Nov. 9, 2011 at 5:45 PM ET
An attempt by Cuban president Raul Castro's daughter to clarify her support of sex workers' rights turned into a lesson on why we don’t feed Internet trolls.
Mariela Castro Espín, head of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education and an LGBT rights activist received criticism after Dutch press quoted her praising the government-regulated prostitution in Amsterdam’s Red Light District, which she recently toured.
But upon launching a Twitter feed, she found herself under attack. Instead of explaining what she meant when she said she had been misquoted in the press, she only managed to get caught up in the fray, giving virtual hugs to supporters and calling opponents "despicable parasites."
The Internet is pretty much the exact opposite place one would go to clear things up — something Espín apparently didn’t get from the beginning. "Without a doubt, there have been malicious manipulations, as always,” read one of her initial tweets (translated by us from the Spanish). "At least there is the Web ... and WikiLeaks."
Who Espín specifically meant to address isn’t clear. A long-running U.S. economic embargo has left Cuba without a hard-wired Internet connection to the rest of the world, and reportedly only 3 percent of the island’s population has access to the government-restricted Web — though there is also black-market access.
Indeed, Espín's Twitter presence quickly drew the attention of the communist island nation’s vocal community of dissidents, who efficiently changed the conversation from Espín's clarification to a wider issue of human rights.
"They tell me Mariela Castro opened a Twitter account," tweeted Yoani Sanchez, who has more than 170,000 Twitter followers and regularly addresses Cuba’s lack of freedoms on her internationally renowned Generacion Y blog. "A question for her, 'When will we Cubans be able to come out of other closets?'"
Sanchez is suggesting that it's hypocritical for supporting gay rights but not human rights in Cuba.
Espín’s ongoing LGBT rights and education campaigns, which include free sex-reassignment surgery for Cuban citizens. Same-sex relations between consenting adults (16 and older) were outlawed in Cuba until 1979, but public animosity towards gay and transgendered people remains.
Arguably, Espín seems to be on the side of the angels — at least in regard to sexual freedom and education. But she’s also the niece of Fidel, who ruled Cuba for nearly 50 years before handing power to Espín’s father, and as such she’s seen as being accountable in some way for Cuban oppression.
"How can you ask for acceptance in just one area?" tweeted Sanchez, who was joined by other critics.
Espín remained civil to Sanchez, responding "Your focus on tolerance reproduces the old structures of power," she tweeted." She also thanked her friends for "messages of support.”
But as things heated up, she eventually dropped all pretense of propriety and fired off an insult reminiscent of her uncle’s revolutionary rhetoric. "Despicable parasites," she tweeted in Spanish. "Did you receive the order from your bosses to reply to me in unison with the same predetermined script?"
By this point, any discussion of rights for sex workers in Cuba had been sidelined. As any of the self-proclaimed "social media guru" horde on Twitter could’ve told Espín, if you allow your critics to change the conversation, your point is quickly lost.
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