US diplomats overseas were told Wednesday to suspend all social media posts given the mob assault on Capitol Hill in Washington, three diplomatic sources tell CNN, a step normally only taken during a terrorist attack or major natural disaster.
The under secretary for public affairs sent a note to US diplomatic posts overseas ordering them to “pause any planned context from your social media accounts” and remove any scheduled content set for release on Facebook, Hootsuite and Twitter until further notice.
The message, a copy of which was provided to CNN, said planned social media posts from flagship State Department accounts are also being frozen.
The directive came as some of the most shocking scenes in modern American political history played out globally across Twitter streams, Instagram and Facebook posts, and other social media platforms, as lawmakers and reporters inside the besieged Capitol, observers outside it and members of the mob themselves sent real-time updates and mayhem erupted.
With one or two exceptions, State Department accounts fell silent Wednesday, while foreign leaders used social media to share their disgust and sadness, feelings echoed by foreign envoys based in Washington and US diplomats overseas, who struggled to explain the mayhem in the seat of US democracy.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, following the lead of Vice President Mike Pence, Health and Human Secretary Alex Azar and national security adviser Robert O’Brien, used Twitter to condemn the supporters of President Donald Trump who overran and injured police, broke into the Capitol and occupied the Senate chamber as lawmakers were trying to formally mark President-elect Joe Biden’s election victory.
Disgust and sadness
Trump also continued to use social media – but to defend, address and encourage his supporters, repeating so many lies in one video about the election he lost that Facebook and YouTube took it down.
Twitter deleted three of his tweets “for repeated and severe violations of our Civic Integrity policy” and announced on Wednesday evening that it would freeze the President’s account for 12 hours.
In contrast, Pompeo said the actions at the Capitol were “unacceptable,” O’Brien called them an “utter disgrace” and Azar said he was “disgusted.”
Retired Gen. Joseph Dunford, Trump’s former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the breach of the Capitol an “outrageous assault on our democracy and a sad day for our Nation.” He added that “I believe our leaders who have continued to undermine a peaceful transition in accordance with our Constitution have set the conditions for today’s violence.”
Pete Hoekstra, the US ambassador to the Netherlands and a former Michigan lawmaker, made for one notable exception among US envoys, saying on Twitter that “for 18 years, the United States Capitol was my workplace. It breaks my heart to see what has transpired there today.”
An initial State Department message that instructed postings to freeze social media posts was followed by a second note to staff that said the freeze was happening at Pompeo’s direction and should be implemented in all bureaus.
A social media freeze of this sort is commonly ordered by department leadership when there is a terrorist attack or a massive natural disaster, such as an earthquake, and they do not want US missions posting about off-topic issues, a strong possibility since many offices schedule posts in advance.
Before Pompeo tweeted, hours after the destruction had begun and Pence had spoken out, US diplomats had been frustrated by the silence from the former House member from Kansas. When he spoke out, Pompeo tweeted that “violence, putting at risk the safety of others including those tasked with providing security for all of us, is intolerable both at home and abroad.”
“Let us swiftly bring justice to the criminals who engaged in this rioting,” continued Pompeo, who rarely if ever breaks with Trump.
The State Department has not responded to CNN’s questions about whether Pompeo watched the rioting, whether he had been briefed on the protests and when or whether overseas posts will be given guidance about Wednesday’s chaos.
Nearly a dozen foreign diplomats in Washington and US diplomats abroad told CNN they had watched in horror and disbelief as Trump supporters forcibly and violently overtook the US Capitol, saying the insurrection damages the image of American democracy and the nation’s standing in the world.
“It will certainly take time to recover from these images of democracy challenged,” said a senior foreign diplomat who called it a “shocking spectacle.”
Another foreign diplomat called the assault on the Capitol “appalling and so very saddening. The US was the benchmark of democratic governance and peaceful transitions of power. You will never be able to say something like that again.”
Many diplomats groped for words to express their incredulity. “This is just … ,” one foreign diplomat started, then fell silent. “We are such a great friend of this wonderful country and to see that these protests are getting more violent, it’s just very, very sad to see,” the diplomat continued. “This is horrible and alarming and nothing short of that.”
A fourth diplomat admitted, “I hate to say this, but it looks like a Third World scene.”
Several embassy officials said they had received no direction from the State Department about the violence, but they followed guidance issued by local Washington officials.
Many of these diplomats said they didn’t have concerns about evacuating, because most staff at many embassies have been working from home due to Covid restrictions and are not near the Capitol.
However, one foreign diplomat said their embassy was being cleared out to get everyone home safely before the 6 p.m. curfew that Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser announced after the violence erupted. Some embassies, such as the British, tweeted warnings to their citizens in Washington, urging them to heed the curfew and to “avoid scenes of disorder.”
Overseas, US diplomats expressed horror at what was happening at home. “Is this the United State or is this Venezuela?” said one US diplomat.
Another US diplomat described the scenes playing out across televisions the world over as “democracy being assaulted,” adding that they had never thought the situation in the US would get this bad.
A third US diplomat said it “definitely undermines our advocacy efforts on democracy.”
“We will hear about it for a long time,” they said.
CNN’s Barbara Starr contributed to this report.