LAST UPDATED: 9/15/12
To say that the world has been in an uproar this week would be a generous description. If you haven’t followed the news, a crude and poorly made 15 minute anti-Islamic movie trailer originating from California went viral on YouTube. “Innocence of Muslims” incited so much rage that it led to the deaths of a U.S. foreign ambassador and three other Americans in Libya and two U.S. Marines in Afghanistan. Americans and U.S. embassies have been under siege as outraged Muslims across the Middle East have violently protested since Wednesday.
One of those protesting countries is Egypt, and I find President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brother’s position in this difficult situation especially interesting. From a public relations standpoint, Egypt’s government has another crisis aside from its enraged citizens. The United States helped liberate the Egyptian people and backed the leadership/legitimacy of the Muslim Brotherhood political party in the deeply religious and traditional country’s new democracy. The government, and its communications department, has the difficult job of tactfully balancing its two important relationships; and I am very interested to see how President Morsi and his officials handle this crisis.
While protesters break through the walls at the American Embassy in Cairo, Mr. Morsi is receiving heavy pressure from the U.S. to strongly condemn the violence. At the start of the protests, the Egyptian government remained fairly silent. I say fairly because on its official Arabic Twitter account, it posted tweets affirming the offended and outraged opinion of its people. After a serious phone call from Obama, Mr. Morsi’s top strategist set out to do damage control on their official English-language Twitter account, however the conflicting messages were bluntly mocked by the U.S. Embassy.
From a public relations perspective, I see their government’s struggle. There are so many eggshells for avoid when your crisis involves disrespect to the majority of your nation’s faith and threats to your international relationships. Aside from those landmines, the decisions Mr. Morsi and the government make will define their term in office. If the Egyptian people feel that their government is too influenced by international politics to correctly defend them against slander, Mr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood probably won’t go down well in Egypt’s history books. The pressure would be daunting for anyone.
I’m interested to see if the government can persuade its angry citizens to end their violence towards the scapegoats of a group of anti-Islam activists’ distasteful exercise of freedom of speech. Egypt’s relationship with the U.S. depends on it, since President Obama said in an interview with Telemundo that the U.S. does not consider Egypt as an ally, though not an enemy either.
Another party in the middle of a crisis is Google, owner of YouTube and gatekeeper to a large portion of the Internet. YouTube only removes content containing hate speech, a violation of its terms of service, or content in response to court orders or government requests.
That is why the company’s decision to block access to the video in Egypt and Libya is very unusual, and interesting. YouTube’s situation centers on fundamental questions of online content control. The company has some difficult and uncomfortable decisions to make in the next few weeks, especially since Washington asked YouTube to review the video for violations of its terms of service, and those decisions will determine the degrees of censorship exercised with online content and its consequences.
Although blocking the video in Egypt and Libya is understandable, the issue does not end there for YouTube. According to Kevin Bankston, director of the free expression project at the Center for Democracy and Technology,
any censorship “sends the message that if you violently object to speech you disagree with, you can get it censored.”
According to YouTube, hate speech is that towards individuals, not groups. The video mocks Islam but not the Muslim people directly, which is the company’s reason why it has yet to be removed from YouTube’s website.
We discussed the topic of our First Amendment right as Americans in my ethics class the Monday before the violence began, and even then it was clear that the boundaries of freedom of speech are hazy. Where is the boundary for creative expression (or lack of it in the case of the suspected filmmaker‘s inflammatory video) and personal opinion and at what point is censorship a violation of our rights?
On the other hand, I’m sure many people across all religions consider both their ancient and modern prophets as legitimate religious leaders and individuals, so that could be argued as grounds for the video’s removal, per YouTube’s policy. Only time will tell us the outcome, and I’ll be closely following the news for the results.