Russian Digital Diplomacy in 2016 / Oleg Shakirov

Oleg Shakirov, Expert on Foreign Policy and Security, Center for Strategic Research.

The Russian Foreign Ministry sees digital diplomacy as a useful tool that allows reaching out to wide international audiences. Digital diplomacy is considered a part of Information Support for Foreign Policy Activities, a traditional ministerial term for press and public relations. Although a relative latecomer to digital diplomacy, over recent years Russian Foreign Ministry has quickly risen to become one of the leaders in this field. As Russian diplomats have demonstrated the benefit of this new practice for advancement of foreign policy goals and feel quite experienced in it, their main task now is how to make digital diplomacy more effective.

In terms of digital diplomacy policy, 2016 saw several significant events. Most importantly, President Vladimir Putin spoke of the role of information aspects of foreign policy at the Meeting of Russian Federation Ambassadors and Permanent Envoys in late June. Such meetings are held biennially, and in 2012 Putin’s reported remarks about the need to promote Russian positions using various platforms and new technologies gave top-down impetus to emerging digital diplomacy, reinforcing bottom-up efforts.

This time, President Putin put an emphasis on countering information attacks and challenging Western dominance in the information dimension:

Our diplomats understand, of course, how important the battle to influence public opinion and shape the public mood is these days. We have given these issues much attention over recent years. However, today, as we face a growing barrage of information attacks unleashed against Russia by some of our so-called partners, we need to make even greater efforts in this direction.

We are living in an information age, and the old saying that whoever controls information controls the world unquestionably sums up today’s reality. […]

We must put up strong resistance to the Western media’s information monopoly, including by using all available methods to support Russian media outlets operating abroad. Of course, we must also act to counter lies about Russia and not allow falsifications of history.

In October, the Foreign Ministry Collegium, a body composed of senior Ministry officials and charged with making decisions on major issues, joined by high-profile representatives of the Presidential Administration and Security Council held a meeting dedicated to the “tasks of improving information support for country’s foreign policy.” In a similar manner as in the President’s address, the Collegium linked information to security: “[T]he current stage of development of international relations is characterized by the widespread use of information technologies as a means of influencing public consciousness for political and other purposes. Thus, the media sphere has become an arena for the conduct of aggressive information campaigns, which is clearly manifested in the Western approach towards Russia.” Arguing that the goals of the West are to discredit Russia and its foreign policy and to destabilize the country, the Collegium concluded that the “the priority task is to respond effectively and in a timely manner to important news stories, to do pre-emptive work.”

President’s address and the press-release of the Collegium meeting do not explicitly mention digital diplomacy. They rather serve as guidance for information support in general, which includes digital diplomacy.

Finally, in the new edition of Russia’s Foreign Policy Concept, approved on November 30, 2016, the line apparently referring to digital diplomacy was only slightly rephrased from the original one introduced in the 2013 edition, essentially remaining the same. Following a description of objectives related to information support it reads: “New information and communication technology is used to this end.” As for the term “digital diplomacy”, albeit not officially defined, it has been used in Ministry’s past two annual reviews of foreign policy activities to describe Internet-related information work (see here: “The whole toolbox of digital diplomacy has been actively employed”) and the team within the Department of Information and Press (DIP) focusing on social media is called Digital Diplomacy Unit.

Russia and the West
Since 2014, as relations between Russia and the West deteriorated first over Ukraine and later over Syria, opposition to the West has become a major topic of Foreign Ministry’s communications on social media. In early Twitter fights over a hijacked hashtag or geography of Ukraine Russian diplomats saw how their Western counterparts were willing to transgress traditional diplomatic rules on social media, hence they felt unconstrained too and responded in-kind. In addition, these exchanges sometimes drew more attention than official press-releases, thus helping each side to promote its message.

As a result, the Foreign Ministry effectively adopted a laissez-faire approach in dealing with the West online, allowing its diplomats to experiment as long as their message was in line with the overall policy. This took different forms such as regular Facebook posts by Maria Zakharova, Director of DIP since summer 2015, that for instance criticize bias and unprofessionalism of Western media or mock Western officials for their anti-Russian statements. Russian embassies mastered the art of using social media to pinpoint Western hypocrisies and to do so in an Internet-friendly fashion.

Towards the end of 2016, as allegations of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential elections and campaign to spread “fake news” surfaced, Russia became a boogieman in the American domestic politics. This came as a surprise to some in Russia, but the Foreign Ministry considered that it was a continuation of information attacks from the West. Some embassies joined the #RussiansDidIt hashtag ridiculing blame game in the United States. In February 2017, in line with Putin’s call “to counter lies about Russia” the Ministry launched a special section on its website to rebut “fake news” about Russia. In response to criticism, it later implied that the new initiative was inspired by “similar projects by Euro-Atlantic organisations” – apparently a reference to the EU East Stratcom Task Force.

In Russia, Foreign Ministry’s new rhetoric sparked a debate about what should be the language of digital diplomacy. Anton Gumensky, professor at the Foreign Ministry-affiliated MGIMO University, summed up reactions to Ministry’s controversial farewell tweet addressed in 2014 to outgoing U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul: “The readership of that public correspondence split in two: some found the Russian diplomats’ reply witty, original, and to the point, while others said it was inadequate, rude, and inappropriate.” Maria Zakharova’s position has long been that an informal and sharp style of digital diplomacy has been set by the first comers to this field such as Carl Bildt and Internet users in general, and Russia simply adopted it to be competitive on the web. Last year she reiterated this in a poetic form in response to Dmitry Bykov, a well-known writer and opposition figure, who wrote in a poem that the style of Ministry’s spokesperson was fit for alleys.

Evolving Practice
In terms of practice, Russian digital diplomacy continued to evolve as the Ministry explored new ways and tools to communicate with online audiences.

In June 2016, Foreign Ministry’s official Instagram account was launched. It mostly features photos and short videos from meetings, occasionally providing a behind-the-scene glimpse at diplomacy. A description in Russian is followed by the English translation, with thematic hashtags in both languages as well. This official account now has 38,100 subscribers. Instagram is a relatively new media for Russian digital diplomacy. Several embassies have their accounts, but they haven’t been really active and have not more than 150 subscribers – with the exception of the account of the Russian Embassy in Kuwait which has more than 1,200 subscribers.

20 сентября «на полях» 71-й сессии Генеральной Ассамблеи ООН в Нью-Йорке состоялась встреча С.В.Лаврова с Министром иностранных дел и по делам Содружества Великобритании Б.Джонсоном. Стороны обменялись мнениями по актуальным вопросам международной повестки дня с упором на текущую ситуацию в Сирии и вокруг нее. Касаясь двустороннего досье, министры обсудили перспективы активизации российско-британских контактов на различных уровнях в развитие позитивного имульса, приданного этому процессу встречей Президента Российской Федерации В.В.Путина с Премьер-министром Великобритании Т.Мэй 4 сентября с.г. в г.Ханчжоу «на полях» саммита «Группы двадцати». #оон #ньюйорк #лавров #россия #великобритания

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Another new media the Foreign Ministry explored is Telegram, a messaging app developed by the founder of VK Pavel Durov. Beyond chatting, Telegram users can create channels to broadcast their messages to subscribers who cannot comment. Thanks to this feature, the app has grown into a sort of social media platform and news source. The Ministry launched their channel run in Russian in early November, so far they have 2,300 subscribers. Telegram is also used by Russian diplomats abroad, in particular in Iran, where it has become the most popular messaging app.

The Foreign Ministry also released two in-house made sticker sets for Telegram featuring meme-styled images related to Russian diplomacy.

The Department of Information and Press is increasingly embracing visual communications, specifically video content. In addition to uploading longer recordings from official meetings and short clips to Ministry’s YouTube channel, DIP now livestreams weekly briefings by Ministry’s spokesperson and Minister’s press conferences to three platforms: Periscope, Facebook, and VK. Last year, it also started in-house production of shorter text videos, yet there is much room for improvement.

Some interesting developments within Russian digital diplomacy in 2016 were addressed to domestic audiences. In August the Foreign Ministry has presented its mobile app named Foreign Assistant. Through this app – developed under the guidance of Ministry’s Crisis Management Centre and available in beta-version since 2014 – Russian nationals travelling abroad can communicate with diplomats, receive notifications of emergency situations, and get useful information about countries they visit. According to the head of the Crisis Management Centre, by February 2017, the app has been installed by more than 40,000 people.

The Foreign Ministry has also used VK or VKontakte for mass notification. Ministry’s official page on VK, the most popular social media site in Russia and some neighboring states, was launched in 2015, when Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited company’s headquarters in Saint-Petersburg. Later that year after the flight suspension between Russia and Egypt, the Foreign Ministry requested VK’s assistance to notify Russian tourists in Egypt about evacuation details. VK sent out Ministry’s message to more than 20,000 users who got online from the territory of Egypt during previous two weeks. At the time of attempted coup in Turkey in July 2016, the Ministry in the same way notified via VK 15,000 Russian-speaking users in that country providing contact information of the Russian Embassy and Consulates General and cautioning them to stay indoors.

Other noteworthy cases on VK include holding a live Q&A video-session with Maria Zakharova and a quiz organized in partnership with YotaPhone, a mobile phone developed by a Russian company.

Diplomatic Missions
According to Lowy’s Global Diplomacy Index, with 243 posts abroad Russia has the fourth largest diplomatic network in the world. The vast majority of Russian diplomatic missions does digital diplomacy and has at least one account on social media. Twitter is the most popular tool among Russian digital diplomats followed by Facebook. Storify and YouTube are also widely used.

Yet, when it comes to how exactly diplomatic missions communicate online, this network is heterogeneous. Ultimately, it’s up to the head of each mission to decide how much to invest in digital diplomacy.  Typical problems of less engaged missions include treating social media as formality, little attention to visual aspects, failure to use the language of their audience. Some accounts are inactive or updated irregularly which indicates either disinterest or lack of resources. Over past couple of yeas these problems have become less common. Now, an average mission has between 1,000 and 3,000 followers on Twitter. There are 15 missions that have more than 5,000 followers and 6 of them have more than 10,000 followers

At the very top of this list is the Permanent Mission of Russia to NATO with 652,000 followers making it the most followed diplomatic mission on Twitter globally, according to Twiplomacy Study 2016. However its impact is way more modest than one would expect judging by the number of followers. In 2016, its most popular tweet was retweeted only 42 times.

Second by the number of followers (46,600), but unquestionably first by its impact is the Russian Embassy in the United Kingdom run by former head of DIP Alexander Yakovenko, who also has his popular personal account. Over past two years Embassy garnered hundreds and thousands of retweets regularly making headlines. Its provocative “lame duck” tweet, posted at the very end of 2016, has become one of most shared messages produced by Russian digital diplomats with more than 22,000 retweets. The Embassy also values interaction and frequently replies to other users on Twitter.

Third in this list is the Russian Embassy in Japan. It tweets almost exclusively in Japanese save for retweets and puts strong emphasis on promoting Russian culture. For instance, Embassy’s most retweeted tweet in 2016 featured a video about two students from Moscow opening a Russian café in Tokyo.

Three other accounts in the above 10,000 group in descending order are missions to the United States, the United Nations, and Turkey. The Russian Embassy to the United States made great progress in 2016 more than quadrupling the number of its followers. This has been helped to some extent by an increased interest towards Russia among Americans, but the main reason is simple: the Embassy started taking digital diplomacy seriously. It got less formal, improved the quality of content and shared messages that were intended to provoke reaction. The new approach also got a bit more personified with both former and current press secretaries of the Embassy running their personal accounts on Twitter.

The Russian Embassy in China is not on Twitter, but its page on Weibo is the tenth most popular among all embassies registered on that social media site.

The list of Russian digital diplomacy leaders would be incomplete without Russian embassies in South Africa, UAE and the General Consulate in Geneva whose content is widely shared within Russian diplomatic network and beyond.

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