By Nick Robinson
In between the incessant daily tweeting of images of picturesque Russian skylines, Izbas submerged under vast amounts of snow, or cute Siberian wildlife, the Twitter account for the UK-Russian Embassy has—and not for the first time—been causing quite a stir in recent weeks, after a tweet visibly depicting outgoing US President Barack Obama as a “LAME” duck achieved a somewhat ‘viral status’ within days of it being posted. The tweet, which was in response to Obama’s decision to expel 35 Russian diplomats from the US—retaliation for alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential elections—comes at a time of increased diplomatic tension between the two countries. Seen as the final move of the Obama Administration, it has proven to be the tipping of the scales in terms of New Cold War relations, despite the utmost efforts of President-elect Donald Trump in recent months to revive them.
Whilst it could be mistaken for a rather innocuous 2-minute Microsoft Paint™ creation, the true implications of such a tweet have been all-encompassing, with its intentionally inflammatory message soon reaching all corners of the internet. Instant reactions read: “just checking you haven’t been hacked?” and “did someone’s teenager just hack the @RussianEmbassy” (with the embassy’s response below). But the tweet also asks many more potential questions, none of which are more so confusing than: why was this posted from the UK-Russian Embassy account? After all, what role does its social media account and personnel, located in the heart of Kensington, London, play in influencing and potentially damaging the diplomatic relations between Russia and the US?
In what many are describing as a new age of “Twiplomacy” (a term first coined by the PR and communications firm Burson-Marsteller in 2012; see also, Bastianello, 2014; Dumčiuvienė, 2016; Manor, 2016), embassy twitter accounts are now a customary requirement for embassies and consulates, and are commonplace in all corners of the world: engaging with users by offering support and advice to its native citizens on a number of important consulate matters; also becoming an effective tool for communicating public or political events; and by simply offering an online space or resource for citizens to feel better-connected or affiliated to their native homeland, often through the use of nostalgic imagery and quotations.
But this has also led us to question what role embassies—and their new online presences—are playing in the great diplomacy game? In a huge transformation from, say, 5-10 years ago, are we seeing embassies and their diplomats turn to social media (and Twitter in particular) to act as useful vehicles in progressing diplomatic relations and alliances? Or perhaps instead, are these social media accounts a way of asserting certain diplomatic pressures, incensing rival governments into ‘Twitter wars’, or even used to simply poke fun at another government’s ineptitude or foreign policy motives? And we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that all of this, crucially, takes places out of the traditional confines of the diplomatic building or headquarters – whether that be the United Nations in New York, or World Trade Organization in Geneva.
This is not the first time the UK-Russian Embassy account (with its now 42k-strong following) has attracted controversy, however. On October 22nd 2016, the account posted a cartoon which depicted Europeans as ‘gay pigs’, confined within a concentration camp adorned with a pride flag and €-zone banner, alongside a large, muscular bear in a Russian t-shirt, with the message: “If Russia is in decline, why worry? Maybe, real worry is West’s decline and that we manage things better?” The tweet soon went viral, and was met by an outburst of disbelief within the Twitter community, who were soon to point out the homophobic and fascist connotations.
These two tweets mentioned are by no means exceptional cases either, and it seems that whoever is in charge of the Russian Embassy account enjoys the act of ‘trolling’ and creating mass media attention. They may even be taking orders from ‘above’, receiving instructions from Ambassadors and other diplomats to engage in their own ‘dirty’ diplomatic work for them. In any case—and what would be setting a dangerous precedent—it appears that those who work in social media roles in embassies are now holding/performing some form of geopolitical agency. The idea of an employee lower down the diplomatic chain within an embassy—or even a social media intern (you never know)—upsetting the scales of diplomatic and geopolitical relations on a global scale would have an unprecedented consequences.
“…those who work in social media roles in embassies are now holding/performing some form of geopolitical agency.”
Yet, how seriously should we take the tweets of embassy Twitter accounts? Are they representative of the true views of any given government? Or should we take their posts and witty, satirical images with a pinch of salt?
I am becoming increasingly interested in the ways in which embassies operate, not least in the digital age in which we now find ourselves. With ‘Twiplomacy’, we are now seeing the more traditional methods of diplomatic action—the ‘soft power’ techniques, the press conferences, the public events—move online with more creative and cunning tactics of coercion and satire in the public domain. None are more so effective than the performative arena that is social media, which so many of us find ourselves caught up in today.
Within my own research, I am beginning to think through and conceptualise new forms of embassy, namely the Estonian Virtual Data Embassy initiative, which is looking to ensure “digital continuity”—the functioning and availability of all of Estonia’s digital services, and security of its government’s and citizens’ data—in the event of any potential emergency; whether that be a cyberattack, natural disaster, or very real threat of physical occupation of its own territory. One of the things the Estonian government is looking to pioneer, is whether data embassies can be created in the cloud and subsequently backed up within data centres within allied physical embassies around the world (London, Washington DC and Tokyo are early contenders). Whilst this project is still in its early days of inception, it asks us many questions around the ways in which an ‘embassy’ will operate in the future, what roles it may have, and what additional laws it may potentially require. As such, should the traditional roles of an embassy—to serve as the diplomatic mission representing a state within another state, to provide diplomatic protection/privileges to those who reside there, to provide an array of consular services—no longer be taken for granted? Maybe it is time to begin conceptualising the embassy beyond its physical confines, and into the digital. Beyond the ceremonial flag draped above its gated, security-guarded perimeters, or extraterritorial status afforded to diplomats; and instead towards the protection and defence of vast swathes of citizens’ private data, or through its social media presence – whether good or bad.
“Maybe it is time to begin conceptualising the embassy beyond its physical confines, and into the digital.”
Although this post perhaps paints a picture of embassy Twitter accounts as a force for no good, there are plenty of examples whereby Twitter can be used as an effective and productive tool for embassies. Take the UK and Estonian embassy accounts, which I follow attentively for my own research, which could be viewed as exemplary ‘Twiplomacy’ accounts in action; professional in their output, whilst attempting to build bridges and further diplomatic relations in the process (see the Estonian example above). During the failed Turkish military coup d’état back in July 2016, British Ambassador, Richard Moore, was praised for his efforts on Twitter as he provided detailed updates and advice throughout the night. Nevertheless, with Donald Trump being so incredibly fixated with Twitter—his very own ‘Twiplomacy’ efforts are so far a fascinating, yet terrifying reminder of the power of one’s tweets—there is no guessing where 2017 and the future will take us with regards to embassy Twitter account customs. Diplomatic authority and influence is no longer restrained and limited to the ambassador within the United Nations headquarters, or through the press conference stuck between two nations’ flags. It can now be harnessed and powered from the tweet-deck.
One thing is for certain in 2017 though: @RussianEmbassy will continue its very own controversial diplomacy contest.
Nick Robinson is a current PhD student in the CDT for Cyber Security at Royal Holloway, having just completed his MSc in Geopolitics and Security. Stepping across both Geography and ISG departments, Nick’s research interests range from Estonian e-Residency, the use of data embassies, and technology and the media’s role within society more generally. He is a member of the editorial team here on the RHUL Geopolitics and Security blog.
NB1: For a more in-depth analysis of the Russian Embassy tweet, Ilan Manor offers a great insight here.
NB2: @RussianEmbassy strikes again, this time on January 9th 2017, with a quip towards the UK press. By using the popular Pepe the Frog meme, a popular white supremacist symbol in the last year or so, the account has again been in the headlines.