In Assessing Social Media, Context is Everything

Information warfare has been around for years, and social media technology is the latest addition to the practitioner toolkit. A recent Washington Post article tries to put this on-going development into perspective by mentioning Russia’s messaging strategy for the Ukraine conflict before describing the launch of the State Department’s new Share America website. The facts are accurate and the article is largely neutral – but this comparison is the wrong context to analyze both Share America and Russia’s use of technology.

Analysis of social media – or any communication instrument– is dependent on understanding both how and why it’s employed. Russia and the U.S. use social media differently and for different purposes. It’s easy to lump it all together under the umbrella of propaganda, but that does not help us understand why the tools were used or their effectiveness in achieving specific outcomes.

The goal of Share America is to present issues America cares about — “democracy, freedom of expression, innovation, entrepreneurship, education, and the role of civil society.” The content is in English and has links to pieces covering everything from how to apply for a U.S. Visa to popular sports terms Americans use in everyday language – in other words, it’s not about specific American foreign policy.

The dissemination strategy to accomplish this goal is straightforward and doesn’t rely on interagency methods: the content is available for anyone to access while the website says that the State Department bureau that created Share America works with overseas embassies to help get the message out on these topics.

The goal of Russian social media use – as described in the link provided in the WaPo article – is part of a large and multipronged effort to disrupt Western narratives critical of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. NATO Commander Philip Breedlove called it “the most amazing information warfare blitzkrieg we have ever seen in the history of information warfare.”

The story pushed by the Kremlin is about protecting Russian speakers within Ukraine from extremists and their desire to join Russia. Reports made it appear as if a large section of Ukraine wanted to secede – while it was only a small sliver that was invaded – and that there were regular attacks committed against civilians by Ukrainian forces with Western help. Social media plays a particular role alongside traditional media that seeks to create a political reality pushed by Vladimir Putin himself. He has mentioned the creation of “Novorossiya” in Southeastern Ukraine – which does not exist – and maps of this invented region have been disseminated on Twitter. There are several Twitter feeds in both English and Russian that purport to be news sites for this new area, and the government-run Russia Today (RT) English language news station also broadcasts similar messages, including conspiracies of who shot down the MH-17 flight.

Share America and the Russian use of social media cannot be reliably compared due to the difference in purpose, message content, and dissemination. Share America is primarily used by one U.S. Government agency as a tool for soft power and Public Diplomacy – an on-going effort to expose and attract overseas audiences to the Western culture and way of thinking – and in this case is not tied to a specific policy goal or regional audience.

Russia is also using technology for soft power, but it’s combined with hard power – military actions on the ground – to implement a policy decision. Putin is not just using the Internet or social media, but every communication method at his disposal with the cooperation of other government entities to push a specific agenda regarding the legitimacy of his actions in Ukraine. Moreover, his disinformation campaign is designed to confuse and create doubt for both an internal and external audience about what is actually happening.

A better comparison would be to examine the specific efforts of the U.S. to counter the Russian narrative – such as the State Department’s use of Twitter for that purpose – than to categorize Share America in the same realm of information warfare.

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