Virtual Reality

Every couple of days, the Twitter account for the King’s Russia Institute gets a ping, thanks to this tweet sent by the Russian Embassy in London back in early January:

There are two puzzles here. First, why did @RussianEmbassy – which has become something of a legend in the world of diplomatic trolling – copy the @KingsRussia into their tweet? Second, why are people still retweeting and replying to it, almost two months later? I’m no closer to solving the first question, but I might have discovered the answer to the second. (I’m not even going to try to figure out the significance of that frog.)

This was the clue:

What is the Russian Embassy’s ‘Diplomatic Club‘? Evidently, it’s the latest thing in ‘digital diplomacy’: signing up gets you the Embassy’s newsletter, entry into prize draws, and period invitations to the Ambassador’s residence. That’s the pro.

What’s the quid? Simple: through the magic of a commercial marketing tool called TweetSquad, the Embassy gets access to your Twitter account, which will automatically retweet messages from the Embassy and Ambassador Yakovenko whenever the Embassy’s social media team see fit. (Apologies if I’m the last person to have figured this out.)

Here’s the offer TweetSquad makes to its clients (improper punctuation and capitalization are preserved from the original):

  • Use your ‘retweet bank’ to boost your tweets every week.
  • Your tweets get retweeted from your squad member’s twitter account
  • The more squad members you recruit, the more retweets and reach you get!
  • All automated and controlled by your marketing team.
  • Guaranteed and quantifiable retweets from your fan base.

Is this nefarious? Not particularly. And perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that diplomats are now relying on exactly the same tools and techniques as our fast-food outlets, mobile phone companies and big-name celebrities. I have no way of knowing how many of the retweets of Ambassadorial tweets are generated via TweetSquad, but the use of the tool means that ‘Diplomatic Club Members’ are rebroadcasting the messages that the Embassy is most interested in, regardless of those individuals’ own interests (and quite outside their control). At the very least, it kind of puts paid to the idea that Russia’s foreign policy is rallying a global cohort of true believers.

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