Trolls on the March
No. 1 2016 January/March
Anton Gumensky

Lecturer on Public Relations with the Faculty of International Journalism at the Moscow University of International Relations (MGIMO).

How Communications Destroy Diplomacy

All propaganda has side effects. The negative aspects of those effects may eventually outweigh the expected benefits. In international relations propaganda foments hostility, disrupts dialogue, and causes those who dispense it to behave in an unpredictable manner. Like any instrument, propaganda may backfire. It formats not only the target audience, but the author as well. This is particularly true when the author is not just reluctant to take a critical look at how the desired ends were achieved, but when that author denies the very possibility that such influence exists.

Dreams come true

It was common among Russian intellectuals at the end of the 20th century to complain about Russia’s lack of an information policy and lag in the IT sphere. Other grievances included the inability of civil servants to understand the importance of image-making and outdated approaches to working in general. Analysts repeatedly said that Russia needed its own international marketing and branding. In particular, they insisted that Russia had to have its own public relations agencies, homespun equivalents of the BBC and CNN, an attractive image, and a unique, loud, and clear international voice.

By 2015 Russia had acquired all the modern makings of a foreign information policy, including a multi-lingual television channel broadcasting via satellite twenty-four hours per day, Internet sites for government offices and foreign missions, and personal pages on social networks for senior officials. To translate theory into practice, just three years after Joseph S. Nye published his book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics in 2004, the Russian authorities created the Russian World Fund and then a number of organizations to promote public diplomacy. Russia proved slow in mastering new technologies: Russia’s first presidential website emerged six years after that of the U.S. president, and the Russian Foreign Ministry only registered on Twitter in 2011, much later than the U.S. Department of State in 2007 and Britain’s Foreign Office in 2008.

The first Internet services in foreign policy agencies began to be created in the early 2000s mostly to address technical issues such as the United States’ eDiplomacy within the Bureau of Information Resource Management. But in 2006 a special group called the Digital Outreach Team was set up within the office of the under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. Its tasks focused on propaganda and counter-propaganda among users of social networks speaking Arabic, Farsi, Punjabi, Urdu, and Somali. Russian speakers were added to the target audience in 2008. By 2010 a unit saddled with a similar task had emerged within the system of British foreign policy services (Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group, JTRIG) at the Government Communications Headquarters, GCHQ.

By the end of the second decade the foreign ministries of the U.S. and then of Western Europe had launched full-fledged cyber-diplomacy programs, including the U.S. strategy 21st Century Statecraft, Britain’s Digital Strategy, and the European Union’s Digital Diplomacy.

However, image-making matters became a foreign policy priority in Russia, as evidenced by statements and decisions by top officials regarding a contract signed with the U.S. public relations firm Ketchum on the eve of the G8 summit in St. Petersburg in 2006. Other such priorities included creating a commission to resist attempts at falsifications of history to the detriment of Russia’s interests, forming a commission to bolster Russia’s international image, and hosting the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Additionally, the Russian authorities were developing the skills of cooperation with the mass media and revising their own mistakes. In fact, some mistakes were made in covering the Georgia-Ossetia conflict in August 2008. For instance, according to a widely spread opinion, Russia lost the media war at the time, while by the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis in March 2014 Russia had mobilized its information resources to piece together a robust fighting vehicle. The Russian Foreign Ministry became its engine. It promptly shifted from the language of diplomacy to that of harsh political journalism, both in communicating with the public at large and in official statements addressed to foreign colleagues. A sort of recognition and natural outcome of Russia’s achievements on the mass media front can be seen in the immediate plans of U.S. and European politicians to “step up resistance to Russian propaganda” and increase military spending.

At this point it would be appropriate to ask a question about the cause-effect relationship: Is it really true that stepped-up propaganda is an outcome of aggravation in politics? Or, on the contrary, was it the growth of propaganda that brought about conditions for the development of the “most serious crisis in relations between Russia and the West since the Cold War era?” In other words, is it possible that propaganda, when used as a tool to handle political problems, is part of the problem?

Pretty much like “Mcfaul play”

To understand the role propaganda plays in international relations one must have a clear idea of how it works. The main propaganda tool these days is the Internet. Television and its older brother—the film industry—remain the most impressive outlets, while radio is the least costly and the most easily available. Yet all of them are not tightly pegged to or heavily depend on the Internet. In 2015, more than 40 percent of the world’s population used the Internet. In fact, if Facebook, the most popular social network, were a country, it would surely place first ahead of China and India by the number of residents. The Internet is a communication infrastructure and all mass media, from daily newspapers to satellite television, use its channels and audience, retell its stories, and live by its laws. It is these unwritten and largely unexamined laws that make the Internet a very special, yet by no means neutral, environment.

Technology is neither good nor bad, but it is not neutral either (Melvin Kranzberg. “Technology and History: Kranzberg’s Laws.” Technology and Culture, Vol. 27, No. 3, pp. 544–560, 1986). Each technology is meant for a certain use and it promotes some actions to a greater extent, and others to a lesser one. (McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1964). A graphic example illustrating that the Internet is not neutral and is very handy for all sorts of eye-catching special effects is trolling—the peculiar manner of communication that emerged in network subcultures and has become de facto one of the conventional languages of political communication.

The Russian public was able to see that “Foreign Ministry staff are human beings who have normal reactions and a sense of humor”, when, in 2013 the Foreign Ministry used a line on its Facebook page from a song by the Russian rock group Mumiy Troll: “I’ll get in touch with you, mon ami, by radio, fax, or phone” to address blogger Anton Nosik in person. And then again, in February 2014, in reply to a farewell message from U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul saying that his assignment was coming to an end, the Foreign Ministry tweeted: “Goodbye, Michael.”

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. Some said these words of farewell were well deserved in view of the controversial relationship between Ambassador McFaul and Russia. Others said it was an instance of airing dirty laundry in public and bad manners. However, the content of that exchange was not as important as its form: the mode of communication and the partners’ status drive the message home. While a century ago the language of diplomacy was French, today diplomats prefer trolling.

Official dictionaries do not have a clear definition of trolling. A Google search reveals collectively authored resources, such as Wikipedia, Urban Dictionary, and Lurkmore. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary traces the term’s origin to a same-name fishing method, and only the Oxford Dictionaries website understands exactly what users are looking for when they type the word ‘troll’ in the search line. Oxford Dictionaries defines ‘troll’ as “to write false or insulting messages in Internet chat rooms, blogs, etc. in order to make other people angry.” One of the briefest definitions is found in Urban Dictionary: “being a prick on the Internet because you can.” The authors of all the definitions agree that the ultimate aim of trolling is “butthurt;” in other words, a feeling of stress, frustration, and an opponent’s anger. Trolling is used in order to take digs at people and annoy them. Ideally, it is used to make people loose self-control, become aggressive, and make others look like rowdy savages. An article in The New York Times published in 2008 called “Trolls Among Us” carried this definition of trolling: “The joy of disrupting another’s emotional equilibrium, … of watching someone lose their mind at their computer 2,000 miles away while you chat with friends and laugh.”

The wailing wall

What trolls really do is to shake loose the borders of the permissible. Naturally, neither Russian diplomats nor anyone else does trolling on purpose; rather “they merely fight back using the same style in which they are being addressed”. However, this is the specific nature of the Internet as a special environment that sets the communication format and standards of interaction, thus dictating its own rules so nothing has to be done “on purpose.” It is just enough to become adjusted to the proposed circumstances.

Trolling can be expressed not just in words, but also in symbolic gestures, which happened during a distance exchange between U.S. and Russian envoys at the beginning of 2014. On February 6, 2014, U.S. envoy to the UN Samantha Power tweeted that she had just met members of the Pussy Riot group. When the media asked Russian envoy Vitaly Churkin for a comment, he advised Power to join the rock group herself and launch a world tour that would begin at the National Cathedral in Washington and culminate with a gala show near the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem; Power tweeted a reply stating that the first such show might be dedicated to Russia’s political prisoners.

The media and social networks made this acrimonious exchange available to a huge international audience, splitting it into two opposing camps; even those who did not care before had to choose a side to support. The ensuing debate over whether an informal tone of communication between diplomats in the public space was permissible raised the familiar question of whether all means were justified to achieve certain ends. Is an opponent’s misconduct a sufficient reason to demonstrate to him and everybody else around your condescending or high-handed attitude? What is really important in the context of the evolution of political rhetoric is that this and other such incidents establish new rules, move the borderline of the permissible, and set an example to follow. Public figures, politicians, and high-ranking officials are always trendsetters. Diplomats also set the rules of etiquette. The collapse of the common rules political scientists are discussing these days began with the end of etiquette, and the destruction of a common language.

The rules of diplomatic etiquette are written in blood, just like traffic rules. High style and firm formalities are needed for opposing parties to discuss the most complex and sensitive government issues without harm to their own honor and dignity. The stricter the etiquette, the less freedom and the safer the traffic on the streets. Repeated emphasis on one’s respectful attitude towards an opponent, old-fashioned manners, and redundant wordings serves just one aim—to increase the distance between the personality of the conversation partner and the seriousness of the problem being discussed to the maximum extent in order to have an opportunity to conduct a dialogue even when there are no more arguments left and only cannonballs and gunpowder are at hand. In the meantime, the Internet, social networks, and digital technologies have eliminated all distance and restrictions, symbolic at first, and then all the others. Therefore, now that the time has arrived to fetch cannonballs and gunpowder, the morality of propaganda changed quickly in order to get over collapsed ethical barriers, and did so on a vast scale encompassing many professionals, from journalists and public figures to media workers and diplomats.

On the one hand, the ongoing processes seem to be quite natural: new technologies, new opportunities, and the need to operate in a changed environment and resist new threats with available means. On the other hand, this situation has illustrated the inability of all these professionals to critically assess the means they use in pursuit of their aims and to realize that the inevitable side effects of the means employed make the very ends they seek quite senseless.

A special treat for regular customers

Once a narrow profession, marketing has grown into a mass discourse to familiarize politicians with such terms as target audience, explain how to get to the end client’s heart, and foment customer interest. Politicians and civil servants found the new opportunities irresistible and, having discovered the social networks for themselves, decided to do everything “by the book” instead of reinventing the bike. Amazingly, this has had the reverse effect: only “regular customers” agree to “buy” the idea, while potential customers are scared away by propaganda. The experience of political discussions on the Internet has indicated that everyone remains committed to an original idea, sometimes even firmer than before. Aggressive information campaigns on social networks polarize opinions and split audiences along “friend-or-foe” lines. Those who doubt or hesitate are declared outcasts. The Internet is not a place for doubts or shades of opinion, and opponents take radical positions.

Comparisons of the aggressiveness of discussions on Twitter and Wikipedia have found that on Twitter—whose main content is a message 140 characters in length and where a wall of one’s own posts is the main interface—aggressiveness is rampant, while Wikipedia has devised a number of detailed conciliatory procedures because Wikipedia’s main content is a collective product—a co-written and co-edited article.

The net effect of propaganda is perceived and accepted only by like-minded people, which turns it into a discussion with one’s own self. The higher the intensity of propaganda, the less opponents want to listen to each other, for each knows in advance what the other side will say next.

But what is the meaning of all this? Are diplomats not obliged by virtue of their service to turn an attentive ear to their opponent and try to come to terms? The problem is that the methods and means diplomats use these days rule out the slightest possibility of this.

Propaganda is unmistakably present not only in public speeches or statements for the mass media, but also in working contacts. According to a NATO source, communicating with Russian counterparts today is harder than ever before. In private one-on-one meetings the same things are said and with as much emotional thrust as at news conferences in front of media audiences. This means that the delusion, which is quite frequent even in professional circles, that there are grandstanding in politics (with all sorts of vocal statements) and “genuine” policy-making (at the level of experts, who always find a common language) does not quite agree with reality. Experts do not always find a common language either.

The current effects of propaganda on international politics leave room only for one agenda, meant for the general public, while there is absolutely no place for talks “behind the scenes.” This is not very typical: one may be a sincere advocate of a certain ideology and yet shift from one communication tone to another, depending on the social context. These days there are no more customary borders between public and personal matters. In fact, social networks shape a unified space where public and private affairs coexist simultaneously and inseparably.

One of the manifestations of such “digital transparency” of the modern world can be seen in the numerous leaks of confidential conversations between politicians to the mass media. For instance, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s alleged remark that Putin was not in touch with reality and was “in another world” dropped into a discussion with U.S. President Barack Obama in March 2014. Putin allegedly said in an August 2014 conversation with Jose Manuel Barroso that Kiev could have been taken in two weeks if Russia had wanted. Another example is Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s comments in front of Russian legislators in November in which he quoted John Kerry’s statement about his own president, naturally made in a private conversation. It is noteworthy that each incident entails mutual charges that the rules of diplomatic etiquette have been violated.

The situation is strange, indeed. Partners first break the rules of the game, expand maneuvering room at a neighbor’s expense, and defy the code of politeness, but then accuse each other precisely of that kind of wrongdoing, of violating the rules of morality and ethics. That is not just a primitive double standard tactic, but an attempt in the face of soaring chaos to find the last support for existence within the basic principles and values of human coexistence that are thought to be inviolable, even though there are no principles left, only memories.

Both politicians and diplomats who employ all opportunities the Internet has to offer to pursue an audience, express one’s ideas to as many people as possible, garner more likes, surprise, persuade, gain popularity, and conquer minds and souls ignore one simple fact—many of those whom they address are not people at all.

The zombie apocalypse

It is noteworthy that the use of so-called Internet bots or professional trolls came to public attention when some informants decided to reveal the secret. Suspicions and unconfirmed feelings emerged a long time ago, but nothing could be said for certain for one simple reason – on the Internet you cannot see who is at the other end of the line. A conversation partner can be judged only on the basis of publications—texts, photos, videos, etc.—and it turns out that these days even this is not enough to distinguish between a human being and a robot, let alone between an ordinary user and a government agent. Russia’s foreign policy trolls first gained notoriety in 2014, but according to the daily Novaya Gazeta and leaks from Anonymous International they got down to business no later than 2013. Their counterparts in the U.S.’s Digital Outreach Team and Britain’s JTRIG emerged earlier, but came into the limelight (for which Edward Snowden takes the credit) at about the same time as the Russians.

From the organizational standpoint these three services are hard to compare. The U.S. division is organic to the U.S. Department of State structure, the British group is part of the intelligence community, while Russian “troll factories,” according to investigative journalists, are disguised as news agencies or commercial outlets, publish employment ads to hire university students, and are financed by private individuals close to the Kremlin. What a Russian onlooker views as the routine pocketing of budget money to the accompaniment of pseudo-patriotic rhetoric, is perceived by foreign audiences as a barbarian invasion and a hybrid warfare weapon. Special reports like “The Agency” in The New York Times merely add to this impression. The Guardian, The Washington Post, and other media have already started hunting Russian trolls on their websites, American and European politicians called on their governments to spend more on the struggle against Russian influences, so the results, albeit intermediary, of Russia’s information campaign addressed to Western audiences are very much in sight.

It may turn out, of course, that the danger is exaggerated and the effectiveness of Internet propaganda is not as high as it might seem at first. A 2012 survey of the U.S. Digital Outreach Team’s activities conducted by Stanford University’s Middle East Institute found out that the participants in forums and social networks with whom the group had been in touch largely refrained from further contact, criticized, and ridiculed the group’s operation and U.S. foreign policy in general. Moreover, research into the group’s influence on changes in the Internet audience’s attitude towards U.S. policies indicated that before the intervention of digital diplomats, 42.3% of discussion participants were critical of U.S. policy, while 7.7% had generally positive responses; after the intervention the share of U.S. policy critics soared to 73.4%, and that of its supporters shrank to 3.6%.

As follows from official instructions and interviews with informants, the methods Internet trolls employ do not depend on citizenship. Any tool that looks effective enough comes in handy: forged eyewitness accounts, photo and video editing, provocations, “false flag operations” conducted under false pretenses to discredit the opponent, etc.

There is a special group of activities, such as the alleged terrorist attack on a plant owned by Columbian Chemicals Company, Inc. in Louisiana on 11 September 2014, which made the news of the day on all social networks although it never happened. Other examples include cyber-attacks against Estonian media resources on 26 April 2007 or the notorious viruses Stuxnet and Flame. The key characteristic feature of bots of any nationality is that they are not ordinary people in the customary sense of the word.

An Internet bot is a function. It is neither a human being nor an individual; it is an algorithm, a set of commands, and an electric signal. It does not matter whether this signal travels between living neurons or metallic contacts; it is transmitted and that says it all. A bot made of flesh and blood is expected to do no more than a programmed bot does, i.e. a specific action, so it does not matter who will write a commentary, publish a photograph, or tick the “like” box. Bots are like horror film zombies. They look like people, but they are empty shells with nothing inside. Nevertheless, on the Internet it is hard to tell initially between a zombie and a human. The task gets ever harder as technologies become more sophisticated. To put it in a nutshell, bots are capable of shaping a picture of the reality by simulating certain types of social activity, supporting some themes, and ignoring others, etc. But the end recipient of this reality is a specific client.

Amid aggressive propaganda it is impossible to distinguish between an individual’s own views and those which are imposed on a person. Any public opinion survey records expected approval and support, and results obtained in this way are offered as an excuse for decisions that are made. Respondents easily reproduce conflicting statements not because they really believe in them, but because they have memorized dominant discourses well. As a former employee of one of Russia’s troll factories testifies: “There was no ideological brainwashing or regular instructions. Everything was very simple and pretty clear to all the newly employed: nothing bad about Putin, Donbass militias are not terrorists. ‘Don’t you know that?’ One has the impression that all newcomers are well aware where they are and what they should write.”

The person who orders this kind of propaganda finds himself inside an echo chamber: all around he hears endless amplified repetitions of his own words. The surrounding reality mirrors nothing but his own self, the imaginary audience shares his values and each subsequent event merely confirms his expectations. The impression of wide popular support creates the delusion that the authorities and society share responsibility for the policy, which merely results in further amplification.

The opinions of opponents have lost all value. Only the opinion of one’s own group, of like-minded people, really counts. There is no place for doubts about being right or wrong. It does not matter what your conversation partner might be thinking and what opinion the person on the other side might have. The only important opinions are those next to you and behind you.

Neither a formal information analysis nor local agents in the field can help. According to a source close to the Russian Foreign Ministry, official papers describing the attitude of Western counterparts to Russia customarily interpret all criticism as anti-Russian propaganda and stereotypes. This attitude insists that the absence of positive comments is a graphic illustration of the West’s inability to recognize the obvious successes of Russia’s policies.

In other words, propaganda attracts friends, repels doubters, and hardens opponents. In this situation the main professional skill of diplomats—negotiate a solution—is lost as redundant. Prolonged self-communication, endless self-presentation, and the fanning of tensions are what propaganda is all about. It is a talk with the self instead of a talk with others. All of this results in mutual isolation and the collapse of the international relations system, while the traditional principle of diplomacy proves an ideal mechanism for escalating contradictions. All these side effects put a big question mark over whether the current tactic is good enough for addressing foreign policy tasks. Changing the situation for the better will be possible only by taking a step to meet others halfway—a step that would be spontaneous, unprovoked, and not a result of the current time-serving logic.