An unlikely pair exchanged harsh words on Twitter on Saturday: former Hillary Clinton staffer Alec Ross and longtime actor John Cusack. The cause of their online brawl? A WikiLeaks tweet highlighting one of Clinton’s emails, in which Ross—her senior adviser for innovation when he wrote the message—stated:

When Jared and I went to Syria, it was because we knew that Syrian society was growing increasingly young (population will double in 17 years) and digital and that this was going to create disruptions in society that we could potential[ly] harness for our purposes.

Cusack retweeted this and added: “Well that’s not very nice. …” Ross quickly fired back: “What’s your point?” And then the war of words ensued, with both parties spending much of the day attacking each other via the social media platform.

Ross, now an author and “advisor to investors, corporations and government leaders,” worked for Clinton from 2009 to 2013 in the State Department. During his time in the Obama administration, Ross said that defending Internet freedom was a “pillar of America’s foreign policy priorities.”

This isn’t his first brush with controversy on Twitter. In October, for example, he shared his support of Clinton’s condemnatory opinion of Edward Snowden.

Cusack, meanwhile, has a history of being vocal about privacy rights. He’s a board member of the Freedom of the Press Foundation—as is Snowden—and has called the Obama administration “similar to Bush” in regard to drones, national security and privacy rights.

Although both Ross and Cusack claim to be advocates for Internet freedom, it’s clear why Cusack would take issue with Ross. Julian Assange, founder of the very WikiLeaks that published the above email, has called Ross a “foreign-policy tech vulture” and has said Ross gives the “veneer of authenticity” to the government’s disingenuous stance that Internet freedom is crucial to democracy.

For all his preaching about Internet freedom, Ross has made his views on WikiLeaks clear: “WikiLeaks set the open government backward. … It wasn’t whistle-blowing because whistle-blowing reveals acts of official government wrongdoing …. [The] view that there should not be secret information of any sort is beyond naive.”

On Saturday, what seemed like a modest political statement on Cusack’s part (he previously said he doesn’t care what people think of his views) turned into all-out Twitter warfare.

There were cheap shots from both sides. But it quickly became more serious when Cusack accused Ross of being a “pro-corporate hustler.”

Ross called the accusations “complete crap,” to which Cusack responded by linking to an old tweet in which Ross states that “Snowden is no hero” and “[s]hould be prosecuted.” Cusack continued to throw tweets at Ross, and eventually the WikiLeaks account jumped into the fray, accusing Ross of sexism and sharing a negative article about him. Most of Ross’ tweets have since been deleted, but WikiLeaks held on to them, an ironic display of the Internet freedom being contested.

Cusack retweeted the words of his supporters and continued to criticize Ross, who seemed to ignore the swell of negativity. Although many parts of their squabble were rather immature—Cusack telling Ross to “take his best shot,” for example—their exchange highlighted serious issues that have been in the spotlight since 2011. Privacy rights and technological freedom have played a minor role thus far in the presidential campaign, but Apple’s conflict with the FBI proves that these questions still need to be addressed.

–Posted by Emma Niles

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