- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Every afternoon, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley takes to the lectern for the daily press briefing. He chooses his words with the care of a diplomat, always careful not to deviate from the line set by his superiors.

But a few times a day on the microblogging site Twitter, a looser Mr. Crowley emerges — one who revels in tweaking Obama administration foes in Washington and around the world, 140 characters at a time.

“#KimJongIl’s son attended an #EricClapton concert in Singapore? Actually, the #DearLeader himself would benefit from getting out more often,” @pjcrowley tweeted recently. (The symbol # marks a “hashtag,” letting users peruse tweets on that topic.)

“Of course, there is nothing preventing #KimJongIl from opening up #NorthKorea so his people could enjoy #Clapton, and maybe get more to eat,” he added.

On Saturday afternoon, Mr. Crowley took aim at the GOP.

“The #House budget severely cuts funding for #food #security as global food prices are spiking. What happened to compassionate #conservatism?” he tweeted. “The #House cuts in #ClimateChange funding are like canceling the #ark and assuring #Noah the weather forecast is wrong. Umbrella anyone?”

As the Iranian regime banned a protest this month while lauding the uprising in Egypt, he tweeted: “There is a certain irony about #Iran’s reaction to #Egypt. What is good for #TahrirSquare should be good for #Tehran.”

The recent revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, which relied heavily on social-media outlets, again proved Twitter’s effectiveness as a bottom-up tool for people to communicate with one another and the world. It is why some authoritarian governments, such as China and Syria, continue to block the site.

However, as demonstrated by Mr. Crowley and thousands of other government officials around the world who have begun tweeting over the past year, the site can be a top-down tool as well.

On Feb. 13, as anti-government activists in Bahrain used Twitter to gear up for a mass protest the next day, the country’s Interior Ministry joined the site.

“Illegal rally in Karzakan 3 policemen attacked, Police had to fire 2 rubber buttons. 1st as warning shot 2nd bounced & hit a demonstrator,” was its first English tweet.

Alternating between Arabic and English, the account (@moi_bahrain) proceeded to offer traffic tips — “Avoid using the streets leading to Lulu Roundabout because they are closed” — while engaging critics of the regime.

After barely a week in action, @moi_bahrain has nearly 6,000 followers. It is a respectable total, but a pittance when stacked against some of the world’s most popular government accounts.

The White House (@whitehouse) has nearly 2 million followers, while the president (@BarackObama) has 6.73 million. Only pop stars Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Britney Spears have more followers.

Jordan’s Queen Rania (@QueenRania), who describes herself in her Twitter bio as “A mum and a wife with a really cool day job,” has 1.45 million. Dubai emir Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum has 370,000.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (@chavezcandanga) — who reportedly has a team of 200 managing his account - clocks in at 1.24 million followers.

They are joined by, among countless others, the leaders of Russia (@MedvedevRussiaE), Canada (@pmharper), Turkey (@RT_Erdogan), Greece (@PrimeministerGR), Rwanda (@paulkagame), Malaysia (@NajibRazak), Thailand (@PM_Abhisit), Chile (@sebastianpinera), Denmark (@larsloekke), Belgium (@YLeterme), Israel (@netanyahu), New Zealand (@johnkeypm), and the Philippines (@noynoyaquino).

Kevin Rudd (@KRuddMP), Australia’s former prime minister and current foreign minister, is closing in on 1 million followers. Although successor Julia Gillard (@JuliaGillard) has amassed only 82,000 since joining in July, she — unlike other premiers — uses the site as a virtual town hall, answering questions, debunking claims of opponents and thanking people for words of support.

When one Australian tweeted at the premier on Jan. 29 — “@JuliaGillard When are you going to put this price on carbon? #soonplease! Also, is this really Julia tweeting?” — she quickly replied: “Yes it’s me. We will be pricing carbon through legislation during this Parliamentary term. JG.”

Ms. Gillard and other top officials take advantage of Twitter’s “verified account” feature to ensure that users can identify them among the masses of satirical accounts that mock various leaders — often with a humorous precision that makes it difficult to tell the difference.

Twitter is free, which makes it an appealing public relations tool in an age of austerity, but that has not stopped some countries from paying big bucks to get the most out of their tweets. In September, Israel reportedly paid a six-figure sum to a Miami-based pornographic website proprietor named Israel Melendez for the rights to the Twitter handle “@Israel.”

As North Korea learned the hard way, Twitter can be costly in another respect. In January, five months after the totalitarian regime opened its account (@uriminzok), a hacker gained access to it and ranted about the North Korean dictator’s spending on nuclear weapons and drinking parties “while 3 million people are starving and freezing to death.”

The impostor, like those now tweeting from Libya to Iran, called for revolution: “Let’s create a new world by rooting out our people’s sworn enemy Kim Jong-il and his son Kim Jong-un!”

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