Who is Winning the #DigitalDiplomacy Competition over the Salisbury Attack?


March 4th saw a nerve agent attack in London that left two people dead. According to the British government, this attack was perpetrated by Russia and constitutes the first nerve agent attack since the end of World War 2. In the hours and days following the attack, the UK government demanded that Russia offer an explanation for the apparent violation of international law. When Russia failed to do so, the British government expelled 23 Russian diplomats. A few days later, Russia reciprocated by banishing 23 British diplomats and limiting the activities of the British Council in Russia.

As tensions between the UK and Russia mounted, the British government sought the support of its allies, both in Europe and in the NATO alliance. In response, Moscow demanded that the UK provide tangible evidence that Russia was behind the Salisbury attack, as it has come to be known, and that the UK allow Russia access to the nerve agent in question.

Notably, as tensions mounted so did the competition over public opinion and media coverage .As has been the case in previous diplomatic quarrels, both sides have taken to social media so as to influence how twitter audiences interpret unfolding events. Since March 4th, the Russian Embassy in London, the FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) and NATO affiliated Embassies in London have taken Twitter by storm posting a host of infographics, official statements and multi-media.

This digital diplomacy competition is likely to influence how the Salisbury attack is understood by both British and global audiences. It is fair to assume that French journalists looking to cover the attack will visit the Twitter account of Frances’ Embassy in London as would Icelandic influencers or bloggers. Thus, London is now host to a global digital diplomacy competition over global public opinion.

It is hard to measure, or determine, which side has been more effective in its online messaging. This is the most inherent limitation of digital diplomacy analysis. However, in this post I evaluate each side’s ability to reach large numbers of Twitter users. It is my assertion that before one can influence people’s perception of events, or the media’s coverage, s/he must first reach their intended audience. Thus, in this blog post I compare between the reach of Salisbury related Tweets published by the FCO, the Russian Embassy in London and NATO allies in London.

In the final section I also offer a qualitative analysis of both sides’ Tweets.

FCO versus the Russian Embassy in London

To date, the British FCO has published 63 Tweets dealing with the Salisbury attack. These Tweets have dealt with the UK’s response to the attack, its assertion that Russia was behind the nerve agent attack, its condemnation of Russia in multi-lateral forums and the UK’s attempts to coordinate a diplomatic response with its European and Atlantic allies. As can be seen in the graph below, the total number of Re-Tweets FCO Tweets have obtained is 11,129 while the overall number of Favourites is 15,212.

Thus far, the Russian Embassy to the UK has published 43 Tweets dealing with the Salisbury attack. As opposed to the FCO, the Russian Embassy has argued that the UK’s allegations are baseless and that the UK has refused to share information regarding the attack with Russian authorities. Moreover, the Embassy has blasted the FCO and the UK for undermining regional and global stability by making senseless accusations. As can be seen in the graph below, the total number of Re-Tweets the Russian Embassy has obtained is 17,157 while the overall number of Favourites is 22,888.

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These results suggest that the Russian Embassy’s Twitter campaign has garnered greater engagement levels than that of the FCO and may have subsequently reached a greater number of Twitter users.  A similar pattern arises when comparing the average number of Re-Tweets and Favourites garnered by FCO and Russian Embassy Tweets (see graph below). The average FCO Tweet has garnered 176 Re-Tweets and 241 Favourites as opposed to Russian Tweets that have garnered an average of 480 Re-Tweets and 544 Favourites.

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UK Allies versus the Russian Embassy

As noted above, British diplomats have been labouring over the past weeks to create a coordinated response to the alleged Russian nerve agent attack. This has included consultation with EU member states and members of the NATO alliance. Thus far, 13 London based Embassies of NATO allies have openly supported the UK on Twitter. These include the Belgian Embassy to London as well as the Embassies of Canada, France, Iceland, Italy, Norway, America, Germany, Spain, Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Slovenia. Moreover, the European Commission’s office in London has also openly supported the British government.

Some of these Tweets may be seen below.

As can be seen in the graph below, the total number of Re-Tweets garnered by all NATO Embassies in London is 3,742 while the total number of Favourites is 6,241. These figures pale in comparison to the Russian Embassy’s 17,157 Re-Tweets and 22,888 Favourites.

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A similar pattern emerges when comparing the average number of Re-Tweets and Favourites garnered by NATO allies and the Russian Embassy in London (see graph below). These results again suggest that the overall Twitter reach of the Russian Embassy in London may be greater than that of the UK’s strategic allies.

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The Merits of a Consolidated Approach

Thus far this post has compared the reach of Tweets published by the Russian Embassy in London to that of the FCO and that of UK’s allies. However, it is also important to compare between the reach of the Russian Embassy and the combined reach of the FCO and the UK’s allies. This is because the FCO and its allies have adopted a consolidated approach on Twitter as they promote the same narrative regarding the Salisbury attack, its implications for the international community and the measures that Russia must take to rectify the situation. Indeed many of the Tweets published by the FCO and the UK’s allies include similar language or have been published in unison.

Yet as can be seen in the graph below, the overall reach of the FCO and its online allies still fails to eclipse that of the Russian Embassy in London. The overall number of Re-Tweets garnered by the FCO and its allies is 14,871 as opposed to the Russian Embassy’s 17,157. The total number of Favourites garnered by the FCO and its allies is 21,453 as oppose to Russia’s 22,888. A similar pattern emerges when comparing the average engagement rates of both parties.

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An Important Caveat

However, it should be mentioned that by taking a consolidated approach to digital diplomacy, the FCO and its allies may be able to reach a much more diverse audience than that of the Russian Embassy. Indeed the FCO’s digital alliance enables it to reach audiences throughout the UK, Europe and the US in addition to media organizations and influencers in all these countries. The same cannot be said of the Russian Embassy that seems to be Tweeting alone. Russian allies such as China, Iran and even Belarus are not active in the UK and as such the Russian Embassy cannot create its own digital alliance in London.  The question that arises is- does Russia suffer from a lack of allies in the digital sphere and, if so, does this deficit impact its ability to obtain online and offline influence?

Qualitative Analysis

This blog post has attempted to analyze the digital diplomacy competition now taking place in London. To do so, it has measured the reach of three players: the Russian Embassy in London, the FCO and NATO allies. The results suggest that reach of the Russian Embassy is the greatest at the moment and that, subsequently, it may be able to project its narrative to large audiences.

Yet is it also important to evaluate which Tweets garner the most engagement online. The three Russian Tweets below were the most Re-Tweeted and Favourite Salisbury Tweets.

While all three Tweets were extremely popular online, and contributed substantially to the data analysis of this post, none of these help the Russian Embassy frame the events that took place in London or the Russian government’s response. While they are humoristic, and sarcastic, they fail to offer followers a prism through which they can understand the aftermath of the Salisbury attack. These Tweets may be seen as tactical rather than strategic in that they trend online but do little else.

By contrast the most popular FCO Tweets were those that included multi-media and a comprehensive frame through which one could understand the Salisbury attack. Such is the case with the Tweet below

According to this Tweet’s frame, the Salisbury attack was not unique but rather part of a consistent Russian pattern that disregards intentional law and international norms. Just as Russia violated international law when it annexed Crimea, so it broke the law when it used a nerve agent on British soil. In essence, this Tweets enables audiences to make sense of unfolding events in London and justifies the UK’s response to Russia’s alleged attack. The 23 Russian diplomats were not expelled merely because of the use of a nerve agent but because of Russia’s repeated violation of international norms in Ukraine, in Georgia and in the UK. The video also portrays Russia as the opponent of all law abiding states and societies and not the opponent of the UK. Thus, this Tweet might resonate with Twitter audiences across Europe and the Atlantic.

In summary, it could be argued that FCO Tweets have a greater chance of influencing people’s perceptions of the Salisbury attack as they offer a comprehensive view of Russian policies and place the attack in a larger context.

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