Who needs long-winded phone calls and Marriott conference rooms when you can conduct international diplomacy via subtweet?
The people behind the Twitter accounts for the Russian embassies in the United Kingdom and the United States know this well. For the past two years, these accounts — along with others representing the embassy in Canada and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs — have been trolling Western powers with an eclectic array of biting, nonsensical, and often quite funny tweets, especially if you don't consider their human consequences. Ethics schmethics.
Trump may have been declared a "master of Twitter" by the Chris Cillizzas of the world. But when it comes down to it, the Russian Embassy has his tighty little whiteys in a knot. It doesn't take much — unlike Trump, they know not to put a space before a period — and yet, they clearly trump Trump when it comes to the morally flatulent medium they love the most, Twitter.
We regret to report that this matters.
To be clear, these tweets likely matter less for actual negotiations. It's hard to imagine, for example, that Rex Tillerson ever faxed over a printout of the latest Russian Embassy Hercule Poirot "dig" to his State Department. They're far more important for symbolic and representational reasons.
Like Trump, the Russian embassy has learned how to circumvent traditional media outlets and go straight to the gullible humans of Twitter. And as much as reputable news sources like the New York Times and The Guardian might want to ignore the accounts, they can't once they start trending.
These marginally grammatical posts work. Every damn time.
What results is the complete degradation of diplomatic language. At least sometimes it's a little bit enjoyable?
Take a look at our grand moral decline in action:
1. Obama's expels diplomats, so Russia tweets a baby duckling
In December 2016, America had a slightly different relationship with the Putin regime. We were not, as we are today, their unpaid interns. Not too long after President Obama got wind that the Russians were trying to influence our election, he instituted new sanctions and expelled 35 Russian diplomats from American soil. The Russian Embassy UK responded promptly and diplomatically by tweeting clip art of a duck.
This tweet came on the heels of another equally "dervilish" tweet. Less than a month before, the UK Embassy compared Russia to a strong man and Europe to a concentration camp full of gay pigs.
You've got to respect a foreign power with that level of shamelessness. Of course, we Americans held our president-elect in much higher regard, as evidenced in his tweets from that time:
As much as we'd love to not evaluate Russia's fetishistic connection to barnyard animals, it's still worth noting. 2016 was the year the Russian Embassy on Twitter fully dropped the banal tweet format in favor of pig cartoons and began composing tweets the way all the cool diplomats are doin' it — bad memes.
We've spent about 30 minutes trying to figure this one out and have gotten nowhere.
Honestly, your grandmother has done better work in Printshop.
The tweets were an important and depressing harbinger of even more depressing things to come.
2. Russia is accused of poisoning a former spy in the United Kingdom, and responds with a ... law of physics joke
You know the type of person who is so desperate to prove that they're funny, they'll go for every joke, every time, regardless of the cost to their audience?
That's the Russian Embassy UK. After Prime Minister Theresa May accused the Russian government of poisoning a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, as well as his daughter, in Britain, the Russian Embassy responded with a hard-hitting middle school physics principle.
And the hits kept coming.
Then there was this particularly enjoyable John Grisham-inspired tweet.
As well as this sick barometer burn.
In the past, a banal public statement would have sufficed. Most average consumers of the news would ignore it, if it even made their Twitter timelines. But by attempting to meme their way out of guilt, the Russian Embassy UK managed to reach an audience who'd otherwise never have noticed the story. They come across as "relatable," especially for audiences who could care less about #EmbassyDrama.
But this bombastic tone — especially when addressing gravely serious situations — is familiar to both the Russian Embassy UK and President Trump, who has done things like complain that the "fat" president of North Korea doesn't want to be his friend. Both accounts make international diplomacy relatable to the troll set, who make a significant share of the Twitter audience.
3. Russia loves #FakeNews
Trump's repeated use of "fake news" to denote everything he doesn't agree with has become one of the defining characteristics of his presidency. And it's a tactic the various Russian accounts have taken up for their own misinformation campaigns.
These accounts, particular the Russian Embassy in Canada, see the "fake news" cry as a way to completely discredit any scrap of news that they deem unworthy or damaging to them — which, if you're any account tied to Russia, is pretty much every single bit of news about the country and its meddling in the world.
It's not just that both Trump and these Russian accounts seem unwilling to accept as truth anything that paints them in a negative light. It's that they're both hell-bent on subverting traditional norms and undermining the press. At least with Trump you can sense the significant influence of ego. But Russia's motivation feels more sinister. It's part of an effort to sow confusion, distrust, and general chaos across the internet (and the world) .
And, unlike Trump, these Russian accounts know how to be cheeky, fully embracing their role as trolls. They employ a sarcastic humor that plays well to the online world, taking just enough edge off with the attempts at exaggerated humor to slip it past the defenses of many, a hidden knife compared to Trump's over-sized sledgehammer.
And Twitter itself is ultimately giving these accounts the extra heft they need to be taken seriously by giving them the coveted Blue Checkmark Of Verification. While Twitter has recently thanks to white supremacists, it's done little to confront this sort of thing.
Twitter has suggested verifying everyone on Twitter (well, non-bots, one would assume) because as the platform's product director David Gasca put it, users often mistake verification for credibility.
In a discussion about the verification issue a few weeks ago, Gasca said, "In user research, when you ask people what do you think when you see the checkmark, they think of it as credibility. Like, Twitter stands behind this person … Twitter believes what they’re saying something great and authentic, which is not at all what we mean by the checkmark. So it creates a lot of confusion."
Indeed, it does, specifically in this case. And that's exactly the way Russia likes it.
4. Sowers of general chaos
Trump is always good for a few social media grenades every week that send us all skittering away in one panic or another, and these Russian accounts seem to relish in similar chaos. After all, if it's instability they're after, dropping elbows on Twitter is a sure-fire way to really kick things up a notch and keep people on their toes.
Whether it's trolling the U.S. State Department (above) or ridiculing the many accusations leveled against Russia in one swipe (below), the Russian accounts never miss the opportunity to leverage their stature as official accounts to tweet, well, whatever the hell they want, decorum be damned.
All “Russia investigations” (not only in the US) are destined to end as @ConawayTX11 brilliantly concluded: “only Tom Clancy could take this series of inadvertent contacts, meetings, whatever, and weave that into some sort of a spy thriller that could go out there”#JackRyan pic.twitter.com/rX4QEP7R3p
— Russia in USA ?? (@RusEmbUSA) March 13, 2018
The accounts tend to rely on sarcasm as a means of deflating their opponents without really addressing the issues. It's all about trying to take the power of that narrative away from the opponent rather than rebutting them. (Though Trump and Russia do their fair share of "No, you're the puppet," too).
The game? If you don't like the narrative, then do something outlandish to change it. It's not a new trick by any means but Trump has been playing it effectively and so, too, are the Russian Embassy accounts.
The difference, though, is that, with Trump, there doesn't seem to be any real strategy to the random madness of his tweets. He might think there is, but it comes off looking helter-skelter. The Russians are much savvier, though, more self-aware. Reading through their tweets and responses, you can see a through-line of thought, a consistency in pushing propaganda in spite of the seeming randomness.
In both cases, though, the end result is the same: destabilization. Russia is wielding these Twitter accounts as a successful propaganda arm with little oversight from any outside parties. And though Trump may be relying more on erratic behavior than cynical plotting, we're still paying attention.
After all, it doesn't matter if the table gets overturned because you carefully flip it after much thought and planning or because an overgrown child knocks it over during a tantrum.