Skip to main content

U.S. embassy learns a hard lesson about Twitter

By Cynthia Schneider, Special to CNN
April 10, 2013 -- Updated 1136 GMT (1936 HKT)
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
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT