If any of your Twitter friends have been unusually pro-Russia lately, or retweeting comments made by Russia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom Alexander Yakovenko, they may have signed up for an online “diplomatic club” sponsored by the Russian embassy in London. The description of this club is innocuous enough: “a way for everybody interested in international policy and all things Russian to gain knowledge, get insights from top diplomats, and be part of fascinating networking.” To join the club, however, users hand the Russian embassy control over their Twitter account and allow the embassy to automatically retweet one of the Ambassador’s “most important” tweets every week. In short, the club turns followers into Twitter bots, parroting pre-selected content with no control over what they consider to be an “important” tweet or what aligns with their own views on Russian diplomacy. These bots seem to be a form of Russian soft power, creating a perception of public support for Russia’s activities. Twitter bots are not new to politics—they were widely used in the U.S. presidential election, for example–but they are new to the world of state-sponsored content and foreign policy.
Using Twitter bots to shape perception of Russia is not an unexpected next move from a government that deployed a Pepe meme in a tweet aimed at British Prime Minister Theresa May. Regardless of whether or not the employee running the Russian embassy’s social media knew about the white supremacist undertones of Pepe, the idea that a state would be using memes to communicate with world leaders and express an opinion about Western relationships with Russia is certainly novel. Turning followers into bots as a form of social influence and soft power is doubly so. Russia is making it clear that, when it comes to the new world of digital diplomacy, they are open to trying a wide variety of inventive social media strategies in order to increase their position in public opinion, create an illusion of broad popular support, and influence relations.
What is not clear, however, is how lucrative this strategy will be. The Diplomatic Club, though still in its infancy, reportedly has fewer than 500 members—some of which also may be bots. Using Pepe in a tweet to Theresa May drew a lot of attention, but is unlikely to have had much of an impact on U.S.-UK relations or UK-Russian relations. Still, it may be that we begin to see more of such tactics as nations seek to broaden their digital diplomacy arsenals and widen their reach. Memes appeal to a wide variety of people across national borders and cultures and speak a language all their own, not understood by those in the out-group, and bots were surprisingly effective at spreading fake news during 2016 election. Ineffective soft power has been singled out as one of the reasons Russia fell behind in the Cold War, when Soviet propaganda was unable to keep up with the “cool” Western movies, music, and television that crossed the Berlin Wall. Now Russia is developing innovative social media strategies to win hearts and minds abroad.
Russia’s embassy calls this program “diplomacy of the future,” which sounds a tad ominous when combined with a miniature army of Twitter bots, but may be accurate nonetheless. It is undeniable that soft power is a very desirable commodity that complements hard power as part of a comprehensive foreign affairs strategy. Twitter bots are cheap to buy or even free, as in the Russian embassy’s case, making them a potentially attractive option for any public figure or institution looking to raise awareness of a positive news piece or bit of commentary. Additionally, they are completely malleable and can be leveraged in a variety of situations. The United States could employ bots to disseminate information in unfriendly regimes like Iran and North Korea in an attempt to influence relations, though they may bump up against internet censors. Alternatively, China could bring in bots as part of their $10 billion soft power strategy designed to promote its culture and shape international perception of their foreign policy.
What remains to be seen, though, is how effective bots are at not just sharing and spreading information, but at influencing public opinion and relations between countries. Russian bots, for example, are known to have played a role in Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, but, at this point, no one seems to have figured out to quantify how meaningful that role was in influencing the election results. If it was indeed a significant impact, then we will likely see future Twitter bot armies deployed in elections around the world as politicians, political parties, and other groups try to influence the outcome.