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Epic fail! US diplomats find they can’t control the narrative on social media


Bryan MacDonald is a Russia-based Irish journalist and media commentator who focuses on Russia and its hinterlands and international geo-politics.

Published time: February 02, 2015 01:21

RT bashing is a fashion among the American elite right now. From Victoria Nuland to John Kerry, few are missing their chance to participate. When a minor official from the US’ Moscow embassy decided to join in, it blew up in his face.

"Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far”

– President Theodore Roosevelt

Will Stevens is probably a decent skin. His Twitter bio emphasizes that he’s a dad and husband before his role as spokesman for the US Embassy in Moscow. That’s a nice touch. Indeed, Will might be a fan of Roosevelt, or maybe not. One way or another, he’d do well to take some of Teddy’s wisdom on board.

Diplomacy is a delicate art. Usually, an emissary’s mission is to defend the reputation of their homeland and promote its policies, without offending the locals. Now, Will is not an ambassador; he’s a press officer. Even so, taking groundless pops at Russian institutions is probably not the smartest thing a man in his position could do.

Mr. Stevens had a look at RT’s 'In The Now' last week – an excellent show, backboned by Anissa Naoui. Anissa had highlighted a glaring error in The Economist’s nonsense about Russian media. By the way, the magazine is British, but does project a pro-Washington line. Long before Twitter provided an outlet for anonymous folk to troll, The Economist was at it.

Tutorial: How to write a propaganda piece on Russia. Featuring ‘The Economist'

The London-based periodical alleged that Russia's press was censoring reportage on the country's current economic problems. This is complete rubbish. Trust me, I am tired of the constant TV coverage of fiscal circumstances here in Russia. It's wall-to-wall analysis of the ruble's slide, to such an extent that I subconsciously seem to know the currency rates by heart.

Twitter diplomacy, one-track White House

The brave Will decided to conduct a Twitter poll, allowing his 1,600 followers to decide whether they believed RT’s version of events or those of The Economist. As of 6 p.m. Moscow time on Sunday, 617 had ‘favorited’ for RT and 43 had ‘retweeted’ for The Economist. Twitter diplomacy had become Twitter democracy, and Mr. Steven’s epic fail was apparent. 

     Russia Today teaches us "How to Write Propaganda" https://t.co/JFwwINCUXo#Poll, whom do you trust? RT for @theEconomist, Fav for @RT_com

— Will Stevens (@WBStevens) January 30, 2015

   I can thoroughly understand why he never considered the possible risks. Since 2001, the US landscape has changed. The press, which once aggressively acted as the ultimate watchdog on American government excess, has become pliant. When you are used to facing little or no domestic questioning, it must be quite a shock to finally encounter it.

The weakness of the American ‘fourth estate’ is best seen in Jen Psaki’s mind-numbing briefings at the State Department. The White House press pool loyally sit for nod-fests, with nobody willing to raise their head above the parapet and ask serious questions. Regarding the current Ukraine civil war, there is a stock Psaki statement, available in two variants, which has become a parody of itself.

If the rebels commit an atrocity, she condemns it. Should the pro-Kiev forces murder civilians, Psaki calls for an “investigation.” The assembled hacks dutifully nod their way through the diatribe, fully aware that to point out the inconsistency wouldn’t be a smart career move. This is not exclusive to Washington; not many Russian journalists are willing to strong-arm President Putin. However, unlike Obama, Putin does hold press conferences where those outside the ‘pool’ can grill him.

In 2004, Irish journalist Carole Coleman interviewed George W. Bush before an official visit to Dublin. Accustomed to soft-soaping in Washington, the former president was left reeling as Coleman decided to probe him on the US handling of Iraq. How did the US press corps react? Did they stand up for their colleague who had done what they hadn't the cojones to do? No, they attacked her. They questioned her character, her credentials, and accused her of being “disrespectful” to Bush, the poor mite.

Twitter – a passing fad?

When you come from an atmosphere like that of the US, where the media mostly regurgitates government policy positions, it’s surely quite a shock to discover that many of the other 6.5 billion on Earth don’t agree with you. 

   Russian-American journalist Yasha Levine recently described Twitter as a “giant cultural bummer,” adding that “people are gonna (sic) look back on it with embarrassment.” Personally, I’ve oscillated from considering the social network to be a great invention to viewing it as a massive waste of time.

However, Levine is spot on about one thing. Twitter, like all previous fads, will decline in influence and popularity, once something better comes along or the moment passes. Most of us will, 10 years hence, be mortified by half the nonsense we’ve posted on it.

Maybe Will Stevens is the lucky one; he’s experienced the inevitable already. Thanks to his tweet, we also know that a portion of those interested in US-Russia relations trust RT over The Economist by a margin of over 14 to 1.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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