that add nothing. I wonder if half these folks know they even show up here.

forgottenlord
forgottenlord

@Sue_N

And then trying to discuss something with the drive-bys becomes impossible - unless you use Twitter but....