When countries decide to expel diplomats from other nations, the measures are usually supposed to send a serious message: Enough is enough.
Monday’s expulsion of more than 100 Russian spies and diplomats by two dozen countries may well pose practical challenges to the Kremlin’s ability to gather intelligence overseas. Compared with the measures taken after Russia stood accused of being involved in the 2014 downing of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, the West appeared to offer an unusually strong rebuke following the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain.
Russia, however, is very good at appearing unfazed, and diplomatic sanctions often result in cheekiness, ridicule and trolling that appear to be intended to dismiss some of the gravity that Western nations may have hoped to trigger.
After its consulate in Seattle was ordered shut down, the Russian Embassy in Washington tweeted out a poll asking which U.S. consulate Russia should shutter in response.
The tweet followed a common pattern that has emerged in recent years among the Russian diplomatic corps. In an attempt to show what they say is the hypocrisy of the West, Russia’s Twitter-savvy diplomats in Moscow, London and Washington frequently resort to memes to mock Western allegations of election interference or human-rights abuses.
Russia’s U.S. Twitter account has yet to dethrone its British counterpart, which has refined the “art” of trolling Western governments for years using the handle @RussianEmbassy.
Not all of the photos or memes shared by the official accounts are produced by Russian diplomats. The one shown below was first circulated in pro-Trump groups on Reddit, according to The Washington Post's Adam Taylor, and then shared by the account of the Russian Embassy in Britain. The tweet was an attempt to ridicule allegations of Russian election hacking in Europe and North America.
When President Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats over the country’s hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign during the 2016 election, Russia mocked him for being a “lame” duck.
According to Moscow-based journalist Alexey Kovalev, many of the tweets used by official Russian accounts in response to Western allegations repeat a similar pattern. They deny “basic facts” and “deflect any responsibility,” Kovalev wrote on Twitter last month.
While Russia's diplomats may use modern platforms, their strategy is also rooted in far older concepts. The Russian responses rarely directly disprove the allegations made by Western officials but aim instead to expose the alleged hypocrisy of the West itself. This strategy, known as “whataboutism,” has long been deployed by the former Soviet Union.
When accused of something, “the response is always the same: 'Look at what the West or what the U.S. have done. How can you accuse us of war crimes if you have done far worse things? It is an attempt to derail any constructive discussion and dialogue,” Kovalev told The Post on Tuesday.
Kovalev said that the tweets were part of a coordinated effort by the foreign ministry's press and information department. Its director, Maria Zakharova, is widely known among Moscow-based journalists for her remarks that sometimes blur the lines between serious announcements and mockery. It's a strategy that works online just as well as it does offline.
On Twitter, picking a “comically bad pic” gives the tweets their final touch, Kovalev said It further distracts from the often-serious nature of the allegations the tweets are addressing.
Kovalev believes that the posts also target a domestic audience back in Russia. “The tweets often become top news on Russian state media, and the audience loves it,” he said.
At times, Russia's strategy has been used against it. After the poisoning attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, unidentified activists in London sprayed graffiti on the pavement near the Russian ambassador's residence that read: “Dine at the Russian Embassy / Pasta Polonium / Sarin Spaghetti / & Novichokolate / Who knows what we Putin.”
But so far, there has been no social media trolling campaign nearly as coordinated as Russia's. “[Those tweets] are seeking to disrupt conventional narratives and to provide an alternative perspective in a way that is hard to counter with the usual style of ‘rational’ argument,” London School of Economics professor Charlie Beckett told Vice in 2017. “Even when they attract critical responses they have achieved their aim of raising the profile of the Russian point of view,” he said.
By the time the Russian Embassy poll asked which U.S. consulate should be closed in retaliated ended on Tuesday, more than 57,000 people had responded.
Matthew Bodner contributed to this report from Moscow.
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