In this line of work, you grow pretty accustomed to reading between the lines in diplomatic correspondence. Aside from President Trump, most national figures and diplomats have a way of dancing around a subject through clever phrasing and word choices, ensuring that even the most damning of accusations are delivered in a manner that retains the social high ground. This linguistic tap dancing is a mainstay of American diplomacy — aiming to keep feathers from getting too ruffled in some instances, and providing added weight to more direct and aggressive statements when they’re deemed necessary.
The advent of social media has added an additional medium for formal communications to take place between government officials and even whole governments — and contrary to what many may think, that is not the result of President Trump’s prolific Twitter usage. With many state officials and national governments maintaining an active Twitter presence, it’s to be expected that diplomatic opponents will occasionally find themselves squaring off in the digital sphere. Often, these spats are about as exciting to watch unfold as an argument about TV shows at your nearest retirement home thanks to the neutered diplomatic responses bandied about by officials that may harbor strong opinions, but prefer to avoid creating an international incident by elevating the rhetoric of the debate. As a result, debates between official government entities are often short-lived and ripe with common talking points: in effect, they’re light on debate and heavy on re-purposed quotations and formal government statements.
But not with Russia. Ironically, although the Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov famously stated that Russia does “not participate in Twitter diplomacy,” they absolutely do — and they’re pretty damn sassy about it at that.
That first tweet is from State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert, a common facet of American diplomacy on social media. Her posts often carry the diplomatic air that we’ve come to expect from a person that’s speaking on behalf of a government. The response she got from the Russian Foreign Ministry’s official account, however, seems more like something you’d expect to see in a tiff between Taylor Swift and Katy Perry.
And it’s not just with the United States. Russia’s official twitter account is happy to throw shade at any nation that takes issue with Russian foreign policy, or in the case of Ukraine, Russia’s military annexation of Crimea. In this recent post, Russia actually shared a meme in response to another diplomatically toned statement made by Ukraine’s official Twitter account.
However, Ukraine doesn’t exercise the same political restraint we may be accustomed to seeing from professional diplomats like Nauert — and they replied to Russia’s meme with what might be the best use of a GIF ever seen by a national government.
Not all of Russia’s Twitter diplomacy comes in the form of snarky remarks and witty banter. Sometimes it’s just good old-fashioned disinformation. A number of tweets posted by official Russian accounts attempt to suggest that the UK’s anger over the attempted assassination of a former Russian military intelligence official turned MI5 informant on UK soil was nothing more than a lie intended to distract the public from the UK’s Brexit woes.
And in what might be the most disingenuous bit of content to be found on Russia’s varied social media accounts, they even used “World Press Freedom Day” as an opportunity to lament the way the world has begun to recognize Russian propaganda efforts, funneled through media organizations like RT, TASS and Sputnik. In a bold move, Russia included the hashtag “#propaganda” in their tweet complaining about the pressure being placed on media companies to stop sharing disinformation.
Russia’s use of social media to advance their foreign policy aims isn’t, in itself, a nefarious act. In fact, every national government uses the technology at their disposal to reach its populous and communicate its policies abroad, but what makes Russia’s use of these platforms particularly interesting is their willingness to engage in the social media dialogue in such an informal way. The decision to do so is clearly a calculated one, and to be honest, it does often leave Russia looking more human than their opponents, who rely on the robotic language of diplomacy to relay their messages. This could prove valuable to Russia over time, who has demonstrated a vested and lasting stake in managing the perceptions of the world’s populous as a means to exert leverage over foreign government.
Nefarious as their intentions may be, there’s one thing you can’t deny about this effort, however: every once in a while it’s pretty funny.
Funny, effective, and engaging – Russia’s use of Twitter to advance their foreign policy aims may seem silly or even half-hazard at first glance, but let there be no confusion: Russia’s disinformation efforts are not about compiling followers, likes or retweets – they’re about managing perceptions and consolidating social credibility directly. Russia’s twitter accounts offer citizens of the world an opportunity to engage with “Russia,” and to be affected by the narratives they’re peddling.
As for whether or not that will ultimately lead to perceptions shifting about Russia as a whole… well, based on the number of conspiracy theories floating around the same social media platform about Donald Trump faking a chemical attack in Syria as an excuse to launch a mostly symbolic air strike against limited targets that resulted in no casualties… one could argue that the proof is in the pudding.
Just like Wendy’s launched a new Twitter based campaign that aimed to redefine the public’s perception of their brand, Russia too is aware that branding makes a difference when it comes to public perception. They don’t need you to buy cheeseburgers — they just need to you to be skeptical when our own government says Russia is violating international norms, supporting despots, or killing innocent civilians with chlorine gas.
Human beings in every country, regardless of educational background or hard-headedness, are susceptible to disinformation. Unfortunately, what makes these disinformation campaigns so effective, is how convinced we all are that we’re not.
Images courtesy of Twitter
Feature image courtesy of Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, modified by the author