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Russian President Vladimir Putin has long viewed social media as a useful tool. Photo/Getty Images
We recently discovered that Russia has done its best to inflame anti-vaccine protesters in New Zealand. I don’t know why they thought it necessary because we had a lot of ourselves
local misinformation (“designed right here in New Zealand, especially for Kiwi conditions!”), but Russians are the best in the world at using social media to mischief, so why stop at the US election?
At a time when Kiwi marketing departments often struggle to gain traction with their own social media campaigns, let’s see if there’s anything we could learn from the Russians.
The Russians initially set up the Internet Research Agency in a building in St. Petersburg with a group of young people known locally as the “Olgino Trolls”. Their preferred method is to create multiple social media accounts that come with fake personas, families, jobs, universities, etc. to make them look legit.
One of them will post an inflammatory comment on a contentious issue, following which their comrades in the hallway will pile in with messages of support, sharing the message and crushing any dissent. They are not intended to persuade, merely to provoke.
Meanwhile, the average New Zealand social media campaign will have gone to a single intern due to his intimate knowledge of TikTok videos and propensity to follow influencers on “Insta”. Definitely room for improvement.
The Russians have the entire state apparatus behind them, including their state media which has decades of experience preparing propaganda. There are paid actors ready to be filmed in any required role, and they create fake institutions, universities and news outlets when needed. They can also use pictures and movies they find anywhere in the world. Do you think a country that invades others for fun is going to care about copyright laws?
Meanwhile, our poor intern is limited to blurry iPhone photos taken on the desk at the reception.
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The Russians’ goal is to bombard their opponents with a steady stream of flatulence known as “The Barracks of Lies.” They can react quickly and vitriolally to any comments thanks to the fact that trolls work in shifts around the clock without needing to log off. Disproving the avalanche of false claims is tricky, as summed up by Brandolinis’ law: “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude greater than that needed to produce it.” Or to paraphrase Mark Twain: “It is easier to deceive people than to convince them that they have been duped.”
In New Zealand, our campaign took seven months to create in a process involving brand pyramids, consumer research and a color palette based on 19th century Japanese watercolours. Then the lawyers will spend a fortnight desperately looking for issues, then hand it to the management team for approval, before finally passing it to the CEO’s wife. Eventually, a solitary Facebook message will appear.
If a member of the public dares to participate in our campaign and make a comment, our “instant” response will take fifteen days to be approved using the same process. Of course, any interaction can only be handled during office hours, and it all stops when the intern throws a sick one. Not ideal.
We have a limited social media budget and no organic (unpaid) outreach because let’s face it, there’s no way your sales message (“buy our product now!”) will be remotely interesting compared to some other delicacies available online. Or so I was told.
Russians, however, hardly need a media budget as social media platforms will happily deliver their messages, the more extreme the better. Their algorithms will actively seek out the impressionable and push anything provocative and extremist at them because that’s what elicits a reaction.
We shouldn’t feel too bad about our lack of success compared to Russian trolls. After all, they actually invented disinformation, which derives from the Russian word “disinformatsiya”, supposedly coined by Stalin. This is a concept refined by the KGB during the Cold War when the USSR viewed propaganda as “war without fire.”
The Russians don’t need to sell anything, their goal is to liquidate people. They just want us to bicker so much that we forget what’s really important. It’s not hard to do. Go to your local pub and announce loud and clear that the All Blacks are overpaid ballerinas and see how your evening goes. If the Russians really wanted to cause trouble, they would target us on Sports Radio instead.