This international incident has been brought to you by YouTube and Twitter

The attacks on the US in Egypt and Libya -- and Mitt Romney's unfortunate response to them -- are an object lesson in how not to use social media

When politics collide with social media, the results are often disastrous and sometimes tragic. The anti-American protests in Cairo this week, the attack on the US Consulate in Libya, and the fallout affecting the US presidential race – all have their roots in YouTube and Twitter.

You may already know this story. If not, here’s a quick summary, starting with the video.

Last July, a guy calling himself Sam Bacile (real name Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a convicted fraudster) posted a 14-minute “trailer” for a film he made called “Innocence of Muslims” on YouTube. It’s a nasty piece of propaganda that is laughably bad and seems solely designed to tick off as many devout Muslims as possible. (It’s still available on YouTube as I write this, but I’m not linking to it. Search for “The Muhammad Movie” and you should find it.)

Fortunately at the time almost no one saw it. Unfortunately, a conservative provocateur named Morris Sadek overdubbed it with an Arabic soundtrack and posted it on YouTube last week, then blogged about it. An Egyptian TV station played a clip from it on air. That’s when the video went viral – and things got ugly.

A US embassy official in Cairo, Larry Schwartz, attempted to stave off an angry mob from gathering by condemning the video on Twitter. His tweets didn’t work. A few hours later the mob managed to enter the embassy compound, burning American flags and creating mayhem.

On the same day – the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks – armed militia attacked the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killing four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. Some of the soldiers cited the YouTube video as the reason they attacked.

(Personally I am doubtful this attack was a spontaneous reaction to the video; judging from the news reports and the timing, it seemed too large and too well coordinated. But I digress.)

A few hours later the Mitt Romney campaign saw the tweets from the US embassy and seized upon them, accusing the Obama administration of sympathizing with the protestors, even though a) the tweets came before the attacks, and b) they weren’t sent or endorsed by the White House. As I write this the Romney camp has yet to back down on these claims.

Foreign Policy magazine has a great breakdown of what led to Schwartz’s Twitter fiasco, which in turn led to what could be an unfortunate turning point for the Republicans in this campaign.

According to FP, Schwartz took it upon himself to tweet out responses to the video, despite the fact that the State Department urged him not to, and continued to so do well into the morning.

Per FP’s anonymous source inside State:

"People at the highest levels both at the State Department and at the White House were not happy with the way the statement went down. There was a lot of anger both about the process and the content," the official said. "Frankly, people here did not understand it. The statement was just tone deaf. It didn't provide adequate balance. We thought the references to the 9/11 attacks were inappropriate, and we strongly advised against the kind of language that talked about ‘continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.'"

It could be that the real story is different, that the State Department is spinning as fast as it can and decided to throw Schwartz under the bus. In any case, though, today’s lesson in social media best practices remains the same: Be. Careful. What. You. Tweet.

If your bosses tell you not to say it, it’s probably a good idea to listen to them. If you can’t really say it in 140 characters, maybe you shouldn’t try to. The ramifications can be quite vast and unexpected.

You can’t do much about what other people will do or say on YouTube. The only response is to use other social media – really, as many types of social media as you can muster, along with traditional media -- to get your message out. You certainly can’t rely on one, especially one with such limited bandwidth.

And then all you can do is batten down the hatches, hoping the doors will hold and sanity will eventually return.

Got a question about social media? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blog eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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