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Hashtag Diplomacy

by James Lileks

From the Twitter account of State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki, April 2014: “The world stands #UnitedforUkraine. Let’s hope that the #Kremlin & @mfa_Russia will live by the promise of hashtag.”

From “#FAIL: A Brief History of Hashtag Diplomacy,” published May 2016:

From the beginning, Hashtag Diplomacy captured the technologically savvy attitude of the Obama administration. Crafted in the early years of the rise of social networks, the concept was meant to discourage international misbehavior by marshaling the power of people frowning at their cell phones and typing messages to their 38 followers, demanding that the right thing be done.

It had a difficult birth. The failure of the Iranian uprising was ascribed to the opposition’s failure to unite on a single hashtag — #freeiran, #green4Iran, and even #SRSLYMullaz? competed with many other variants, so the world’s opinion could not be marshaled under one concept. It was that conspicuous lack of coordination, combined with young men beating everyone with clubs, that led to the revolution’s failure.

President Obama was widely criticized for not supporting the demonstrators, but the administration was working behind the scenes to ensure that the revolution was not tainted by the appearance of American influence. Declassified papers reveal that a stealth branch of the administration’s Social Media Headquarters, or SMH, had set up over 47,000 fake Facebook accounts for the express purpose of “liking” photos of Iranian students who had been beaten by the regime.

“We had a discussion for a week about this,” said one unnamed official at SMH. “Some of the old State Department types thought that a ‘like’ expressed approval for the beating, but the younger kids knew it was a sign of support. The whole idea of ‘like’ and ‘thumbs down’ was too binary for State, anyway; if they’d invented Facebook, you’d just have a little animated blue outstretched hand that wobbled from side to side without committing to anything. In the end they produced guidelines for the use of a ‘like,’ but by then the revolution was over.

“We did, however, unfollow over 37 members of the Iranian government, and to this day I don’t think the administration knew about it. We were holding our breath during the nuclear talks of 2013, hoping no one on their side brought that up.”

The SMH was better prepared for the Egyptian revolution. By now NSA had developed programs that aggregated the trending hashtags and sorted by popularity; if #MubarakMustGo suddenly spiked, the SMH could seed retweets and mentions among its 12,457 followers. But there were problems still.

“We discovered some false-flag hashtags from the Egyptian government itself — #mubarakmustgo, all lowercase,” the official said. “There was a point in the Tahrir Square uprising where we had two competing versions, neither popular enough to trend, and we thought the regime might hang on after all.”

This was perhaps the high-water mark of hashtag diplomacy. It would prove less useful in Syria, where the word “Assad” was constantly autocorrected into “ass ad,” complicating efforts to get the conflict trending. The SMH considered using animated GIFs of cats falling off tables and dogs running into walls to mobilize sympathy for rebel factions but then realized that the social-media community, not having any scenes of young people massing in squares to protest, really wasn’t concerned at all.

The Ukraine crisis pitted the SMH against Russia’s own online forces. In response to accusations that the Russian annexation of Crimea violated the spirit of solidarity expressed by social media, the foreign minister reportedly quipped, “You can’t spell ‘trending’ without some ‘rending.’” As news leaked of paramilitary groups active in Kiev, rounding up government leaders, the SMH released a hashtag that had been in the works for weeks: #UnitedforUkraine. People were supposed to attach it to Instagram photos in which they held up their first and pinky fingers to represent a “U.” Unfortunately, this gesture was also popular with Longhorn football fans and with heavy-metal enthusiasts who associated it with the devil.

“It may have slowed the tanks, but it didn’t stop them,” said one official. “I remember watching CNN the night they raised the Russian flag over the Ukrainian parliament, thinking, ‘If only we’d had a better hashtag.’ But you know, Ukraine’s tough to type. People get the vowels transposed.”

When Putin announced the absorption of Ukraine into the Russian Federation, a new determination seemed to flow through the SMH. Ideas came fast: Get people to change their online avatars to blue and yellow, Ukraine’s national colors. Impose massive sanctions against Russian-media YouTube channels, using dummy accounts to repeatedly hit the “dislike” button. Even cultural sanctions were targeted, as unfavorable comments were left on YouTube videos about the Hermitage (“boring and smelly just old pictures on the walls lol”).

It was certainly noticed by the Russian government, and perhaps there was something of false bravado when Putin asked, “How many divisions does Mark Zuckerberg have?” But in the end, the entire concentrated effort of social media failed to protect a single Ukrainian, with the exception of one fellow who escaped capture by security forces by throwing his phone hard at the head of his pursuer.

Where hashtag diplomacy goes from here, it’s not clear, but there are elements in Washington who grumble at the beliefs and conceits of the new generation, pointing to the old ways that served the nation well for decades.

“We’re not saying we want you to put the Free Ukraine bumper-sticker over the one about Tibet. Next to it, if you could. Together, it’s a powerful message.”

Questions were texted to Tibetan refugees, asking how they felt about sharing the all-important rear-bumper space. Responses were not available by press time.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

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