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    Middle East
 
     Jul 13, 2010

 

Oops, I tweeted again
By Sreeram Chaulia

In death, Lebanon's revered Shi'ite Ayatollah Mohammad Fadlallah claimed a few unintended scalps last week. His cachet of attracting goodwill from those perched on the other side of the political fence in the Arab-Israeli conflict landed some tech-savvy sympathizers in the soup.

The first victim of Fadlallah's posthumous cross-spectrum charm was a veteran senior editor of Middle Eastern affairs at the US television channel, Cable News Network (CNN). Octavia Nasr posted a message on Twitter on the day the cleric deceased that said she was "sad to hear of the passing" since he was "one of Hezbollah's giants I respect a lot". Although Fadlallah was only loosely associated with the Shi'ite guerrilla outfit, the cause for clamor that followed was Nasr's bold public broadcast of a politically incorrect view.

Within three days of this apparently blasphemous tweet, the award-winning journalist was shown the door by CNN despite her "explanatory" blog statement on the news major's website that she only held Fadlallah in high regard in her capacity as an Arab woman who rarely hears feminist advocacy from bearded religious authorities. But Nasr's time had run out, as the Jewish lobby in the United States and the Israeli media slipped into overdrive to denounce her as a cryptic supporter of a militant movement designated by the US as a terrorist group.

Nasr's ouster after 20 years of decorated service at CNN is a testimony to the finite tolerance of the moral police in the secular US towards voicing opinions deemed contrary to Israel's core security interests. It also opens a window into the increasing transfer of political mind control battles onto the Internet. Nasr could probably have gotten away by holding Fadlallah in her good books if not for her Twittering penchant and the supposed freedom of expression unleashed by the explosion of web-based social networking. Instead of universally strengthening individual liberties, new Internet platforms may be aiding group conformity.

Not to be outdone by the flutter caused by Nasr's removal from CNN, a diplomatic flap unfolded days after Fadlallah's earthly journey ended. Britain's ambassador to Lebanon Frances Guy commented on her blog that the ayatollah's death was a sad development and that he was "a true man of religion", "a decent man" whose ilk the world "needs more".

The furor that followed was predictable. Israel's Foreign Ministry hit back at Guy for her indiscretion and admonished her to decide "whether promoting terror and giving it religious justification can be considered a heritage to be cherished". The discomfiting blog was removed by the British Foreign Office shortly after, and Guy apologized for "upsetting people".

Taking liberties to speak one's mind on politically charged subjects on the Internet, regardless of position and institutional limitations, has become hazardous of late. Two young American diplomats, who prized their cyber-celebrity status as "Twitterers" with hundreds of thousands of online readers, were recently "rapped on the knuckles" by their bosses for their frivolous-sounding posts made while on a recent technical delegation they accompanied to Syria.

According to the New York Times, their playful Twitter musings - about drinking the "greatest" Frappuccino (iced coffee trademarked by the Starbucks chain) at a university near Damascus and inviting Syria's communications minister to a cake-eating contest - "embarrassed the State Department" and rankled the congressional hawks who despise engagement with Syria.

The fact that Syria remains listed as a state sponsor of terrorism by the US government added to the embarrassment of the bloopers from the junior diplomats, Jared Cohen and Alec Ross, who seemed to convey bonhomie and ease in interaction with a stubbornly anti-Israel regime that has been subject to American economic sanctions.

Outside the Middle East, Twittering habits have caught the flamboyant but unsuspecting Indian ex-foreign minister and member of parliament Shashi Tharoor in a bind. While in office, Tharoor was a prolific Twitterer who justified his posts as a means to connect to his voters, constituents and the wider public on India's international relations. Sadly, his unorthodox openness ruffled India's hidebound political class, which is hardly saintly but strives to protect a hypocritically pristine image in the public realm.

Tharoor's tongue-in-cheek tweet in September 2009 about happily traveling in "cattle class" (economy category) by air was met with a rebuke from his Congress party as "unacceptable" and in poor taste to local sensitivities about social hierarchies and holy animals in India.

Further online posts on a host of political topics such as India's travel visa rules and the foreign policy of the country's first prime minister are believed to have hardened disapproval within the Congress party and loaded the dice against "Twitteroor", culminating in his resignation from the central government earlier this year.

Quite contrary to the much celebrated advent of unlimited self-expression and exhibitionism afforded by "web 2.0" technologies, there has been a determined pushback from political establishments against the Internet-driven undermining of their power bases. Overt censorship and the punishment of dissident thought is growing apace with the millions of new Facebook and Twitter users who are flooding cyberspace with their overwhelming desire to disclose their thoughts. The openness and wildfire-like spread of Internet-based social networking has made it a powerful arena for individuals wishing to let off steam or subtly transform structures.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, who personifies political cautiousness, has justified his decision not to hop onto the Twitter fad by saying "too many twits might make a twat". But staying tight-lipped on the worldwide web is no guarantee that a public figure can escape the unrelenting eye of a media saturated world.

An impromptu slur against a voter as a "bigoted woman" before the British general elections by the then-prime minister Gordon Brown was caught on microphone and sped up his political doom. The "locker room chats" insulting top civilian leaders in the Barack Obama administration by the former US military commander in Afghanistan General Stanley McChrystal and his confidantes were splashed not on Twitter or Facebook but in a left-leaning American print magazine, Rolling Stone.

Yet, the onset of social networking has multiplied the threat of "exposure" for political personalities. The speed with which Brown and McChrystal's gaffes were transferred from traditional media onto the Internet via millions of pages and blogs left them scant breathing space to contain the damage.

United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's boast during her presidential primary campaign in 2008 of directly experiencing the war environment in Bosnia during the 1990s was rubbished as a lie by alert political opponents who dug out the relevant video footage and posted it on YouTube.

The stereotypical "I was misquoted" line of defense no longer sells when every word of what a bigwig says or types is reproduced instantaneously on thousands of online forums.

Political faux pas are here to grow exponentially in an invasive era where privacy is being battered on an unprecedented scale via linked information networks. The Internet leads the trend as a double-edged sword, ie as a liberator from the stranglehold of conservative governments, traditional newspapers and magazines, and as an equally potent weapon in the hands of peeved establishments that now have tweets as smoking guns to discipline loose cannons.

Sreeram Chaulia is associate professor of world politics at the OP Jindal Global University in Sonipat, India.

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