The Empire Trolls Back: How the U.S. Can Respond to Russian Propaganda

The goal of U.S. public diplomacy should be to establish the United States as a more credible, truthful, and honest broker of information than Russia.

April 26, 2016

By Sean Keeley

For the past two years, the Ukraine crisis has provoked a profound reassessment of the U.S.-Russian relationship. Western diplomats have been particularly troubled by Russia’s concerted propaganda effort. With its near-total control over domestic television and online news outlets, the Kremlin has peddled a self-serving narrative whereby the U.S. orchestrated a fascist coup in Kiev in an attempt to weaken Moscow.

This messaging was not born in 2014. For the past decade, the Kremlin has invested in a systematic propaganda strategy to undermine Western claims and spread disinformation. According to Sergey Markov, one of the Kremlin’s top public-relations spokespeople, this strategy was conceived in the wake of the color revolutions of 2003-2004: Markov has claimed that Russia “lost” Georgia and Ukraine because Russia’s political technologies were inferior to the West’s.

Since then, as Peter Pomerantsev and Michael Weiss argued in a 2014 paper, Russia’s goal has been to “weaponize information” to its own ends. Using 21st century political technologies, Russia seeks not merely to advance its own national interest but to distort reality and undermine Western credibility. The effectiveness of Russian propaganda abroad remains a matter of debate, but the Kremlin has shown a remarkable ability to bend public opinion within Russia. Many American leaders worry that their own public diplomacy is lagging far behind.

The challenge for U.S. diplomats is to adapt their strategy without adopting Russia’s cynical tactics. Three strategies can help to accomplish this goal. First, the United States should counter Russian trolling with both truth and humor, rather than repeating staid talking points. Second, American diplomats should “crowd-source” their diplomacy efforts by amplifying credible, independent voices who can push back against the Kremlin narrative. Third, the United States should seek to define itself to Russian audiences as an open and free society that encourages public debate—even if this means exporting and debating uncomfortable stories about America itself.  

Trolling with truth

Russia’s use of Internet trolls has drawn significant attention, with well-documented reports of Russian “troll factories” that pay ordinary Russians to reiterate Kremlin talking points across the web. Through such tactics, Russia seeks to create the impression of widespread support for Russian policies while muddying the waters with unfounded conspiracy theories that cast doubt on Western claims—all while Russia maintains plausible deniability.

The United States has struggled to respond effectively. Since 2014, the State Department has stepped up its Russian-language Twitter outreach and created a new account, @UkrProgress, aimed at rebuffing Russian misinformation on the Ukraine crisis. While the account has drawn 23,000 followers, it has also become a favorite target of Russian trolls. Russian Twitter users have set up several popular parody accounts (such as @IraqProgress, which has since been suspended) that sarcastically undermine U.S. talking points, and trolls frequently hijack the account’s “Hour of Truth” hashtag. The account represents the larger problems in the State Department’s digital diplomacy: in cyberspace, earnest repetition of U.S. principles serves as a weak bulwark against a government set on undermining this messaging.

Russian trolls aim to undermine American credibility using sarcasm and humor. American policymakers should aim to do the same by humorously exposing the obvious lies in the Russian version of events. One example of this tactic happened in November 2015, when the Twitter account of the U.S. embassy in Moscow posted a spell-check of a fake letter published in the Russian newspaper Izvestia, which alleged that the State Department was paying gay rights activists in Russia. By publicly exposing the letter as an obvious forgery, the Embassy created a viral sensation while rendering the Russian claims absurd.

Similarly, in September 2015, when the Russian press published a doctored photo of U.S. Ambassador John Tefft at an opposition rally, the embassy responded by Photoshopping Tefft at the moon landing and other historical events.

Such tactics may seem silly, but they deserve consideration as genuinely effective uses of public diplomacy. In both cases, U.S. diplomats succeeded in creating viral content while simultaneously undermining the legitimacy of Russian claims. When done effectively, these tactics serve as a form of truthful counter-trolling that puts Russia on the defensive.

Crowd-sourcing with credibility

A key quality of Russia’s information warfare is its diffused nature. Russian propaganda does not emanate from a single public organ: rather, Russia utilizes various forms of media and crowd-sources from disparate voices to create a multi-front attack. For instance, Russia’s global cable channel Russia Today (RT) frequently brings in dissenting Western voices—from Ron Paul to Noam Chomsky—to undercut U.S. authority.

Accordingly, the American approach to countering Russian misinformation should not be overly centralized. The State Department is ill-equipped to effectively respond on its own. Rather, it should amplify credible voices and private groups that can debunk Russia’s propaganda.

One prominent example is Bellingcat, a collective of citizen journalists founded by Eliot Higgins, which has used open-source information to investigate the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and Russia’s intervention in Syria. Higgins also collaborated with the Atlantic Council on a multi-lingual report documenting the extent of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. Another worthwhile group is, a multilingual initiative run by Ukrainian journalists to fact-check and correct Russian propaganda.

In contrast with the Russian approach, the State Department should not pay or direct such groups, which would undermine their independence and credibility. It can and should, however, widely publicize the results of their investigations when they debunk Russian misinformation.

Exporting the debate 

A key tactic in Russia’s information warfare is to attack the United States for its own hypocrisies and moral failings, as if to preemptively discredit any American claims to objectivity or moral standing. RT, for example, thrives on selectively covering stories like the Ferguson riots, Occupy Wall Street, or the Edward Snowden disclosures to affirm its narrative that America is a corrupt empire, torn by rampant economic inequality and racial divisions. The Kremlin’s cynical intent is to show that the West does not believe in its own professed values, that all its aspirational talk about freedom and democracy is a sham.

The best way the United States can respond to this narrative is to define itself in opposition to Russia as an open, free society that encourages debate. Sometimes, this will mean doing the difficult work of exporting and contextualizing uncomfortable stories about America itself. To that end, the United States should invest in Russian-language media that cover stories like Ferguson more honestly, without sanitizing them or ignoring the complex issues they raise. U.S.-funded organizations like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty already do a credible job of covering developments around the world, but they should place a greater investment on explaining the United States to foreign audiences. This does not mean reiterating State Department talking points, but trying to replicate and export the lively debates that occur within American society about hot-button issues like Guantanamo or Ferguson.

The ultimate goal of American public diplomacy is not only to give foreign audiences a fuller picture of America, but to establish the United States as a more credible, truthful, and honest broker of information than Russia. This is a difficult needle to thread, and a more challenging task than the purely negative propaganda that Russia engages in. Ultimately, however, it is essential for the long-term credibility of American public diplomacy to celebrate objective reporting and open debate in all circumstances.

In the long term, if the United States can more effectively communicate that message without compromising its ideals, it will win the information war that it is currently losing. 


Sean Keeley is an Associate at Blue Star Strategies, a government relations firm in Washington DC, and a member of the 2015-2016 CGI Rising Experts Program. He graduated from Boston College in May 2015 with a degree in International Studies and a minor in Russian. He wrote a senior thesis analyzing the Obama administration’s “reset” policy. Sean spent the spring 2014 semester studying in St. Petersburg with the Bard-Smolny program, and went on to participate in the 2014-2015 Stanford U.S.-Russia Forum (SURF).  He has also written about U.S.-Russian relations for The National Interest. Follow him on Twitter @seankeeley.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not reflect the position of the affiliated organizations or the Center on Global Interests.

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