The diplomats in Cairo, apparently attempting to wield the power of social media for public diplomacy, put out official tweets with an unusually conversational tone.
Security forces guard the U.S. embassy in Cairo. (Reuters)
American diplomat Larry Schwartz has gotten himself into some trouble this week. A senior public affairs officer at the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Schwartz on Tuesday wrote a much-discussed memo stating that the embassy "condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims," as well as several defensive tweets, some of which he later deleted. For example: "This morning's condemnation (issued before protests began) still stands. As does condemnation of unjustified breach of the Embassy." Romney condemned the "apology," as he described it, and the White House quickly disavowed the memo.
State Department officials back in Washington, it turns out, had reviewed the memo and explicitly told Schwartz not to publish it, which he did anyway. "Frankly, people here did not understand it," a State Department official toldForeign Policy's Josh Rogin. "The statement was just tone deaf. It didn't provide adequate balance. We thought the references to the 9/11 attacks were inappropriate, and we strongly advised against the kind of language that talked about 'continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.'"
Tuesday's controversial tweets from the @USEmbassyCairo account, which Schwartz reportedly runs, were unusually provocative and political but otherwise generally consistent with the feed's noticeably conversational tone. American embassies acrosstheglobehavetaken to Twitter over the last year or two, an impressive soft power outreach to citizens of foreign countries, but the Cairo feed has stood out. Other feeds, even when they tweet frequently, tend to take the staid tone of official diplomacy, tweeting press releases, quotes from U.S. officials, and relevant headlines.
Not Cairo. The official Twitter account for the embassy to Egypt often engages directly with Egyptian Twitter users and with American journalists in Egypt, replying to their questions or forwarding their tweets. The feed can at times feel less like an outlet for official embassy news than the personal account of an American who happens to be working at the embassy. It quotes or mourns famous authors, sends out silly links about "tweeting plants!!," makes pointed references to West Wingepisodes (one of which seemed to criticize Egypt's decision to adopt an American-style presidential system), hashtags heavily, and asks, for example, "How is everyone out there on Twitter today?"
If Schwartz oversees the embassy's official Twitter feed, as Foreign Policy reported, then it's worth considering whether his unusually personal, informal style on Twitter might also inform his decision to so brazenly publish Tuesday's memo against the wishes of the State Department. After all, Schwartz grew visibly more comfortable over time in using the Twitter feed as an outlet that increasingly reflected his voice and, on issues often banal but sometimes consequential, his point of view. That this might carry over to a press release about the length of three tweets wouldn't seem shocking. If nothing else, by going forward with the memo despite the State Department specific instructions not to, Schwartz seemed to feel comfortable, in that instance, making the decision for himself as to what the American embassy would say publicly.
Despite yesterday's backlash, the U.S. embassy to Egypt's particular Twitter style seems to be continuing. The account has tweeted 25 times since Tuesday's controversy over the embassy's memo and tweets, which apparently drew Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's personal involvement and public comment from President Obama in an interview. More than half of those have been responses to other accounts. I don't know whether or not Schwartz is still involved in the account, but the account got into a surprisingly heated, somewhat bitchy exchange with the official Twitter account for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, with which Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi is strongly affiliated:
.@ikhwanweb Thanks. By the way, have you checked out your own Arabic feeds? I hope you know we read those too.
Twitter is a social medium, and it both encourages informality and rewards users who embrace that more conversational style. It does not reward users who put out only staid press releases and official statement. The diplomats who run the account of the U.S. embassy to Egypt seems to have understood this, attempting to master Twitter's more conversation style to maximize its public diplomacy potential. But one problem with this is that, if succeeding on Twitter outreach means running the feed like a real person instead of a faceless bureaucrat, does that make the feed reflect the individual behind it more than the broader United States and United States government, which is what the feed and embassy are meant to represent?
More social interaction and more informality is a good thing in social media terms, but the goal of the @USEmbassyCairo feed is presumably not to be good at social media, it's to be good at official government diplomacy. Those aren't always the same thing. The minor Twitter spat above, and maybe this week's imbroglio over the tweets that State Department officials seem to consider ill-considered, are a reminder that this approach, for all its success, also has downsides and risks.
What went wrong with the conversion ministry, according to Alan Chambers, who once led its largest organization
In 2001, Alan Chambers was hired as the president of the world’s largest ex-gay ministry, Exodus International. That same year, U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher issued a report that stated, “there is no valid evidence showing that sexual orientation can be changed.”
Like most conservative Christian leaders at the time, Chambers considered the countercultural nature of his work a point of pride. During the latter part of the 20th century, Exodus and similar conservative groups promoted the idea that gay people could—and should try to—become straight. Ex-gay leaders traveled to churches and appeared on television news programs citing a litany of examples of happily married “former homosexuals” to demonstrate that sexual orientation is a choice and that change is possible.
National Geographic Magazine has opened its annual photo contest, with the deadline for submissions coming up on November 16, 2015.
National Geographic Magazine has opened its annual photo contest, with the deadline for submissions coming up on November 16, 2015. The Grand Prize Winner will receive $10,000 and a trip to National Geographic headquarters to participate in its annual photography seminar. The kind folks at National Geographic were once again kind enough to let me choose among the contest entries so far for display here. Captions written by the individual photographers.
Forget the Common Core, Finland’s youngsters are in charge of determining what happens in the classroom.
“The changes to kindergarten make me sick,” a veteran teacher in Arkansas recently admitted to me. “Think about what you did in first grade—that’s what my 5-year-old babies are expected to do.”
The difference between first grade and kindergarten may not seem like much, but what I remember about my first-grade experience in the mid-90s doesn’t match the kindergarten she described in her email: three and a half hours of daily literacy instruction, an hour and a half of daily math instruction, 20 minutes of daily “physical activity time” (officially banned from being called “recess”) and two 56-question standardized tests in literacy and math—on the fourth week of school.
That American friend—who teaches 20 students without an aide—has fought to integrate 30 minutes of “station time” into the literacy block, which includes “blocks, science, magnetic letters, play dough with letter stamps to practice words, books, and storytelling.” But the most controversial area of her classroom isn’t the blocks nor the stamps: Rather, it’s the “house station with dolls and toy food”—items her district tried to remove last year. The implication was clear: There’s no time for play in kindergarten anymore.
The country has seen periods of turmoil before. But this time may be different.
I am usually an optimist when it comes to Turkey’s future. Indeed, I wrote a whole book about The Rise of Turkey. But these days, I’m worried. The country faces a toxic combination of political polarization, government instability, economic slowdown, and threats of violence—from both inside and outside Turkey—that could soon add up to a catastrophe. The likelihood of that outcomeis increasing amid Russia’s bombing raids in Syria in support of its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which threaten to debilitate the moderate rebels and boost the extremists in Syria’s civil war, while leaving Turkey to deal with two unruly neighbors: Assad and ISIS.
Of course, Turkey has gone through periods of political and economic crisis before. During the 1970s, the country’s economy collapsed, and the instability led to fighting among right- and left-wing militant groups and security forces that killed thousands of people. Then, in the 1990s, Turkey was pummeled by triple-digit inflation and a full-blown Kurdish insurgency that killed tens of thousands. Turkey survived both those decades. The historian in me says that Turkey will be able to withstand the coming shock this time as well.
Here’s what happens if astronomers make contact with a civilization on another planet.
The false alarm happened in 1997.
The Green Bank Radio Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia, was picking up some unusual signals—and Seth Shostak, then the head of the Center for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Research in Mountain View, Caifornia, was convinced that they had come from intelligent life somewhere in the universe.
“It looked like it might be the real deal,” Shostak recalled. Within a few hours, he had a call from The New York Times.
But within a day, it became clear that the source of excitement was actually a European satellite. To make matters worse, a second telescope in Georgia, which would have told the scientists about the true nature of the signal, wasn’t working.
Many high-school graduates must choose between two bad options: a four-year program for which they’re not academically or emotionally prepared, or job-specific training that might put a ceiling on their careers.
Two years ago, my nephew was set to graduate from Maryland’s Towson University with a degree in political science. After six long years, both he and his parents were ready to breathe a sigh of relief—he had made it to the finish line. He had never been excited about school, and his parents had worried about his lack of enthusiasm, wishing he could be engaged in something that ignited his curiosity and provided him more of a motivation to focus, something more hands-on and practical. But they also knew that without a bachelor’s degree, my nephew’s ability to move into a rewarding career, earn a middle-class salary, and enjoy some economic security would be very limited. And they worried that if he didn’t complete that degree before he turned 25, he likely never would (a reasonable concern, given national statistics on college completion). Determined to launch him into adulthood with the strongest possible foundation they could, they persuaded him to go to college and crossed their fingers.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
“Vaccine hesitancy” is a delicate way of phrasing a serious public-health problem. The World Health Organization defines it as “delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccines despite availability of vaccination services.”
There’s a tendency to treat these vaccine-hesitant people as a monolith, the “anti-vaxers” who are putting everyone at risk. But people who don’t vaccinate aren’t just a homogenous mob of parents who fear toxins and want their kids to be exposed to chicken pox “the natural way.” There are a variety of reasons why people decide not to vaccinate, and a new paper by researchers at Rutgers University and Germany’s University of Erfurt and RWTH Aachen University, published in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, breaks down the psychology of four different types of non-vaccinators, in the hopes of finding effective strategies to change their minds.
News organizations spread false information about a U.S. airstrike that hit an Afghan hospital, as a result of untruths that came from unnamed government sources.
On Saturday, an American airstrike hit a Médecins Sans Frontières (also known as Doctors Without Borders) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Twelve staff members and 10 patients were killed. Three of the patients were children. NPR reported that some of the victims “burned to death as they lay in their beds.” Tens of thousands of Afghans lost their city’s only free trauma hospital, which will likely lead to even more deaths.
Why did this happen?
As Médecins Sans Frontières demanded answers the U.S. government spread false information.
“Their description of the attack keeps changing—from collateral damage, to a tragic incident, to now attempting to pass responsibility to the Afghanistan government,” the nonprofit said Monday in a statement. “The reality is the U.S. dropped those bombs. The U.S. hit a huge hospital full of wounded patients and MSF staff. The U.S. military remains responsible for the targets it hits, even though it is part of a coalition. There can be no justification for this horrible attack.”
The Red Planet once had an ocean and a magnetic field. A new mission is setting out to discover what happened to them.
The question of whether there is life on Mars is woven into a much larger thatch of mysteries. Among them: What happened to the ancient ocean that once covered a quarter of the planet’s surface? And, relatedly, what made Mars’s magnetosphere fade away? Why did a planet that may have looked something like Earth turn into a dry red husk?
“We see magnetized rocks on the Mars surface,” said Bruce Banerdt, the principal investigator of the InSight mission to Mars, which is set to launch in March. “And so we know Mars had a magnetic field at one time, but it doesn't today. We would like to know the history—when that magnetic field started, when it may have shut down.”
There are a few leading theories about what decimated the planet’s magnetism. One of them is that huge asteroids bombarded Mars until its magnetic field turned off. That storm of asteroids may have included one enormous rock in particular, even bigger than the one believed to have wiped out Earth’s dinosaurs. Another theory explores the possibility that Mars’s ancient magnetic field only ever covered one of its hemispheres, an idea that would also explain how the planet’s magnetism weakened over time. “The presence of a magnetic field is key to understanding the history of Mars’s atmosphere, which of course is key to habitability on Mars’s surface,” Banerdt told me.