With Ukraine in crisis, Russia and America try a new diplomatic tactic: online trolling


Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Rome on Thursday to discuss Ukraine. It is the second meeting in as many days between the two, who met in Paris on Wednesday to talk about the crisis in the Crimea Peninsula. (AP Photo/Kevin Lamarque, Pool)

On Wednesday afternoon, not long after Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met in Paris and appealed for calm, the U. S. State Department sent out an unusual statement:

As Russia spins a false narrative to justify its illegal actions in Ukraine, the world has not seen such startling Russian fiction since Dostoyevsky wrote, 'The formula "two plus two equals five" is not without its attractions.

The State Department then went on to list 10 claims made by Russia to justify its troops' presence in Crimea and then dismissed them one by one. As Buzzfeed's Rosie Gray pointed out, the State Department appeared to have been "Buzzfeed-ified."

It seemed a strange move, but the United States isn't the only party out there using online media and a more informal way to promote their message on the Ukrainian conflict. Of particular note has been the English Twitter account (@mfa_russia) used by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation. On Thursday, the account sent out a picture of Kerry meeting with Lavrov and added a wry caption.

In fact, @mfa_russia has been a vocal force since Ukraine's troubles began, tweeting many times every day and at one point getting into an online disagreement with Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister, who is also very fond of the social media service.

Using media to push an international agenda is hardly new. Winning hearts and minds has long been the aim of foreign policy. But the rise of social media and blogs has made it not only easier to do but also a much more obvious tactic. In 2o12, as Israel began using air strikes on Hamas targets in the West Bank in retaliation for missile strikes from Palestinian territories, both sides used social media to push their messages, and almost noone failed to notice. The Israel Defense Forces, in particular, were accused of trivializing war and death by tweeting a picture of a Hamas target with the word "ELIMINATED" super-imposed over the man's  face.

Ignoring questions of taste, the drawback of using online media like this is that, in the end, you're mostly just performing for a home audience, and what little effect you have on your rival might best be described in Internet language as "trolling."

Even worse, however, is the possibility that you wind up trolling yourself. For an example of that, look to David Cameron, the prime minister of the United Kingdom and now an Internet meme:

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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Adam Taylor · March 5