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.