Protecting freedom of speech, 140 characters at a time

The Internet and social media services played pivotal roles in the recent unrest across the Middle East. Web traffic almost always looms large in debates about freedom of speech these days, and social media have played a role in every popular uprising since Tiananmen Square???s fax-machine networking in 1989. That seemed very high-tech at the time, but it???s can-and-string compared to the power of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

To begin with the obvious, it???s likely that very few people would ever have heard of the ???Innocence of Muslims??? movie without YouTube and Google. We???re not far removed from an era when swift global distribution of scenes from a no-budget film made by a tiny group of people, to audiences either appreciative or hostile, was unimaginable. The relatively brief history of viral video is filled with astonishing examples of amateur, sometimes casual efforts reaching millions of viewers. It???s something we largely take for granted in 2012; but just imagine trying to explain the phenomenon to someone from 1972.

When the U.S. Embassy in Cairo came under assault, Twitter played a pivotal role. The embassy???s remarkable apologies to Islamic radicals flew swiftly across that fast-moving social media service. ???We condemn the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims,??? read one of the embassy???s Tweets. Another condemned ???religious incitement.??? Even after the embassy grounds were violated, it made a point of declaring, ???This morning???s condemnation (issued before protest began) still stands. As does our condemnation of unjustified breach of the Embassy.???

These messages prompted immediate outrage from Americans who were following the events in real-time on Twitter which led to the embassy taking the highly controversial step of deleting its most controversial Twitter messages. Twitter allows messages to be deleted, which is why high-profile messaging disasters tend to be screen-captured by critics, who rightfully worry about the gaping maw of the digital memory hole.

When tweets disappear

What is most curious about the Cairo embassy affair is that the American mainstream media quietly agreed to pretend the offending messages had ceased to exist, even though it would have taken only a few moments of research to find screen captures of them.

This was crucial to constructing the narrative of a ???gaffe??? surrounding presidential candidate Mitt Romney when he said, in a statement released shortly after midnight on the night of the embassy-consulate attacks in Egypt and Libya: ???I???m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It???s disgraceful that the Obama administration???s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks. I???m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi.???

Romney was, in essence, a victim of his awareness of social media???an awareness doubtless shared by the advisers and staff who helped him monitor and respond to the situation. They were following developments in real time, and responding to statements that would be effectively erased from the media???s memory banks. Romney actually had to remind reporters exactly what some of these statements from the embassy said, during his press conference the following day. The critical flaw in Romney???s initial statement was failing to repeat, verbatim, precisely what he was criticizing???a common error in the information age, when writers assume they can make passing references to material that readers will be able to examine in detail at their leisure, by clicking on hyperlinks.

Muslim Brotherhood Twitter feud

A second social media controversy, understandably eclipsed by the explosive and deadly events of Sept. 11, 2012, was the strange Twitter feud between the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood has its own English-language Twitter account, @Ikhwanweb, which got into a surreal exchange of snark with the USEmbassyCairo account.

After the Brotherhood said they were ???relieved none of the [Cairo embassy] staff were harmed and hope U.S.???Egyptian relations will sustain the turbulence of Thursday???s events,??? the embassy replied, ???Thanks. By the way, have you checked out your own Arabic feeds? I hope you know we read those, too.???

This was a reference to the separate Arabic-language Twitter account of the Muslim Brotherhood, which practices a high-speed 21st century version of a very old Middle Eastern game, in which statements made in English are constructive and refined, while far less diplomatic language is fed to domestic audiences in Arabic. With a comparable coating of sarcasm, the Brotherhood informed the U.S. Embassy, ???We understand you???re under a lot of stress, but it will be more helpful if you point out exactly the Arabic feed of concern.???

Try to imagine what the Twitter feeds of the Axis and Allied powers in World War II would have been like.

One of the major reasons free speech is bumping up so violently against Islamic speech codes on the international stage is that the Internet has greatly magnified the size of that stage, and made it easy for just about anyone to tread the boards.

Much of the discussion we are currently having about provocative and inflammatory speech were largely theoretical in an era when individuals and small groups couldn???t possibly have showered the globe with millions of pamphlets, film canisters, or video tapes. But now anyone can conceivably pull a million hits on YouTube, or write a Facebook post that passes before a million pairs of eyes around the globe, in a matter of hours. Everyone can hear everyone else very clearly.

This should increase our determination to protect the freedom of speech, not lead us into a wilderness of elaborate speech codes, intended to mask what amounts to subordinating the First Amendment to a particular body of religious law. Speech is more powerful, and valuable, than ever now.