Moscow’s Diplomatic Trolls
Russian embassy social media accounts are now on the frontline of the Kremlin’s global information war. We’ve been looking at the messages they put out
- Text by Agata Popeda
When Russia seized three Ukrainian ships off the coast of Crimea, provoking a new regional crisis, its embassies around the world fired up their social media accounts to hit back at Kremlin critics with a now familiar blend of invective, deflection and alternative facts.
Russia’s mission to the UK set the standard earlier this year, when it trolled the British government with snarky posts and memes in response to accusations that the Kremlin’s agents had tried to kill former double-agent Sergei Skripal. Increasingly, all Russian missions are adopting this combative approach, not simply reposting their foreign ministry’s statements.
Coda has taken a tour of Russian embassy social media accounts for some highlights of Kremlin diplomatic trolling.
With Crimea back in the headlines, it’s not surprising that the Russian Foreign Ministry office there is taking a defiant stance — but with a high-tech twist. Its Twitter account posted an interview with a robot being asked if Crimea should be scared of the sanctions that have been in place ever since Russia annexed the peninsula in 2014.
“For me personally the sanctions are like mosquitos in Siberia,” the robot says in Russian, with English subtitles on the screen. “They are kind of there but they don’t really bother you.”
As a sidebar, it’s intriguing that the Russian Foreign Ministry still maintains a mission in Crimea — given that Moscow now considers the peninsular Russian, not foreign territory. It had a consulate there before when the peninsula was under Ukrainian control. It’s now called a “Representative Office,” but it is still under the foreign ministry.
Something is “broken” in the US State Department. So said the Russian embassy in Washington in a social media post earlier this year, in response to what it called a “stream of ‘fake news’” about Russia’s actions in Syria and elsewhere emanating from the State Department. The embassy issued the post on International Women’s Day, adding its congratulations to Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman. She thanked them, but replied with a cold political message, calling on Russia to “live up to its international commitments and stop bombing innocent men, women and children in Syria.”
United Arab Emirates
Russian embassy social media accounts are full of posts about the beauty of life in Crimea, part of a coordinated push-back against its international isolation as a result of sanctions and the world’s refusal to recognize Russia’s annexation. But its mission in the UAE took this promotion drive to a new level with a quiz about Crimea. The award was, you guessed it, a vacation in Crimea.
“Dear Compatriots! We invite you to participate in the quiz “Crimea in the history of the Russian world,” said the promotional blurb, before promising a one-week tour for two as the main prize. People taking part in the competition would get to know “the multi-dimensional nature of the history and culture of the Crimean peninsula.”
Russian embassies have long tried to discredit the Syrian rescue volunteers known as the “White Helmets.” But its mission in South Africa went a step further, tweeting a photo of what appears to be actors on a film set as proof of what it says is a White Helmets attempt to stage a hoax chemical attack.
The photo was later identified as a shot from the movie Revolution Man, a Syrian government propaganda film about a man who stages fake government attacks.
When President Vladimir Putin visited South Africa this summer, the embassy was unhappy at how it was covered in two major South African newspapers, accusing them of switching to “Pinocchio mode.”
Like many Russian social media accounts, its embassy in Tokyo has as its Twitter avatar Maria Butina, the Russian arrested on espionage charges in the US earlier this year. The mission routinely argues with its Twitter followers, sometimes accusing them of being uneducated.
“Russia lost 27 million people in World War II therefore was directly affected,” the embassy’s social media writer said in one post, before adding: “Undoubtedly, ignorance is unacceptable here. Please study the history.”
“This conversation is for those who graduated from school,” the embassy Twitter account responded to another critic. “So finish it and then contact us.” Other times, the mission just affects to be bored, posting memes from films like “Transformers.”
The verified Facebook account of the Russian Embassy in Senegal is very active, sometimes posting more than ten times a day. It also tries to help “Vladimir Poutine” by coming up with statements that the Russian President never made.
One purported statement from him that was posted last month, read: “Africa is a thousand times richer than Europe in mineral wealth, but a thousand times poorer when it comes to development. It is necessary only that African presidents create their own money and a common currency and I’ll give you my word that Europe will start to migrate to Africa.“
Another, post had Putin saying: “Russia has never lost the cold war… Because the cold war is not over.”
However, both “quotes” have since been removed from the page.
After Western nations expelled dozens of Russian diplomats in response to accusations of Moscow’s involvement in the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in the UK, the Russian mission to the tiny Mediterranean nation of Malta pulled out a clip from an old British political comedy to try to hit back.
When a new black comedy about the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbass region won rave reviews in Australia, the Russian embassy there put up a post condemning it as “Russophobic Propaganda.” The film focuses on the actions of Russian-backed separatists, and the embassy called the movie “blatantly racist,” denouncing what it called its “russophobic content in the worst Nazi traditions.” Its social media page also attacked a now familiar target for the Russian government, the online investigative site Bellingcat.
When the Russian embassy in Ottawa put out a post highlighting what it said was the presence of “monuments (sic) to Nazi collaborators” in Canada, many wondered why. The statue it showed does depict a Ukrainian nationalist leader known to have collaborated with the Nazis.
But the monument was erected more than 50 years ago in the city of Edmonton by the local Ukrainian community and even there, most people were unaware of it. The reason for Russia’s sudden interest may have been the fact that Canada had just passed its version of the so-called “Magnitsky Act,” aimed at punishing Russian human rights abusers.
The Russian Embassy in London is still far out ahead though, both in its follower count and in how much attention its posts attract. While most Russian mission accounts have only around 3,000 followers on average, Russia’s UK embassy has at least 83,000.
This past year, it has been busy responding to accusations in relation to the Skripal affair, constantly finding new ways to ridicule the UK’s statements and investigations. It has tried to create an information fog around rumours that the West is hiding a secret biological weapons program in a US-funded laboratory in Georgia.
The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline we are following as part of our coverage. These overarching storylines — whether the disinformation campaigns that are feeding the war on truth or the new technologies strengthening the growing authoritarianism, are the crises that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. We work with dozens of local and international reporters, video journalists, artists and designers to bring you stories you haven’t seen elsewhere, provide you with context missing from the news cycle and illuminate the continuity between the crises we cover. Support Coda now and join the conversation with our team. No amount is too small.