A tweet by State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki Thursday night sparked snarky Twitter responses about the diplomacy of a hashtag – but the tweet really is more evidence of a brewing social media Cold War between the U.S. and Russia.
— Jen Psaki (@statedeptspox) April 24, 2014
Psaki was responding to the Russian Foreign ministry hijacking the State Department’s #UnitedForUkraine campaign by posting its own version of events while using the hashtag.
— MFA Russia (@mfa_russia) April 25, 2014
#UnitedForUkraine isn’t the only hashtag to be reappropriated by Russia. In the last few weeks, State’s #RussiaIsolated hashtag regarding Russia’s actions in Crimea sparked a series of tweets from Russian embassies around the world mocking the campaign by tweeting positive messages about Russia and including #russiaisolated.
Pro-Russian groups have also started a series of parody accounts, such as @russiaisolator. And pro-Russian social media troll Psaki and state’s @ukrprogress accounts, immediately posting critical and sometimes crude tweets in response.
— Russian Embassy, IDN (@RusEmbJakarta) March 29, 2014
— Russian Embassy TH (@RusEmbBangkok) March 28, 2014
— RussianEmbassyCanada (@RussianEmbassyC) March 25, 2014
State has admitted it is playing catch-up to Russia on social media propaganda, with the undersecretary for public diplomacy, Rick Stengel, a former journalist, telling CNN that Russia’s been building up its social media presence for the last 10 years.
In response, the U.S. has started the New Ukraine Task Force, a social media hub in Russian to talk to Russian speakers in Eastern Ukraine and in Central Europe, who State says are being bombarded by Russian media.
The campaign is also spearheading the English posts and hashtags that are trying to help counter the influence in greater Europe of RT, the Russian government-owned television station formally called Russia Today that is distributed around the world, including the United States. Secretary of State John Kerry called the channel a “propaganda bullhorn” Thursday. RT denies the accusation and formally called for an apology today.
However, with RT’s reach of 85 million households around the world and no regulations as to how the Kremlin is allowed to influence Russian media, the U.S. government faces challenges in matching Russia’s media reach without violating U.S. freedom of press laws and values.