Alec Ross, State Department's "innovation" guy and Tweeter-in-chief, speaking at the "The Project [R]evolution Digital and Social Media Conference" (*gag*) in New Zealand. Photo by US Embassy in NZ, 2012.
So Will McCants, who is smarter than we are and knows things before we do, tells us that the State Department has now decided to put its Twittering officials on a 48-hour prior censorship regime.
@alecjross and other avid users of the nearly ubiquitous micro-blogging service are now going to have to get clearance for all their, um, "spontaneous people's utterings".
Alec Ross has tried to spin this -- and McCants has dutifully cut and pasted his missive into his piece as an update -- by saying that other agencies involved in public-facing communications have to wait as long as 30 days. Oh, yeah, like that staffer in Cairo who was so quick on the draw with the apology for the anti-Muslim video? Like that? I find that sort of bald-faced claim by Ross unconscionable. (BTW, everything in this fake Washpo "fact-finding" against Romney's frank and correct statements about this apologia really needs to be addressed even more, in hindsight.)
Sure, we take his point -- others writing for DipNotes or whatever have to have much more clearance. No doubt the tweets coming out under the name of Amb. Susan Rice now are getting a hugely careful grooming. But two days is an eternity in Twitterland and Ross knows that. If you can't trust an official to say the right thing, they shouldn't be hired in the first place. Crowley's sin wasn't saying something unclassified or saying something that in fact his peers don't think and say in the building, it was believing that the elite groups he spoke in front of were somehow not attached to big megahorns when they live-tweeted him. Anything can suddenly get mega-attention on Twitter. It was more about a gentleman State Department official's habits of life. With some characters, like Anthony Wiener, you get the sense that they avidly understand the vast capacity for self-advertisement inherent in social media which is supposed to be about other people and "sharing". With others, you get the sense that they don't realize the mike is on and they are essentially on the radio.
In any event, Ross' tweets were already fairly anodyne and non-newsworthy much of the time. His favourite thing to do (or the favourite thing of his interns) is to publish that news-room perennial, "It's Always the Anniversary of Something" and say, with the edgy knowier-than-thou that 140 characters can give you, that it's X years since Y.
@mcfaul will also be likely one of the ones targeted, as he is constantly baited by Putin's intelligence operatives and their rent-a-crowd on Twitter and Facebook, which also consists of the authentic -- but from the "aggressive-obedient majority".
So what do I think about this as a policy?
I think that if someone doesn't like what you tweet, they should just not follow you. Organizations trying to make their workers conform to some company line on Twitter are over-reaching; they are trying to control their conversation with their peers, as if in their homes or in a bar. Most people don't have enough followers to make it an issue.
But for public figures with tens of thousands of viewers, and public officials, I think they do have to have clearance. I do think that various desks have to have their say on policy and make it consistent and coherent and not freelancing stuff -- and more of them should have been at the helm on the Cairo thing, for example, with at the bare minimum a robust awareness of the UN resolution on hate speech that the US and Egypt had just jointly crafted at the UN Human Rights Council precisely so that free speech would *not* be prosecutable unless it incited imminent violence -- and by that the text means not the violence committed by people with hurt feelings incited by the Egyptian government putting movies on TV, but the movie itself, which did not call for violence, as hateful as it was.
I think we've now found the hard limits of "21st Century Diplomacy" -- and that's okay. Twitter coolness and street cred were never going to make up for the disaster of WikiLeaks, although Ross tried his damnedest.
It's fake, and this latest reveals the depths of its fakeness.
The Twitter fracas in Kyrgyzstan illustrated it even more clearly. Shirin Aitmatova, daughter of the famous writer and a parliamentarian, found that her locked tweets to a small group of admirers she cleared for Twitter communiques were outed by a journalist covering her controversial actions in parliament. Central Asian analyst Erica Marat scolded journalists who seemed to have to rely on private Twitter feeds to write their stories.
But hey, what kind of official has to have precious little locked private Twitter feeds? Just for ease of motion in re-tweeting other people's stuff you love or hate with snarky or gushing comments like a 6th grade girl writing a slam-book entry? Please. You're a public -- elected or appointed! -- official and should behave like one. Your Twitter should be open to the public. Have your diplomatic and cocktail receptions with your ingroups if you must -- but don't pretend that you wield social media "for the people" in some vaunted new "statecraft" if you feed isn't open and if it doesn't represent the policy of the people you work for.
Don't like Twitter gags? I sure don't. Then do what I do and refuse to work for companies that try to impose them on you. You will be poorer, perhaps very poor. But free.