Soft Power / Hard Meme

February 2017

Natalie Kane is a writer, curator and researcher working at the intersection of digital culture, futures and design.

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In early 2016, @RussianEmbassy, the verified Twitter account from the Russian Embassy in the UK, sent an image to the Russian Ministry of Defence via Twitter, warning that ‘Extremists near Aleppo received several truckloads of chemical ammo.' On further inspection, rather than a matter of urgency, it became immediately apparent that these were neither extremist trucks, nor was it in fact an actual photograph of real trucks at all. In fact, the images were a screen capture of trucks used in the famous PC game, Command and Conquer, which as the independent journalist Karl McDonald discovered is 'the first image that shows up at the top of a Google search for the term "bomb truck".'

This is not the first time Russia’s embassies have trolled another nation on Twitter. Earlier, in September 2014, @RussianEmbassyUAE taunted the Ukraine using a similar image, this time consisting of toy trucks, to make light of the country’s accusations against Russia.

This tongue-in-cheek behaviour reads like boys playing toy soldier, or at least a child’s faint grasp on the geopolitical landscape. Ηowever these embassy twitter accounts occupy a rather controversial and fragile diplomatic space. Essentially International Relations via Twitter, a technique we are become rapidly acclimatised to, through President Donald Trump’s infamous use of the social networking site. @RussianEmbassy, through its use of images, has gained a reputation as being a particularly volatile presence within the already blurry narrative we see developing around media, diplomacy and soft power.

Even as comedy it doesn’t work. The whole point of memes, and in fact, their entire pervasiveness across the internet, comes from the idea that they are, more often than not, funny. Even those that are specific to groups of individuals and their cultures – from 4chan to chemistry students – are funny to them in some way. @RussianEmbassy’s tweets often seem to be falling into the void, one on top of each other, laughed at relentlessly by onlookers before they hit the ground.

In an attempt to force memes into an (arguably quite serious) broadcast about international relations, @RussianEmbassy becomes a meme itself. It’s very hard to see if anyone takes them seriously at all, even those they are supposed to represent. However, perhaps we should take them seriously, because ultimately, images and their use in culture, however misguided and childlike, mean something. What does it mean that the main diplomatic communications after the official channels, which are much more closed off and inaccessible than a social media site, are a series of taunts, accusations and sarcastic remarks? While social media platforms are rapidly transformed by politics and politicians themselves, should we cease to expect the decorum, supposed rationality and (somewhat comforting) mundanity that we perhaps expect from an embassy? As places of potential safety for those in foreign territory, can we find refuge in a joker?

The owner of the @RussianEmbassy’s account is, so far, secret (or at least not investigated), and I hesitate to make any guesses as to who it might be – you never know what might trigger the next diplomatic incident. It’s easy to see why Twitter’s more than vocal users have asked @RussianEmbassy if the owner is in fact a deviant teenager, or has at least been hijacked by one. This ask questions about how digital governance in done – and particularly, how power passes from person to person – that gives permission to a social media manager to ‘go rogue’oin the way @RussianEmbassy has. If these were coming from an individual, we would call it eccentric and potentially dangerous, but with a shopfront as significant as a major embassy, it’s hard to see where this behaviour comes from, who gave sign-off, or why.

One of the more alarming provocations was yet to come, and a huge red flag when making light of @RussianEmbassy’s apparent immaturity and lack of people skills. In January 2017, @RussianEmbassy tweeted one of 2016’s most memorable figures, Pepe le Frog, used to question the media around Prime Minister Theresa May’s potential intervention into US-Russia relations. Anyone who recognises this image knows the power it currently holds.

Pepe the Frog rose to infamy with the rapid acceleration (and increased visibility) of the alt-right. Originally a character in the black and white cartoon Boy’s Club by Matt Furie, Pepe was laid back, easygoing and known for his catchphrase, ‘feels good man.’ Around 2008, Pepe started to appear on social websites, including MySpace, Gaia online, and the notorious 4chan, alongside other frog-related memes (“Dat Boi” and “Sad Frog” among the most prominent).

It wasn’t until Donald Trump’s campaign in 2015 that it became associated with the alt-right, when a version of Pepe was mangled into a form resembling the soon-to-be President, which he subsequently retweeted onto his own timeline.

Now Pepe has become a political mascot for extreme conservatism and white nationalism, the image replicated and adapted thousands of times to suit whatever target is chosen. It indicates a belonging to a certain ideology, and in 2016, was inducted into the Anti-Defamation League’s Hate Symbol Database (content note for the last link: really awful racism).

It’s hard to know if the author of @RussianEmbassy really knows what they are doing by using Pepe, as although it would be hard not to if you use Twitter; their lack of nuance in usage gives them away. Though their behaviour is alarmingly similar to the anonymous Twitter accounts with Pepe avatars, it doesn’t quite hit the mark - though it doesn’t mean that this doesn’t matter. By using these particular images in a way that crudely mirrors the tactics and language of these abusive groups, a signal of belonging or shared opinion is emitted, essentially condoning the behaviour that is so aggressively mobilised online.

As a representative arm of a world power, @RussianEmbassy is legitimising a certain knee-jerk reaction, the kind that screams ‘fake news!’ and takes wild, childish jabs at other leaders. It is an astonishing demonstration of soft power in action, with the use of these images creating a butterfly effect in the way we see diplomacy expressed online, as their persuasive, incremental influence makes its way to the top tables of government. It’s also nothing new, just a fuzzier form of propaganda.

Finally, one aspect of @RussianEmbassy’s character that sits oddly in the wider frame of the account, is the disclosure stated in the bottom-right-hand corner of nearly all of the images used by the author: 'For illustration purposes only.'

These images are suddenly wrenched from their context, from the news stories they originally belong to, to the cartoons, films and TV shows that once spawned them. This reuse underlines the @RussianEmbassy’s often rhetorical, occasionally inflammatory statements. Beyond the obvious, legal concerns that this text seems to attempt to cover, it is a bizarre way of shifting blame, as if everything has the capacity to be fiction; as if everything can be fake; as if everything can be a meme, or at least part of the making of one, from 4chan to the President.

This work is part of a series: Fauxtography