Menus Subscribe Search

Social Media – The U.S. Government’s Conflicted Response

• February 17, 2011 • 12:30 PM

The U.S. government has an awkward relationship with social media, praising its use in Egypt and suing in its use for WikiLeaks.

Hillary Clinton gave the second major speech of her State Department tenure this week on the importance of Internet freedom throughout the world, a popular theme in the wake of uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East that now seem impossible to imagine pre-Twitter.

“Together, the freedoms of expression, assembly and association online comprise what I have called the freedom to connect,” Clinton said in comments at George Washington University. “The United States supports this freedom for people everywhere, and we have called on other nations to do the same.”

Her remarks celebrated Egyptian activists while wagging a finger at China, Myanmar and Iran. But for all the attention paid to foreign autocrats who censor Web searches, block social media sites and monitor activists online, one note in Clinton’s comments felt a bit off-key. The U.S. government has an awkward relationship itself to the Internet these days — not the least of which with Twitter — and that reality could blunt some of Clinton’s message at home and abroad.

In an irony not lost on many tweeting commentators, Clinton began her speech Tuesday barely an hour after lawyers for the Department of Justice were wrapping up arguments in a courtroom across town in a case pitting the government squarely against Twitter. The DOJ wants the site to hand over the personal account information of several subscribers (one is American, one Dutch and one a member of the Icelandic parliament) associated with WikiLeaks, as part of a broader grand jury investigation into leaked government documents.
[class name="dont_print_this"]

Idea Lobby

THE IDEA LOBBY
Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

[/class]
The government first requested the records in December under a gag order preventing Twitter from informing even the effected subscribers that their information had been subpoenaed. First Amendment and privacy advocates have railed against the move. But most notably, lawyers for the three have decried the DOJ’s secrecy. If the government subpoenas information about users’ electronic communications, lawyers for the ACLU have argued, those people should at least have the chance to fight the order in court.

Against the backdrop of Clinton’s speech, the case makes it look as if one arm of the U.S. government is embracing the very aspects of Twitter that it hopes can help protesters connect around repressive regimes, while another arm is back in the states exploiting the connections activists of a different kind have built on the networking site.

Toward the first goal, the State Department in the past week has unveiled new Arabic and Farsi language Twitter feeds to outmaneuver censoring regimes that a generation ago might have been bypassed only by aerial leaflets or Voice of America radio.  On the Farsi feed, the State Department is offering words of encouragement for opposition activists planning a new round of protests in Iran.

“U.S. State Dept recognizes historic role of social media among Iranians. We want to join in your conversations,” the opening volley read.

“U.S. calls on Iran to allow people to enjoy the same universal rights to peacefully assemble, demonstrate as in Cairo,” broadcasted another.

Tuesday, Clinton announced more local feeds on the way, notably in Chinese, Russian and Hindi. “This is enabling us,” she said, “to have real-time two-way conversations with people wherever there is a connection that governments do not block.”

Clinton seemed aware of the perception of a U.S. double standard on Internet freedom, even as she dismissed the concern Tuesday. “Fundamentally,” she said, “the WikiLeaks incident began with an act of theft.” That case, in other words, has little to do with the principles for Internet freedom she outlined this week.

“Let me be clear,” she went on. “I said that we would have denounced WikiLeaks if it had been executed by smuggling papers in a briefcase. The fact that WikiLeaks used the Internet is not the reason we criticized it. Wikileaks does not challenge our commitment to Internet freedom.”

In China on Wednesday, U.S. embassy employees tried to start a conversation about Clinton’s speech on local micro-blogging sites (Twitter is banned there). Chinese authorities, though, quickly took down the posts, illustrating that conversations about censorship are just as easy to censor as any others. It’s easy to imagine, though, countries like China deploying another tactic that may be familiar to human-rights activists — questioning America’s authority to preach to other countries about principles it doesn’t uphold perfectly at home.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

More From Emily Badger

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 26 • 4:00 PM

Marching in Sync May Increase Aggression

Another danger of militarizing the police: Marching in lock step doesn’t just intimidate opponents. It impacts the mindset of the marchers.


August 26 • 3:03 PM

The Best Reporting on the Federal Push to Militarize Local Police With Riot Gear, Armored Vehicles, and Assault Rifles

A few facts you might have missed about the flow of military equipment and tactics to local law enforcement.


August 26 • 2:00 PM

How the Other 23 Percent Live

Almost one-fourth of all children in the United States are now living in poverty, an increase of three million kids since 2005.


August 26 • 12:00 PM

Why Sports Need Randomness

Noah Davis talks to David Sally, one of the authors of The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong, about how uncertainty affects and enhances the games we watch.


August 26 • 10:00 AM

Honor: The Cause of—and Solution to—All of Society’s Problems

Recent research on honor culture, associated with the American South and characterized by the need to retaliate against any perceived improper conduct, goes way beyond conventional situations involving disputes and aggression.



August 26 • 8:00 AM

The Transformative Effects of Bearing Witness

How witnessing inmate executions affects those who watch, and how having an audience present can also affect capital punishment process and policy.



August 26 • 7:15 AM

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.


August 26 • 6:00 AM

Redesigning Birth Control in the Developing World

How single-use injectable contraceptives could change family planning in Africa.


August 26 • 4:15 AM

How Gay Men Feel About Aging

Coming to terms with growing old can be difficult in the gay community. But middle-aged men are inventing new strategies to cope.


August 25 • 4:00 PM

What to Look for In Dueling Autopsies of Michael Brown

The postmortem by Michael Baden is only the beginning as teams of specialists study the body of an 18-year-old African American killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri.


August 25 • 2:00 PM

Thoughts That Can’t Be Thought and Ideas That Can’t Be Formed: The Promise of Smart Drugs

Are we asking the right questions about smart drugs? Marek Kohn looks at what they can do for us—and what they can’t.


August 25 • 12:00 PM

Does Randomness Actually Exist?

Our human minds are incapable of truly answering that question.


August 25 • 10:31 AM

Cesareans Are Still Best for Feet-First Babies

A new study confirms that surgery is the safest way to deliver a breech fetus.


August 25 • 10:00 AM

What Can Hurricanes Teach Us About Socioeconomic Mobility?

Hurricane Katrina wrought havoc on New Orleans but, nine years later, is there a silver lining to be found?


August 25 • 8:00 AM

How Low Voter Turnout Helps Public Employees

To a surprising degree, as voter turnout goes down, public employee compensation goes up.


August 25 • 6:00 AM

Beyoncé Isn’t an Anti-Feminist Terrorist

A new book called Staging the Blues shows she’s embracing a tradition of multi-dimensional stardom, rather than one racist trope.


August 25 • 4:00 AM

A Tale of Two Abortion Wars

While pro-life activists fight to rescue IVF embryos from the freezer, pregnant women in their third trimester with catastrophic fetal anomalies have nowhere to turn.


August 22 • 4:00 PM

The Invention of the Illegal Immigrant

It’s only fairly recently that we started to use the term that’s so popular right now.



August 22 • 2:00 PM

What Can U.S. Health Care Learn From the Ebola Outbreak?

A conversation with Jeanine Thomas, patient advocate, active member of ProPublica’s Patient Harm Facebook Community, and founder and president of the MRSA Survivors Network.


August 22 • 1:22 PM

Two Executions and the Unity of Mourning

The recent deaths of Michael Brown and James Foley, while worlds apart, are both emblematic of the necessity for all of us to fight to uphold the sanctity of human dignity and its enduring story.


August 22 • 10:00 AM

Turbo Paul: Art Thief Turned Art Crime Ombudsman

There’s art theft, there’s law enforcement, and, somewhere in between, there’s Turbo Paul.


August 22 • 8:00 AM

When Climate Change Denial Refutes Itself

The world is warming—and record-cold winters are just another symptom.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

How Gay Men Feel About Aging

Coming to terms with growing old can be difficult in the gay community. But middle-aged men are inventing new strategies to cope.

Cesareans Are Still Best for Feet-First Babies

A new study confirms that surgery is the safest way to deliver a breech fetus.

The Impossibility of the Night Shift

Many night workers get “shift-work sleep disorder.” And no one knows how to treat it.

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There's heightened functional connectivity between the brain's emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.