Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Tweet Heard Round The World

So International Burn a Koran Day has been called off. I'm sure that comes as a relief to Emergency Action Committees in U.S. embassies around the world. But, before IBAKD becomes yesterday's news, it is well worth taking a look at how the whole brouhaha got spun up in the first place.

One of Foreign Policy's bloggers completely missed the point when he remarked about the ruckus:

All it takes is a few crazy people to command public debate. Which, if you think about it, is pretty nuts. When, exactly, did U.S. leaders become obligated to comment on the actions of a few nutballs?

Wrong! What IBAKD teaches us is that all it takes to command public debate is a few crazy people plus Twitter and Facebook. Fortunately, the WaPo is on top of the situation and has a great article today about what we might call Publicity Stunts 2.0, or, how social media is indispensable to creating an international incident today.

From the WaPo:

On the afternoon of July 12, the Rev. Terry Jones fired off a series of messages on Twitter, decrying Islam as fascism and President Obama's support for a new Kenyan constitution that could permit abortion and codify Islamic law. His final one for the day said this: 9/11/2010 Int Burn a Koran Day.

With that abbreviated declaration, the fringe pastor from Gainesville, Fla., began a crusade that two months later culminated in deadly riots in Afghanistan, threats from jihadists and pleas from world leaders that Jones call off his inflammatory stunt.

-- snip --

Two days after Jones sent his tweet and started a Facebook group, an organization that monitors news about Islam rang the first alarm bell. EuroIslam.Info, a collection of news and analysis headed by a Harvard professor of divinity, picked up the Dove World mission statement - "To bring to awareness to the dangers of Islam and that the Koran is leading people to hell" - and posted it on its "Islamaphobia Observatory" section. By July 21, the Council on American-Islamic Relations was calling for Koran education sessions to refute the burnings.

On July 23, Jones was tweeting about having more than 700 Facebook friends for his International Burn a Koran group ... Still, the stunt caused little commotion domestically, even as senior officials within the FBI, the State Department and military intelligence watched warily for the news to inflame sentiment in the Middle East and Asia.

-- snip --

About the same time, in early August, Muslim Facebook users began receiving chain messages asking them to join groups formed to decry the plan to burn copies of Islam's holy book.

Shakir Stanikzai, 29, of Kabul was one of them. He said the issue didn't spark widespread anger in Afghanistan until about a week ago, after news media outlets in Muslim countries replayed that first Jones television interview, which also circulated on the Internet.

Notice how social media was indispensable to both sides in this conflict. The foreign Muslim opposition to IBAKD organized itself via Facebook and e-mail, the same way Jones organized his 700 fiery friends. Interest groups such as the Council on Islamic-American Relations played a role in Washington, but it was spontaneous virtual networks that called people to the streets in Afghanistan.

Next, General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, further elevated public attention when he appealed for cancellation of IBAKD during an interview with the Wall Street Journal. Today's WaPo story quotes an official close to Petraeus who "said Petraeus didn't dwell on whether weighing in on the issue could backfire by amplifying the reach of the story" because he saw it as a matter of force protection.

You would think that General Petraeus would have a crack media adviser who would make him dwell on exactly that. As in, "you do realize, General, that you might create the very reaction that you fear if you discuss IBAKD during a press interview?" What's up with that? Did he retain the same media advisers who worked for his predecessor and green-lighted that famous interview with Rolling Stone?

The WaPo points out that within days of Petraeus's interview even more senior U.S. officials weighed in:

Pleas for an end to the Koran-burning plan came in short order from the highest levels: Secretary of State Clinton; Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who made a curt call Thursday to Jones; and Obama.

It started with one little tweet from a pastor who was unknown outside of his 50-some person congregation, and before it was over, Cabinet officials were calling him in person and the President himself was making public appeals.

To answer Foreign Policy's question: when did U.S. leaders become obligated to comment on the actions of a few nutballs? When those nutballs learned how to use social media to have an effect all out of proportion to their numbers. And, I might add, when one of those U.S. leaders joined the fracas without giving much thought to whether or not his actions might backfire.

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