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 3:47 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
updated 5:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
updated 6:21 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
updated 10:17 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
updated 7:12 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT