|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
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
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
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
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,
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
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,
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