Russia, Not Russia: The Tweet Heard Round the World

Andrew Burtch, Carleton University |

On the evening of 27 August 2014, Canada’s permanent mission to NATO tweeted out a tongue-in-cheek response to claims that Russian troops had entered Crimea by “mistake” or had “gotten lost” during the occupation and de-facto annexation of the peninsula. It read: “Geography can be tough. Here’s a guide for Russian soldiers who keep getting lost and ‘accidentally’ entering #Ukraine,” accompanied by the pictured map:

The tweet, as diplomatic missives go, was immensely successful. Users of Twitter reposted the original tweet more than 35,000 times in two days, and more than 40,000 times to date. By the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development’s (DFATD) analysis, it was estimated to have potentially reached more than 30 million viewers. Its comedic tone surprised observers used to a more staid, tweed-clad vision of Canada on the international stage, and it was quickly picked up and reported by 4,000 news sources including CNN and BBC, outlets that rarely reported on Canadian news. Its success seemed a stunning endorsement for the new era of “digital diplomacy” that was introduced by Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird in February 2014.

The goal of digital diplomacy, the Minister affirmed, was to move past “the closed world of démarches, summits and diplomatic dinners” that he considered insufficient “to project our values and interests.” The move was also meant to permit embassies to engage directly with local actors, communities, and businesses rather than just state representatives in the country where the embassy was housed, an important innovation in countries where freedom of expression was curtailed. Skeptical press observers and international relations experts questioned how much freedom would be granted embassies by the Conservative government notorious for its tight message control, and how much the measure was linked to cost-cutting initiatives. Whatever the grander motives, the Canada at NATO account was one of approximately 60 created in early 2014, first posting to Twitter on 27 March 2014.

The account’s activation was timely, given events in Ukraine and eastern Europe. A little over a month earlier, massive and bloody protests in Kiev ousted the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych. Violent protests followed in Crimea as Russian-leaning politicians and demonstrators demanded secession from the rest of Ukraine. Gunmen occupied the Crimean parliament building, “local defence forces” (Russian military forces) overran or demanded the surrender of Ukrainian military or naval units. Crimean officials, presumably under Russian instruction, called for a snap referendum on whether to leave Ukraine for re-accession to Russia, which was carried out on 16 March with 95.5% of voters conveniently supporting the measure as hostilities continued on the peninsula. Canada voted a week later to kick Russia out of the Group of 8. On the date of the Canada at NATO account’s activation, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution denouncing an illegal referendum and Russia’s de facto annexation of Crimea.

It is fitting, then, that the new Twitter account showcased Canada’s commitment to European security and the NATO alliance. Much of its early content featured celebratory words concerning the 65th anniversary of NATO and what it meant to Canada, but quickly focused on what the country would do to support the alliance amid what appeared to be a new Cold War. As Yves Brodeur, Canada’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the North Atlantic Council from 2011-2015, recalled, the Crimea crisis took NATO by surprise, but that it was the British who urged allies to do more to react to the Russians’ astute social media campaigns to spread disinformation and propaganda throughout Eastern Europe and the Balkans. NATO had no equivalent to Radio Free Europe, and no way to win the communications battle. In the end, no united front was formed. NATO left it up to each individual allied nation to determine how they should respond.

Brodeur recounted that the Canadian delegation had considerable leeway when it came to social media – the Canadian government was very vocal in its opposition to Russian moves in Crimea, including the Prime Minister and members of Cabinet. The @CanadaNATO account set about its own counter-propaganda campaign against Russian misinformation about its involvement in Ukraine, and retweeted media analyses critical of Russian moves in Crimea and Ukraine. The delegation also promoted the Canadian government’s announced deployment of air, naval, and army assets to support what would become Operation REASSURANCE, a series of symbolic military deployments to the Mediterranean and eastern Europe to demonstrate NATO members’ commitment to collective security. The delegation published dozens of Canadian Armed Forces photographs, NATO videos, and media pieces over the summer of 2014. And then, in response to reports of Russian soldiers getting “lost” and turning up in Crimea, the map hit the web.

But where did the Russia/Not Russia map come from? Who developed the map, and what digital diplomacy goals did the delegation hope to achieve by publishing it? A formal Access to Information request (A-2016-02209) to Global Affairs Canada about this tweet did not reveal much about its origins, nor did it show any evidence of the Harper government’s strict message approval process which Canadian media had previously criticized. What it did show was delegation staff surprised and elated with the map’s positive reception and explosive circulation, dwarfing the response to any of their previous outings on social media. In the midst of the official back-patting, the map’s author was revealed: one of the delegation’s interns.

Gregor Sharp, a graduate of Mount Allison University pursuing a master’s degree in international management in Paris, interned at the delegation from June to September 2014. He inherited the responsibility for the delegation’s account because, he attests, everyone else was so overworked given the events that spring. The account’s management in his memory was somewhat ad-hoc as a result, and his work consisted mainly of developing a bank of tweets and posts that could be published at convenience. These marked new deployments, government communications, media critical of Russia, as well as an effort to reach out to NATO allies with posts marking national holidays and other observances. His work was approved by a short chain of delegation staff who were positively disposed to social media.

The map itself was, as Sharp puts it, the result of spending “far too much time on the internet, which probably explains both my warped sense of humour and why I thought doing this would be good for a laugh (even if only for my supervisors).”[1] The map was not pre-planned, but prompted by Sharp’s amused reaction to the Russian line on its intrusions into Ukrainian territory. With limited graphic design knowledge, “hence why the map is so awful,” Sharp put the map together in ten minutes before heading into a meeting. To his surprise, the delegation approved and published the tweet. In a phone interview, Brodeur remembered the meeting: “The idea wasn’t really discussed, I just approved it, gave the green light to do it and do it quickly. … it was a very funny way to react to something dramatic – clounesque, strange claims about how the Russians explained their involvement.”[2]

Sharp didn’t track the response to his map until he arrived home after work from the delegation, when a media liaison officer told him to check the news. He was not initially thrilled: “I was pretty convinced I’d just ruined any chance of working with the federal government.” But as the accolades rolled in, and his colleagues at the delegation reported support from allies, and more importantly, from Ottawa, his panic subsided. He moved on from the delegation a month later, moving to intern at Canada’s embassy in Iceland (where John Baird made sure to personally congratulate him on the map during a visit) and other posts. He is now working towards a doctoral degree at the University of British Columbia.

It appears that the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade was not prepared for the viral success of the map. While documents from the ATIP show that some were immensely pleased with how Sharp’s map had garnered international attention while discrediting the Russians, the DFAIT “system”, as Brodeur put it, was not so sure. They were not forewarned about the idea, and had questions about how the map fit into strategy. “This thing became viral,” Brodeur said, “[and was] recognized by the department, by allies, by the media. But the bigger issue about how to use social media to communicate messages, to strategize and deliver on these messages, not solved by the time I left [the NATO post].”

Sharp’s map long outlived his brief internship. The Russian mission to NATO offered an initial humourless retort to the Canadian trolling, releasing a map of their own to instruct Canada on “the contemporary geography of Europe”:

Their reply received only 2,000 retweets, but the Russians measure foreign influence somewhat differently. Brodeur offered a prescient reflection on the tense Canada-Russian social media exchange: “[In 2014] The Russians were good at using information or misinformation across media, but obviously they didn’t know how to be witty or funny. Looking back at it, it seems they learned fast, and we didn’t.”

The Russians have since cemented their hold on Crimea and extended their support to Russian-speaking separatists in Eastern Ukraine in what has become a protracted civil war. Part of this war is fought online, through social media, misleading news stories published through Facebook, Twitter, and sharing sites like /reddit and 4chan, in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the Ukrainian state and the resolve of NATO members, particularly in the Baltic states. Like the “little green men” who overran the streets of Sevastopol and turned up in Eastern Ukraine, the Russians have sophisticated bot-nets and social media allies paid or unpaid who can carry their message without official state affiliation.

As the 2016 United States election and Brexit referendum proved, Russian information warfare is advanced, and senior officials are willing to use it to achieve strategic aims and to sow division and confusion. Its full impact is still under investigation, but the Twitter platform announced plans to notify 677,775 American users who interacted with Russia-linked accounts during the 2016 election season, including the company’s CEO, Jack Dorsey. It is unclear how effective efforts such as the @CanadaNATO digital diplomacy have in shaping international opinion. However, it is interesting that the little map made by an intern as a joke was still being circulated in 2017, and not just by individual users. In March, to mark the third anniversary of the Russian annexation, the United States delegation to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reposted the map, with the message: “3 years later, #Russia still isn’t passing this geography test. #CrimeaisUkraine.”


Notes

[1] Correspondence with author

[2] Interview with author

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