Skip to main content

U.S. embassy learns a hard lesson about Twitter

By Cynthia Schneider, Special to CNN
updated 7:36 AM EDT, Wed April 10, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bassem Youssef, the "Jon Stewart of Egypt," was arrested for mocking Egypt's president
  • Cynthia Schneider: In the world of 24/7 social media, old and new diplomacy clashed
  • She says U.S. Embassy should not have closed its Twitter feed after a rebuke from Egypt
  • Schneider: The U.S. must defend free speech, including its actions on the Internet

Editor's note: Cynthia Schneider is a professor in the practice of diplomacy at Georgetown University; dean at the School of Diplomacy, Dubrovnik International University; and a senior nonresident fellow at Brookings Institution. She is also a former U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands.

(CNN) -- Old and new diplomacy clashed in the flare-up between Egypt and the United States over the arrest and interrogation of Bassem Youssef -- considered the "Jon Stewart of Egypt" -- who skewers politicians of all stripes on his popular TV show, El Bernameg.

In the world of traditional diplomacy, governments had more control over what was said about them and by whom. As the Egyptian and U.S. governments discovered the hard way, that control is long gone in the world of 21st century diplomacy with its 24/7 social media and powerful nongovernmental voices.

When Youssef, accused of insulting President Mohamed Morsy and Islam, was summoned for questioning by the Morsy-appointed prosecutor general, this latest repressive action by the Muslim Brotherhood government sparked an international outcry.

Cynthia P. Schneider
Cynthia P. Schneider

The response from the United States came in two forms. First, the State Department expressed "concern" about Youssef's detention, citing it as "evidence of a disturbing trend of growing restrictions on the freedom of expression" in Egypt. Then, Jon Stewart mounted an eloquent -- and humorous -- defense of Bassem Youssef and freedom of expression through that well-known diplomatic channel, "The Daily Show."

In a commendable act of public diplomacy, i.e., engaging with the people and not just governments, someone from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo tweeted a link to "The Daily show." After all, the program addressed a current issue in Egyptian politics, with a humorous message about shared values between Egypt and America, such as freedom of expression.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Failing to see the humor in the situation, the Egyptian government and the Muslim Brotherhood struck back. The presidential office tweeted a stern reprimand to the U.S. Embassy: "It's inappropriate for a diplomatic mission to engage in such negative political propaganda."

Faced with the choice of appeasing the Egyptian government or defending freedom of speech and dissent -- as practiced by Bassem Youssef and Jon Stewart -- the U.S. Embassy in Cairo chose the former, and shut down its Twitter feed.

This decision, reportedly made by Ambassador Anne Patterson, not only violated what the United States allegedly stands for -- the rights of citizens to criticize and hold their governments accountable -- but also displayed a stunning ignorance of how Twitter and, well, the Internet work.

Once something is out on Twitter, it's out. Shutting it down will not expunge it, and will only blow up into a negative story.

'Egypt's Jon Stewart' interrogated
Egypt's Jon Stewart answers joke by joke

That is exactly what happened. Within minutes of the shutdown, Twitter was flooded with condemnation of the U.S. government for caving to Muslim Brotherhood pressure and failing to defend basic freedoms.

Although the embassy feed was reactivated within an hour, reportedly at Washington's request, the stories and tweets about the shutdown lingered. That the reinstated embassy feed deleted all tweets about the Youssef case reinforced the sentiment already prevalent in Egypt that the United States sides with Morsy over the Egyptian people.

In one act of traditional diplomacy, trying to appease the host government, the U.S. Embassy undermined the good will earned by the nontraditional diplomacy of Jon Stewart.

As a television host, Youssef exemplifies "soft power," or the power to influence others through attraction. Other spinoffs of "The Daily Show" in Afghanistan and Iran, among other places, are adopting not only Stewart's smart and biting humor, but also core American values such as free speech.

In our brave new world, where governments and citizens alike are held up to scrutiny of 24/7 media and social media, and where private-sector television shows can wield more influence than governments, walking the walk as well as talking the talk has never been more important.

The United States cannot present itself as the defender of free speech when it suppresses free speech. In removing the tweets about Bassem Youssef and Jon Stewart, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo undercut its own soft power. Who in Egypt will listen the next time an embassy official talks about the importance of free speech or free media?

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Cynthia Schneider.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:26 PM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT