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Why Do U.S. Embassies Bungle Twitter?

Back in September, as Egyptian rioters sought to attack the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, allegedly over a video depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a negative light, the embassy tweeted out a note effectively condemning the controversial speech rather than those who would resort to violence against it. There followed confusion in both the embassy and the State Department about free speech, American values, and the appropriateness of apologies.

It would not be the last twitter controversy for the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. Two months ago, after Egyptian police arrested a satirist who had poked fun at the Islamist government, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo tweeted a link to a Jon Stewart episode in which the American comic condemned the arrest of his Egyptian equivalent. That evidently upset the Egyptian government even more. Rather than stand up once again for free speech, diplomats caved, and the embassy temporarily disabled its Twitter feed, deleting the offending tweet.

Now it seems the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, is getting in on the act. Many Middle Eastern rulers incite anti-Americanism in order to bolster their own popularity, and Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is no different. After having precipitated a revolt through a combination of arrogance and undemocratic tendencies, Erdoğan sought to downplay the police violence by suggesting—falsely—that the United States is far more brutal in its alleged suppression of political protests.

In response to Erdoğan’s false claim that American police had killed 17 protestors breaking up Occupy Wall Street camps, the U.S. Embassy tweeted, “Reports related to the U.S. Occupy Wall Street movement are inaccurate. No U.S. deaths resulted from police actions in #OWS.”  The tweet signified how embassies should use Twitter: An instant response to correct a calumny.

It seems, however, that calling out Erdoğan for his outright lie was too undiplomatic for the embassy, which subsequently deleted the tweet. Alas, it seems that Ambassador Francis Ricciardone—infamous for his pro-Mubarak sycophancy while posted in Cairo—still confuses responsibility to protect America’s interests with ingratiation to foreign leaders.

It would be easy to blame technology for the embassies’ Twitter missteps, but it would be wrong. Twitter simply highlights in near-real time the State Department’s curious moral calculus. Perhaps it’s time for remedial education for America’s foreign servicemen and women: The lessons should not be hard: It neither is appropriate to apologize for free speech nor is violence in response to such speech ever justified. Nor should any ambassador hesitate when defending America against the rants of an anti-American ruler.



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