With the 2017 G-20 summit kicking off Friday, the week ahead will, presumably be a busy one for the U.S. State Department. But as some in the institution prepared (we hope) for that important meeting, others were busily proving that they have no idea how anything on the internet works.
In Ars Technica, David Kravets reports that Mark Lemley, director of Stanford Law School’s Program in Law, Science, and Technology, received a peculiar email from an unnamed official in the State Department’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs. In that message, the official solicited Lemley’s help in producing a “fake Twitter Feud” over intellectual property, a “feud” that would, ideally, also involve organizations like the Motion Picture Association of America and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. If that seems confusing, here’s how the official explained it to Lemley:
The week after the 4th of July, when everyone gets back from vacation but will still feel patriotic and summery, we want to tweet an audacious statement like, “Bet you couldn’t see the Independence Day fireworks without bifocals; first American diplomat Ben Franklin invented them #bestIPmoment @StateDept” Our public diplomacy office is still settling on a hashtag and a specific moment that will be unique to the State Department, but then we invite you to respond with your own #MostAmericanIP, or #BestIPMoment. Perhaps it will [be] an alumni [sic] defending intellectual property in the courts or an article that your institution has produced regarding this topic.
We’ll get to the profound strangeness of that paragraph in a minute, but here’s the bigger picture: The State Department—which indirectly confirmed the veracity of this email to Ars Technica—wants to get people on Twitter to care about intellectual property law by encouraging institutions to bicker about the best examples of it. Kravets describes this plan as a “propaganda plot,” though some of Ars Technica’s commentators may be more accurate in describing it as an example of astroturfing—an artificial attempt to fabricate the appearance widespread grass-roots support for some issue or cause.
The good news is that the State Department is apparently too incompetent to pull off anything that devious, not least of all because it clearly understands neither feuds nor Twitter. Exhibit A of this sad, silly truth it its proposed “audacious” first tweet. The first problem is that, all other things being equal (they are not), at 145 characters it is too long to work as a tweet. You could, of course, fix that by removing the State Department’s deployment of its own Twitter handle at the end, but even that wouldn’t begin to resolve the real issues with the statement.
Let’s be clear: Bifocals are a problem here. “Bet you couldn’t see the Independence Day fireworks without bifocals,” the proposed tweet reads—a bet that the State Department would surely lose. Millions may wear bifocals, but, as far as I could tell, none of them were on the Washington, D.C. rooftop where I watched this year’s explosive display. If everyone around you wears bifocals, it seems possible—just maybe—that your friends skew a little … older. And if everyone you know is older, it’s possible—just maybe—that you should talk to some younger folks before trying to manufacture a viral social media moment.
There’s also the weirdness of Ben Franklin’s place in that tweet. Where this campaign seems designed to promote intellectual property ownership rights, Franklin was famously opposed to IP restrictions, writing in his autobiography, “[A]s we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.” Consequently, he never claimed to own the idea of bifocals, meaning that this “#bestIPmoment” is nothing of the kind.
Meanwhile, the larger issue is that the State Department doesn’t seem to want a “feud,” despite its claims to the contrary—it just wants people to use a hashtag that it apparently hasn’t even settled on yet. A proper “feud” response to that Franklin tweet might go something like, “Keep Franklin’s IP-hating name out of your mouth, you astroturfing idiot.” But instead the proposal calls for a game of barely germane one-upmanship, in which institutions would try to explain why their people were the best at IP stuff. The model here is presumably viral spats between celebrities, but the State Department’s ideal would be more like four D-list actors tweeting about the best features in their houses while otherwise remaining polite and respectful. Now that’s viral gold!
In the background, though, there’s a larger and more serious question. Where this Twitter campaign seems focused on American institutions, the State Department’s Bureau of Economic Affairs has a more global mission. It’s worth asking, then, what it was hoping to achieve with this plan—and who it was trying to reach. Given the incompetence with which the plan was executed, however, it seems likely that we’ll never know.