In the aftermath of the minor diplomatic scandal involving Michael McFaul, America’s ambassador to Russia, and a group of remarkably well informed Russian TV journalists – so well informed that they seemed to have hacked into the ambassador’s Google calendar and thus harassed him wherever he went – many observers asked whether this sort of thing was indeed as unprecedented as Amb. McFaul himself suggested it was.
Broadly, this question breaks down into two parts. One has to do with harassment of ambassadors, particularly in Russia, and the answer is no. This sort of behavior is, alas, not unprecedented at all, not least in Russia. Recent envoys to Russia from the UK and Estonia were repeatedly harassed and heckled, generally by Kremlin-backed youth groups, in some cases to the extent that it severely impinged on their ability to do their job. Former Guardian correspondent to Moscow Luke Harding reported that he himself was harassed, as were many other journalists, and more junior members of the diplomatic corps, although the culprits in his narrative were from the secret services.
The second part has to do with Amb. McFaul’s use of social media, and the answer appears to be yes. At the very least, Amb. McFaul seems to have taken the U.S. State Department’s digital diplomacy agenda farther than any other envoy of his stature. It’s not just that his Facebook page has almost 3,000 ‘friends’, or that his Twitter account has more than 22,000 followers. Those numbers in and of themselves are nothing special for a fairly public figure. What is somewhat more impressive is that Amb. McFaul – with his activity on Twitter and the blogging platform Live Journal – is regularly among Russia’s Top-10 most influential bloggers (with influence measured by a combination of readership and references by other bloggers).
That should strike the reader as bizarre. Amb. McFaul is, after all, not Russian. And Russians are not all that interested in foreign policy or international politics – and the Russian blogosphere is no exception. According to data compiled by the Russian Internet company Yandex, at the peak of the Libyan crisis in late August of 2011, only 0.27% of Russian blog posts mentioned Libya; today, only 0.04% of Russian blog posts mention Syria (see Figure 1).
By contrast, Amb. McFaul is not actually all that popular. References to him in Russian currently stand at 0.01% of weekly blog posts (references to him in English are almost nonexistent), down from a peak of 0.03% when he was approved in the U.S. Senate (see Figure 2).
The reality, though, is that the United States doesn’t fall neatly into the foreign policy category for Russians. Despite not having the sort of newsworthiness that Libya and Syria have had of late, for example, certain countries are much more a part of the internal Russian political debate – and central in many ways to Russian identity construction. China is one, but the United States is in a league of its own, regularly accounting for more than half a percent of Russian blog posts (which, when you think about it, is a lot; see Figure 3).
This was all the more evident in recent months, when Putin began blaming the United States – and, in particular, the State Department, or Госдеп in Russian – for trying to foment a revolution. References to the State Department shot to 0.06% of blog posts in early December 2011, only to be outdone by the Secretary of State herself, Hillary Clinton, with 0.11% of posts (see Figure 4).
And it is worth noting that both Hillary Clinton and the State Department are, broadly speaking, more popular blog topics than Amb. McFaul (see figures 5 and 6, respectively).
All of which means that the popularity of Amb. McFaul in the Russian blogosphere and online social media more broadly is simply the result of exaggerated attention being paid to the United States, right?
Compare Amb. McFaul to his predecessor, John Beyrle, and the contrast couldn’t be more stark: Amb. Beyrle – by all accounts one of America’s most successful envoys to Moscow – never accounted for more than 0.002% of Russian blog posts (see Figure 7).
Bearing in mind that the initial controversy over the elections – and Putin’s initial accusations – came under Amb. Beyrle’s watch, the gap between mentions of Beylre and McFaul indicate that McFaul is doing something different.
To find out what, stay tuned. In Vol. 2, we’ll look more closely at how Amb. McFaul is using social media, at his networks, and at the implications thereof.