The Two Faces of Russia’s Digital Diplomacy

In 1956, Erving Goffman introduced his theory of impression management. His book, The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, contended that individuals always strive to manage their impressions during social settings. To do, individuals must first identify the social setting they are in (e.g., a theatre or dinner party), adopt the most appropriate behaviors for these settings and take actions that will foster a positive impression on others. For instance, picking one’s nose during a formal party may negatively impact one’s impression, while introducing new topics for discussion during a dinner party may lead to a positive impression. For Goffman, all of life was a stage and all are men and women were actors putting on elaborate shows so as to win over audiences.

Fortunately for Goffman, he did not live to see the age of social media. For what are social media if not grand stages and giant theatres on which individuals manage their impressions. The Presentation of the Self on Social Media is far more demanding than that envisioned by Goffman. The reason being that on social media one manages his/her impression on an hourly basis. Frequent status updates are a prerequisite of social media usage. Those who post and tweet the least experience a form of social death, they are cast aside and thrown to the backstage of social media. Those who post the most attract attention to their shows. Moreover, on social media the ‘show’ never stops, and the curtain never falls. Well-choreographed performances, meant to elicit a certain impression, are posted by individuals from sunset to sundown.

The Presentation of the Self on Social Media is confounded by the fact that different social media platforms constitute different social settings. Twitter is akin to a dinner party where important topics such as politics, art and capitalism are debated; Facebook is a housewarming party where one stumbles into old acquaintances and close friends; LinkedIn is a professional conference filled with ‘meet and greet’ events while Instagram is a fashion magazine in which one must make love to the camera. As each network offers a different setting, individuals must manage multiple impressions while performing multiple shows. The result is often social fatigue.

However, the differences between social media platforms can also serve as an advantage, especially in the realm of diplomacy. For while an Ambassador may use his Twitter account to comment on breaking news or offer an analysis of global events, he may also use Facebook to offer followers a glimpse into his personal life, his home and family or his hobbies. In these cases, the Ambassador’s audiences are supposedly given access to the backstage of his official, Twitter performance. Yet this reveal is merely a slight of hand for an Ambassador’s Facebook page is also a tool for impression management.  In other words, the backstage is in itself just another stage on which the Ambassador performs, while creating a sense of intimacy that cannot be fostered on Twitter.

In this post, I analyzed differences between two impressions of Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). To do so, I focused on Russian MFA Tweets that feature Zakharova (who does not manage her own account) as well as her personal Facebook page. The differences between the two impressions are profound and shed light on how different impressions may be used toward the same diplomatic ends.

Zakharova’s Impression Management on Twitter

The impression that Zakharova manages on Twitter is that of the consummate professional. Tweets containing her hashtag are uniform and display the spokesperson behind a podium briefing journalists or foreign dignitaries. In these Tweets, the podium serves as a prop, or a barrier that prevents followers from creating an intimate relationship with Zakharova.

In addition, Zakharova’s Twitter impression seems to be based on two additional elements- an abrasive and combative tone when commenting on foreign affairs and a specific attire, that of a suit. This impression is almost Thatcher-esque, or at least a 21st version of Thatcher who championed the wearing of suits and was blessed with a quick, sharp tongue. Whether there is a deliberate attempt by the MFA to brand Zakharova as Russia’s Iron Lady is open to debate.

Zakharova’s Impression Management on Facebook

On Facebook, Zakharova’s impression is the antithesis to her daily presentation on Twitter. Unlike her Twitter impression which is strictly professional, Zakharova’s Facebook accounts are a mélange of the professional and the private, the insightful and the banal, the official and the satirical. Whilst this is not wholly surprising, given that impression management changes from network to network, the difference between the two impressions is significant. Presently, Zakharova’s Facebook posts can be categorized into five themes.

1.       The Personal

Much of the content shared by Zakharova on Facebook is personal, or even private. Her feed consists of posts depicting her daily life such as preparing to go to the office or returning home after a long day of briefings. Here, the curtain Zakharova’s Twitter impression is lifted and the backstage is revealed. Indeed, Zakharova’s posts often attest to her emotional state, ranging from elated to fatigued. One notable example is a post updating followers on the health of Zakharova’s pet dog, and the emotional roller-coaster that has followed the pet’s untimely demise. This is by all means a non-diplomatic message as it deals with the home and one’s status as an individual and not as a spokesperson, or surrogate for the state.

Панди нет. Боролись неделю. В стационаре. Но энтерит, паравирусная инфекция и ещё какая-то гадость победили. Ещё два…

Posted by Maria Zakharova on Monday, December 7, 2020

Other times Zakharova uploads pictures taken ‘on the go’. These feature snit bits of her daily life such as passing by a well decorated Christmas tree. These images seem to be haphazard, taken on a whim, ill light and at times even out of focus. Yet they too contribute to the impression of the personal and not the professional. They may thus be deliberately devoid of aesthetics and staging.

Со старым Новым годом! В МИДовском особняке в этом году никаких новогодних мероприятий не проводилось, но ёлку не обидели ????

Posted by Maria Zakharova on Thursday, January 14, 2021

2.       The Banal

Zakharova also uploads images of the banal or the mundane. Here again is a notable clash between the spokesperson, who comments only on the imperative, and the person who comments on the trivial. One example is a video of the first snowflakes to blanket Moscow. In this video, Zakharova offers her followers a respite from international crises and multilateral confrontations. It is a moment in which the world falls silent, along with its woes and trials.

После прошедших 10 месяцев на это можно смотреть бесконечно

Posted by Maria Zakharova on Friday, November 20, 2020

Zakharova even offers followers an inside look into her banal daily life; a house entrance covered in snow or a butterfly visiting her Christmas tree.

За окном зимняя сказка. А внутри ресторан для бабочек. Бывает )

Posted by Maria Zakharova on Saturday, January 2, 2021

 

3.       The Satirical

Humor and diplomacy have long since been related to one another. Diplomats may use humor to ‘break the ice’ during formal meetings; fend off media attacks; win over a public audience and attack government policies without resorting to blunt or harsh language. On her Facebook page, Zakharova embraces the satirical by uploading images of her costumed self, the self that enjoys a good gag or a ‘night on the town’. These are self-deprecating posts in which Zakharova is the butt of the joke. Yet it is exactly such images and videos that make her appealing or even likable- a spokesperson running around Moscow in Green wigs or 1980’s sunglasses. Self-deprecating humor is an especially potent form of communication, one that can elicit trust and attention as the audience is ‘in on the joke’.

Пару дней назад увидела подарочный набор RT – коллекция съедобных ядов. Короче, всё как мы любим. Тут получаю себе…

Posted by Maria Zakharova on Thursday, December 31, 2020

 

4.       The Fashionista

Unlike her images on Twitter, there is nothing Thatcher-esque about Zakharova Selfies on Facebook. In fact, her feed is ripe with Selfies of high-end fashion and glamorous outfits, the kind that could grace the cover of Vogue Magazine. In such Selfies, Zakharova actually distances herself from her followers. For while she is an individual, she is a remarkable one. A celebrity that can be admired from a distance, from behind the lens of the camera. In this manner Zakharova elicits a desire among her followers who wish to become more intimately acquainted with the Fashionista, a desire met by the aforementioned posts. In other words, Zakharova creates a demand and supply chain.

Взгляд на уходящий

Posted by Maria Zakharova on Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Собрала все международные тренды сезона )

Posted by Maria Zakharova on Monday, November 9, 2020

Yet it is through this theme of Fashionista that one begins to discern Zakharova’s sophisticated use of Facebook. For instance, one Fashionista Selfie prominently displays the logo of RT, Russia global news channel and public diplomacy outlet. It is this image which captures Zakharova’s sleight of hand, for even on Facebook she is not just managing her impression, but Russia’s as well.

5.       The Commentator

In addition to Zakharova’s use of Facebook to create a personal impression, foreign policy issues do find their way to her Facebook account. Layered between updates on her pet’s health and her home decorations, Zakharova’s account promotes Russian narratives and Russian diplomatic goals. From the ‘war over vaccines’, to Russia’s commitment to free journalism and the struggle over the memory of WW2, Zakharova uses Facebook as a digital diplomacy platform that promotes Russian worldviews and interests. At times, these are in sync with her Facebook persona as diplomatic achievements are simply labeled ‘hooray’, a term taken from the lexicon of daily life. Other times such posts offer a more in-depth analysis of world affairs. Yet such posts are never published in unison and are always separated by the personal, the banal, the satirical and the fashionista.

And so, through Facebook Zakharova is transformed from a spokesperson to a person who speaks about a myriad of issues. The imperative question that follows is whether the blending of foreign policy messages into an ‘undiplomatic’ and personal social media account, one unburdened by diplomatic protocol, attire and language, increases persuasiveness. Does the update on a pet’s health, or the celebration of the banal, render an audience more amenable to a foreign policy messages? Is the person more influential than the spokesperson? For while the person speaks on behalf of him or herself, they do not speak on behalf of the state.

By distancing herself from the state, and creating a unique online presence that is quintessentially mundane and personal, Zakharova may have found an effective method of winning over digital publics, be they local or foreign. Essentially, Zakharova uses a slight of hand to lower the guard of digital publics who may be more critical of official state messages, while at the same time promoting official narratives. Put differently, Zakharova seems to manage two different two different impressions towards the same goal. Whether she is at a conference, a dinner party or an official meeting, her impression is but a means for influence. The rest, to paraphrase Goffman, is theatrics.

About the Author
Ilan Manor (PhD) is a diplomacy scholar at the University of Oxford. Manor's recent book, The Digitalization of Diplomacy, explores how digital technologies have reshaped diplomatic practices. Manor has contributed to several publications including The Times of Israel, The Jerusalem Post, Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward. According to his Twitter bio, Manor is the inventor of the ashtray. He blogs at www.digdipblog.com
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