U.S. Response to Anti-Muslim Video Undermines Internet Freedom

U.S. Response to Anti-Muslim Video Undermines Internet Freedom

Cyberspace is often credited with having helped end decades of authoritarian rule in the Middle East. Some dubbed the Arab Spring the “Twitter Revolution” after protesters, particularly in Tunisia and Egypt, used the micro-blogging platform to coordinate action and broadcast reports, both among themselves and to the world. Just 18 months later, content posted to another social media platform has ostensibly driven large crowds into the streets throughout the Muslim world, this time to protest a movie depicting the Prophet Muhammad and Islam in an insulting light. In some cases, protesters formed into violent mobs, directing their ire at the United States and a few other Western nations.

In the immediate aftermath of the anti-American violence, attention focused on YouTube, a largely unmediated video-sharing website that hosted a trailer for the offending movie. Though largely ignored in the West, the movie drew the attention of two Egyptian satellite channels, which translated it and broadcast their analysis and criticism of the video trailer across Egypt. From there, awareness of the film and its reported insults to Islam spread like wildfire.

Most of the commentary on the protests has rightly noted that a range of developments and problems in the Muslim world had already primed the environment for the ensuing violence. Yet administration officials have focused on the video going viral as the nominal cause. The White House press secretary said, “This is not a case of protests directed at the United States writ large or at U.S. policy. This is in response to a video that is offensive.” Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice supported that interpretation in television appearances over the weekend, even attributing the lethal attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, to the video, while downplaying any substantive reason for the protests.

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