Britain’s Social Media Woes

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Emil Pevtsov, political analyst


Social media and especially microblogging are trending buzzwords in the public diplomacy scene. Disproportionate attention is paid to individual posts and trends on social media by the mainstream media. The best case are the tweets of Donald Trump, the president of the USA. They are reported on and analysed daily with unparalleled ferocity, with some outlets meticulously collecting all of the President’s social media comments. It has come to a point at which discussing social media is beating an already beaten up dead horse. Nevertheless, this weekend’s latest news requires comment and policy recommendation.

From Friday evening to Saturday, we witnessed yet another boomerang throw foreign policy move from the British government. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) reported a Twitter account ran by RT for copyright breach, having it taken down by the website’s administration. Apparently, the account used the FCO logo without consent, thus breaching twitter user terms and conditions. The project is aimed at retelling the story of the 1917 Russian Revolution in a modernised manner as a way of marking its centenary. The result of the account suspension was a combination of mainstream media coverage and satirical responses from RT’s staff.

The British Side of the Equation

Reputable news outlets were quick to report on the latest twitter scandal, with the Guardian and the Independent leading the charge. As most articles, these are fleshed out with reference to historical precedent and discussion of who commented how. Without doubt, the first port of call is to reference similar incidents, and of course the conflict with RT as a whole. Ivor Crotty, RT’s head of social media, succinctly summarises the event as “not sure what it was supposed to achieve”. Indeed, if the British government and media are tired or fearful of Russian social media presence, bringing further attention to it with loud public actions seems to be the most counterproductive policy feasibly possible. The only effects are that public awareness of #1917Live is increased and FCO’s rash hostile policy is highlighted.

Recent examples of similar stories spring to mind. In particular, the story last week of a pro-Brexit twitter accused of being run from Russia by the Russian government in a destabilisation attempt. The in-depth conspiratorial article discusses the potential of this twitter account as a Russian political project without a note of self-irony. Looking further back, the famous Russian Embassy in the UK twitter caused waves repeatedly for posting jokes about ducks and for referencing cartoon frogs. The hysteria reached the point at which the US-based Washington Post claimed the account was “undermining” the West. Again, British official and media policy is somewhat misguided here. They cannot shame these accounts out of existence, or scare away their audiences by saying they are being manipulated by agents in Moscow. The more reports and the more outrage is publically shown, the more views each of these tweets get. Thus, for the British side, this weekend just as before, it is counterproductive to try to down these social media trends in such a straightforward manner – with criticism and anger.

The Russian Side of the Equation

1917 was probably one of the most defining years of the previous century. As with any event, the anniversary is quite important, and much attention is paid to it. If the 1600-year anniversary of the sack of Rome by Alaric was marked with three historical conferences gathering hundreds of historians in Rome alone,[1] the 100 year anniversary of the Russian Revolution certainly deserves some serious attention! The presentation of the historical narrative from many sides, in a manner accessible to the growing generation is also key in preserving history and memory. Such multi-faceted remembrance is a public good, as it expands historical education and understanding.

 In this way, reaching out to social media with the #1917Live project was a good, and well-meaning idea by RT. It is understandable that RT would want to present the history of 1917 in every way it can during this important year. The suspension of the “British Embassy in the Russian Empire” twitter page is thus a bitter moment in the educational and entertaining campaign. The increased media attention arguably barely makes up for the loss of integrity of the approach of having different factions “tweet” at one another in real time, now that an important element is missing. The bitter taste in one’s mouth after reading the tit-for-tat does nothing for improving Russo-British relations. The other attacks and accusations against both definitely and allegedly Russian social media accounts bring nought constructive to the table either.

Balancing the Equation or “What is to be done?” (– Lenin, 1902)

It is in Britain’s interest to change its approach to Russia’s revolutionary (excuse the pun!) use of social media to a more conciliatory one. The FCO should understand that the use of its logo by #1917Live is not for commercial purposes but to entertain and educate. It should seek to cooperate with RT to help the editorial staff in presenting a balanced and informed historiographical perspective of the 1917 Revolution. Attacking cartoon frogs and ducks is also immature and a confused response. A logical one would be to take a joke as a joke, and perhaps indulge in a humorous twitter-based debate instead of reacting with frothing outrage. More reconciliation will counterintuitively both balance the influence of Russian twitter campaigns vis a vis the British government and create a good backdrop for improved relations. Unfortunately, we are left to presume that these may not be the aims of British policy in this instance, and a “reset” is still far off.

It is in Russia’s interest to continue using social media to the best of its ability as a method of public outreach, especially in the anglophone world. Only recently are organisations and governments able to communicate to the grassroots public directly. The Russian state should and will do this to the best of its ability, especially as a tactic to counter the recent Russophobic media trends. Continuing the existing strategy seems to be bringing dividends with certain tweets gaining great popularity and coverage, bringing many closer to the Russian point of view. Emulating the mix of jokes, pictures of nature and political commentary of the now famous Russian Embassy in the UK twitter across other institutions and embassies can be a beneficial addition.

[1] Peter Van Nuffelen, ‘Not Much Happened: 410 and All That’, Journal of Roman Studies, Vol.105 (2015), p. 322

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