Keep on Tweetin'

The embassy debacle shouldn't end 21st-century #diplomacy.

The notorious tweet reaffirming a statement that condemned "the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims" has been deleted by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, but the incident raises a question that lingers: Is blasting out 140-character messages on Twitter a good way to conduct diplomacy, given the political, and even mortal, risks?

As the official who led the State Department's venture into social media toward the end of President George W. Bush's administration, I am certain the answer is yes. In fact, my worry is that the Cairo tweeting affair will make already risk-averse diplomats even more gun-shy. That would be a shame. U.S. officials need more autonomy to use social media, not less.

In the past four years, the number of Facebook accounts worldwide has increased sevenfold, but growth has been much greater in countries critical to U.S. security. In Egypt, there were 800,000 Facebook accounts in mid-2008; today, there are 12 million. In Pakistan, the increase has been from 250,000 to 7 million; in Turkey, from 3 million to 31 million. Twitter, which barely existed in 2008, is growing even faster.

The objective of U.S. public diplomacy is to influence foreign audiences in order to advance U.S. foreign-policy objectives, and to that end, no one has ever invented a better tool. Through social media, it's possible to get access to the public largely without government or media filters (which, in places like China, amount to the same thing).

Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, can communicate directly with millions of Russians on social media. Anti-American media can't block him out or distort what he's saying, and the fact that the Russians have been chasing Voice of America off their airwaves doesn't deter him.

Some of McFaul's messages seem trivial. On Saturday, Sept. 15, he tweeted: "Stanford football plays its biggest game of the season today against USC. Debating whether to get up at 330 am to watch." But on that same day, he linked to the poignant three-minute video that Christopher Stevens posted on YouTube when he became ambassador to Libya. It has 100,000 views. Earlier this year, after McFaul gave a critical speech, the Russian Foreign Ministry blasted the ambassador with nine tweets in an hour, called him "unprofessional," and said he was spreading "blatant falsehoods." McFaul gave as good as he got on Twitter.

McFaul, who came to Barack Obama's administration, as his football taste shows, from the heart of Silicon Valley, knows how to use social media and, as a scholar of Russian politics, understands the nuances of communicating with an idiosyncratic audience. So does another prolific tweeter, Ivo Daalder, U.S. ambassador to NATO and a former think-tank scholar and writer. But what about other diplomats? Is letting them use a Twitter account in a volatile world like handing a kid a loaded gun?

Since this administration took office, the State Department has sent more than 100,000 tweets from more than 200 accounts; almost every embassy has at least one. The guidelines for clearing tweets are the same as for clearing a written communication. The ambassador is ultimately the responsible party, and he or she defines the local clearance process, usually with another embassy official making the conventional decisions. Tweets can't question or contradict U.S. policy, and, if an issue is especially sensitive, the embassy is supposed to get clearance from Washington.

The problem is that tweets aren't the same as news releases. The medium really is the message, and, to be effective, a tweet needs to have a spontaneous, personal, and witty cast to it. In fact, it's hard to think of two forms of expression more different than a diplomatic communiqué edited to within an inch of its life and a breezy tweet.

On the other hand, tweeting is precisely what diplomats should be doing. Tweets put American ideas smack into the center of a neutral, unmediated conversation -- the best environment for persuasion in an age in which audiences are skeptical of official pronouncements and hard to fool. Less substantive tweets and other social media messaging -- like McFaul's football comments -- can humanize diplomats and lay the groundwork for more substantive efforts at influence.

To be effective, social media require more personal authority and less bureaucratic oversight. Yes, the State Department should restrict who can tweet and absolutely stick to a rule of no freelancing on policy. Your job as a tweeter is the same as your day job: promoting America's interests as the president sees them. But, except in the case of truly sensitive matters, clearance should not be necessary. If someone screws up, fix it afterward -- and quickly -- and hold the messenger responsible.

The problem at the State Department has been not too much talk, but too little. My predecessor, Karen Hughes, tried to encourage ambassadors to communicate by sending a talking-points email daily, with quotes from the president and the secretary. The message was, "If they can say it, you can -- and you should." That has continued, but there's still reticence. What I saw at the State Department was a deep fear that a single misstep -- just one -- will stop your career in its tracks.

In 2010, two of the State Department's best young officials, Alec Ross, the technology guru, and Jared Cohen, a Bush appointee with whom I worked to set up a network of online anti-violence groups now called, traveled to Syria with a group of Silicon Valley executives. Ross and Cohen tweeted on the trip about buying American-style ice coffee at a university near Damascus and challenging a Syrian minister to a cake-eating contest. The New York Times said that these casual tweets "raised hackles on Capitol Hill." But instead of criticizing Ross, who is still at the State Department, and Cohen, now a Google executive, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised them for symbolizing the drive to "21st-century statecraft."

She was right. It would be unfortunate if the reaction to the Cairo tweet further inhibited most diplomats' inclination to risk aversion.

That tweet, according to reporting by Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin, appears to have been an outlier. It began life as a news release from the embassy, issued at 12:18 p.m. Cairo time on Tuesday, Sept. 11 -- about four hours before demonstrations began and six hours before attackers breached the embassy's walls. The problem was that, even after the breach, the embassy continued to stand by the original theme. A tweet at 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, since deleted, stated, "This morning's condemnation (issued before protests began) still stands. As does condemnation of unjustified breach of the Embassy." The storming of the embassy was treated almost as an afterthought.

A State Department official told Rogin that the original statement was sent to Washington for clearance before posting and the Cairo embassy was told not to send it without changes, but Cairo put it out anyway. Rogin quoted the unnamed official as saying, "People at the highest levels both at the State Department and at the White House were not happy with the way the statement went down. There was a lot of anger both about the process and the content.… Frankly, people here did not understand it. The statement was just tone-deaf. It didn't provide adequate balance."

The top communications official in Cairo is Larry Schwartz, whom I knew at the State Department as one of the best in the business. He was the top public affairs officer in both India and Pakistan and had just left Washington, where he was running the Public Diplomacy Office of Policy Planning and Resources. Schwartz is outspoken, smart, and a bit rough around the edges -- which makes him both a rarity at the State Department and just the kind of person who should be using social media. His shop has been extremely active in Twitter and recently got into a nasty little colloquial spat with the Muslim Brotherhood that deployed the tool just right.

Clearly, if the unnamed State Department official is telling a straight story, Schwartz, who also vetted the original statement with his deputy chief of mission (the ambassador was in Washington at the time), should have made changes. Even if he sent out the first message too hastily, there was plenty of time to fix it. That's the thing with tweeting -- you can make corrections in real time.

A bigger problem, however, is that I suspect the Obama administration did not have a clear policy on how to handle scurrilous videos, cartoons, and the like. The rioting that followed the Danish cartoon controversy in 2005 caused Bush officials, me included, to work hard preparing for another such event. We were sure it would happen again.

The right response today, I believe, has three parts, and the order is important: 1) violence is never acceptable, and America will take strong action if its people and property are attacked, 2) we believe in the principle of free speech, and 3) all religions deserve respect.

Effective public diplomacy begins with clear ends (which, as an aside, I am not so sure the United States has in Egypt or other parts of the Middle East), and leaders have the responsibility to communicate up and down the line both those ends and the right messages to achieve them. Get that right, and then liberated diplomats on the ground can use the amazing tool of social media -- a gift, really -- to powerful effect.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images


Free Speech in the Age of YouTube

Barack Obama couldn't censor that anti-Islam film -- even if he wanted to.

Innocence of Muslims is a strange, amateurish, and rambling video that attacks the Prophet Mohammed as a hypocrite and fraud. It purports to express the anger of Coptic Christians against Islamic oppression. Posted on YouTube and translated into Arabic, the video -- said to be a trailer for a feature-length film -- has inflamed passionate anger and outrage throughout the Islamic world, most dramatically in Egypt and Libya, where U.S. Amb. J. Christopher Stevens was murdered in the ensuing riots.

These cycles of Islamic offense and violence have by now become predictable. Once Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini rose to the bait and issued a 1989 fatwa requiring Salman Rushdie's execution on the ground that The Satanic Verses were "blasphemous against Islam," it became clear that insulting Islam would become an easy and cheap way to create an international incident. That path has now become well-worn, from the 2005 publication of the Mohammed cartoons in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten to the 2010 "International Burn a Quran Day" of Florida pastor Terry Jones.

Millions of Muslims are deeply offended by the publication of material that insults Islam and its prophet. Such speech is prohibited as blasphemous by the laws of many Islamic states. In Pakistan, two senior government officials were assassinated for advocating the repeal of Pakistan's harsh and repressive blasphemy laws, which are used to oppress religious minorities. In the Islamic world, outrage at Western blasphemy is a ready tool for the arousal of anti-Western sentiments.

It is easy to cast blame on those like Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the apparent producer of Innocence of Muslims. They know they are throwing matches into a tinderbox. They mean to be provocative. Many argue that they should be held accountable for the readily foreseeable consequences of their speech. Those inclined to this position invariably cite the famous aphorism of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in his opinion in Schenk v. United States: "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic."

But we ought to be cautious about applying Holmes's precept. Superb lawyer that he was, Holmes was careful to condemn only the man who falsely shouts fire in a theater. The charge against Innocence of Muslims is not that it is false. It is rather that the film is blasphemous, that it will likely provoke those who are offended to acts of violence, and that it will damage the foreign interests of the United States.

The First Amendment jurisprudence of the United States does not permit our government to punish speech merely because it is blasphemous. Speech becomes blasphemous when it is deemed intolerable by the standards of a particular group. Muslims have their definition of blasphemy; Catholics have a different definition. The constitutional tradition in the United States is that no group can impose its definition of the sacred to restrict the space of public debate.

Our First Amendment jurisprudence is built on the concept of individual rights. We believe that every person should be allowed his or her contribution to public discourse. The Supreme Court explained the justification for this belief 72 years ago in the transformative case of Cantwell v. Connecticut:

In the realm of religious faith, and in that of political belief, sharp differences arise. In both fields the tenets of one man may seem the rankest error to his neighbor. To persuade others to his own point of view, the pleader, as we know, at times resorts to exaggeration, to vilification of men who have been, or are, prominent in church or state, and even to false statement. But the people of this nation have ordained in the light of history, that, in spite of the probability of excesses and abuses, these liberties are, in the long view, essential to enlightened opinion and right conduct on the part of the citizens of a democracy. The essential characteristic of these liberties is, that under their shield many types of life, character, opinion and belief can develop unmolested and unobstructed. Nowhere is this shield more necessary than in our own country for a people composed of many races and of many creeds.

Because we are a country of many creeds, it is exceedingly important that no single creed can hold the nation hostage to its sensitivities. What might be blasphemous to Catholics might be truth to Jehovah's Witnesses. We interpret our First Amendment to create a public space that is controlled by neither Catholics nor Jehovah's Witnesses, nor indeed by any group, so that every individual can participate in public discussion.

The controversy enveloping Innocence of Muslims recapitulates this same point, only on an international scale. Some argue that Nakoula should be legally penalized for failing to respect the sensitivities of Muslims in Libya, Egypt, and Afghanistan. In the words of one imam, "We don't think that depictions of the prophets are freedom of expression. We think it is an offense against our rights."

But if the First Amendment prohibits the state from taking sides in creedal disputes among American citizens, if it systematically privileges individual expression so that "many types of life, character, opinion and belief can develop unmolested and unobstructed," it surely should not permit the state to take sides in an international creedal dispute. If American citizens cannot use law to silence those whom their group considers blasphemous, why would the U.S. Constitution cede this authority to foreign groups?

The real reason others might want to censor Innocence of Muslims is that the film has caused immediate and foreseeable damage to American foreign policy. Nakoula must have known that his amateurish film would incite violent anti-American sentiments throughout the Middle East. The argument is that he should therefore be held accountable for the consequences of his speech.

Phrased in this way, of course, the case against Innocence of Muslims no longer turns on exotic issues like blasphemy. Incitement to illegal action is commonly regulated, whether or not the incitement is blasphemous or offensive. But "incitement" typically refers to speech that calls upon its audience to commit illegal acts. Innocence of Muslims makes no such appeal to violence. We should more precisely characterize the film as a provocation than an incitement. The film has caused violence in part because its audience is so outraged that it has felt compelled to riot and commit mayhem.

First Amendment jurisprudence uses the concept of a "heckler's veto" to analyze such situations. If a hostile audience threatens sufficient disturbance, the law will sometimes seek to protect public order by shutting down a speaker. Heckler's vetoes are severely discouraged in the United States. This is because it punishes a speaker for the illegal proclivities of his audience. A heckler's veto means that those who wish to censor speech, but who cannot directly use the law to do so, can nevertheless use law to silence a speaker if they create sufficiently threatening illegal disturbances.

A heckler's veto creates very bad incentives for those who oppose freedom of speech. If we wish to maintain open public discussion, therefore, we will not easily let law be determined by an angry mob. In First Amendment jurisprudence, we normally require the state to protect a speaker's rights by controlling the violent proclivities of an audience, even if a speaker knows that his views are so controversial that they might well spark violence.

Things appear differently, however, in an international setting. Our state cannot control Libyan or Egyptian rioters. We must instead rely on the ineffective assistance of weak governments to suppress the violent reactions of an enraged audience. In such circumstances, it can prove very costly to protect a controversial speaker like Nakoula.

The situation is made more complicated by the fact that rioters in countries like Egypt and Libya are protesting speech that in their view is undoubtedly illegal blasphemy. "We never insult any prophet -- not Moses, not Jesus -- so why can't we demand that Mohammed be respected?" asked one demonstrator who held a sign reading "Shut up, America." The rioters were in effect demanding that United States conform its law to Egyptian and Libyan customs. Mob violence in these countries illustrates the high price of opposing the diplomatic initiative vigorously pressed for more than a decade by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to create a new international norm suppressing the "defamation of religion."

The American tradition of privileging individual rights over the sensitivities of groups has always had costs. As the globe shrinks, as we encounter cultures that do not share our tradition, these costs will undoubtedly increase. From a legal point of view, the damage of the riots should be not be imputed to Nakoula as an individual speaker. They are the foreseeable consequences of our own First Amendment values. The riots force us to ask how deeply we are committed to our own constitutional values. Are we willing to stand by them despite the damage they inflict on our foreign interests?

Fortunately, we need not address the problem solely from the legal point of view. There is a great difference between state censorship and private pressure. Innocence of Muslims is a crude and despicable film. Even if American constitutional values prohibit the U.S. government from punishing Nakoula, we are nevertheless free vigorously to communicate our judgment of his work. I would go so far as to say that President Obama, speaking as the representative of the American people, can express his view of the merits of Innocence of Muslims. He can speak out against the film for demeaning Islam. From a constitutional point of view, Obama is prohibited only from crossing the line into legal sanctions.

Google has played a fascinating and ambiguous role in this affair. Google owns YouTube, the platform that makes Nakoula's speech possible. Google has refused to remove the film from its own website. YouTube guidelines prohibit the uploading of hate speech, which is defined as "speech which attacks or demeans a group based on race or ethnic origin, religion, disability, gender, age, veteran status, and sexual orientation/gender identity."  Innocence of Muslims does not attack a group (or an individual) "based upon" any such status category. Instead it directly quarrels with the authority of Mohammed, and hence derivatively with the status of Islam as a religion. In classic American fashion, Google regards the film as a debate about ideas rather than as defilement of sacred ground.

Yet because Google is a private corporation and so not bound by the First Amendment, it can flexibly respond to the exigencies of the film's distribution. The company has accordingly blocked access to Innocence of Muslims in India and Indonesia because the film is illegal under the laws of those countries. And in response to the violence, it also has temporarily withdrawn the film from circulation in Egypt and Libya. The First Amendment would preclude the American government from playing so fast and loose with freedom of speech, but not Google.

A looming question raised by Innocence of Muslims is how we should conceptualize the public function played by international companies like Google. On the one hand, they may render our constitutional principles all but irrelevant, since in a digital world private companies will wield the sovereign prerogative of effective censorship. On the other hand, the absence of constitutional restraint will authorize private companies to respond flexibly and pragmatically, in ways that the American government cannot, to the inevitable crises that will accompany an international clash of cultures.