Why CSIS’ Twitter faux pas was worse than that time the Red Cross got slizzerd

As police and protesters clashed in Ferguson in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, the Twitter account for the Center for Strategic and International Studies seems to have told Amnesty International to "suck it."

Amnesty International sent a delegation to the Missouri city last week to offer community support and to monitor the police response to the protests.

The CSIS tweet has since been deleted -- but not before people grabbed screen captures of the exchange over police treatment of protesters in Ferguson between the human rights organization and the foreign policy-focused  think tank.

CSIS appears to have acknowledged the tweet -- sending out an apology to Amnesty and its followers:

Andrew Schwartz, senior vice president of external relations at CSIS, said that he's personally embarrassed by the incident and that his colleagues are "equally distressed." The tweet, he said, "was sent by a CSIS intern who had access to our account for monitoring purposes."

The intern made a classic social media faux pas, Schwartz said: "He meant to send something reflecting his personal views from his personal Twitter account," but instead sent it from the think tank's account. While Schwartz did not comment specifically on repercussions the intern might face, it didn't sound good: "I find his views and the way he expressed them to be abhorrent and will take appropriate action at CSIS to address the matter internally," he told The Post, adding that CSIS has also reached out to Amnesty outside of Twitter to offer an apology. Schwartz also noted that the organization is working on alternative social media management protocols.

Social media managers will no doubt feel some sympathy for the intern, who's not the first person to mix up personal and professional accounts to cringeworthy results. In a similar account mix-up back in 2011, the person managing the America Red Cross Twitter account tweeted about a plan to get "slizzerd" -- or drunk -- on a recently discovered cache of Dogfish head beer. The Red Cross deleted the "rogue tweet" -- but took a humorous approach, noting that they were tweeting sober and had "confiscated the keys" to the account. It worked: Many took pity on the group, and Dogfish Head started encouraging blood donations from its fans.

Obviously, there are some limits to the parallels: The Red Cross accidentally tweeted about some off-hour fun. CSIS, on the other hand, accidentally insulted a well respected human rights organization while endorsing a specific (and sometimes controversial) foreign policy tactic as protesters were literally running from tear gas on the streets of Ferguson. So a somber apology probably was the best way for CSIS to handle the situation.

But perhaps what's most damning about the think tank's slip-up is that readers might believe there was a grain of truth in the rogue tweet as far as policy strategy, if not the profane suggestion: While not the most hawkish of think tanks, some CSIS experts do seem to be in favor of an interventionist approach to foreign policy. In fact, the group's Internet home page is currently promoting commentary from Anthony Cordesman, the Burke Chair in Strategy at the institution and a former director of intelligence assessment in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, titled "Iraq: A Time to Act."

So, members of the public might be forgiven for thinking that the intern who was said to be behind the problem had simply made the mistake of expressing what those on the inside actually think -- in fact, some Twitter users have suggested just that.

Schwartz, however, noted that CSIS is a nonpartisan, independent research institution that "does not take positions as a whole" and that the group's scholars have a "have a wide range of positions regarding intervention, and their opinions are their own."

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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