PR WAR: That time I had tea with the Russian Ambassador

Sometime in the far away days of 2012 an email landed to invite me to the Russian Ambassador’s residence in London.

Well, of course I said ‘yes.’ I remember the Cold War.

Today, this invitation would be to sit down with evil. Back then it was to be in the audience for a discussion ‘How internet affects political discussion making.’ I know this because I checked my gmail to re-read the invite. Douglas Carswell MP was making a keynote.

On the day, I went along to the Russian Ambassador’s venue. Kensington Palace Gardens was guarded with a barrier and armed British police. The Russian Ambassador’s house was one of dozens of huge white homes with driveways. More Disney than Dacha.

Going into the building, past central casting Russian security I went into a ballroom where the talk was taking place was elaborate. A top table of gold leaf chairs and rows of the same for the audience.

I sat in the audience for the discussion and chatted to fellow guests. I remember media people, someone from Conservatives for Russia and a veteran British journalist about to launch an English language newspaper in Moscow.

Why was I asked? Maybe because I was a blogger. There was certainly no illicit approaches or Putinesque lectures during the session. The British panel talked about the strengths of the internet in Britain. The Russian Ambassador joked of how he finds things out on the news before the communiques from home. Then we wrapped up with a convivial buffet of tea, caviar, vodka and smoked salmon.

Of course, this was the days when Russia was adopting soft power rather than hard power. Running the same event today would be unthinkable. No-one would come. But the question of the session remains valid.

How does the internet affect political discussion making?

I was reflecting on this as I listened to BBC Ukrainecast on the ninth day of Russia’s invasion and war in Ukraine. It was a day after Russia had made illegal to reference ‘war’ to describe what is going on. It was six days after Twitter and other social media sites were blocked by Moscow.

As I listened, I heard audio from a video posted by a Ukrainian politician in the north of the country. It captured the stunned aftermath of a Russian artillery attack. On the podcast, Victoria Derbyshire describes the scene of grey dust, fire bodies without limbs and you hear a woman screaming.

So, how does the internet political decision making?

So, Back to the Russian Ambassador’s question.

Russia has tried to brick up all the ways that the internet can get into its borders. The Kremlin deny there is a war. They stop people seeing the aftermath. Twitter and Facebook has been banned in the country. Independent journalism has been banned. Protestors face 15 years for voicing opposition or even calling war ‘war’.

Elsewhere, the internet is finding ways to bypass the blockage as it always has done. Ukrainians are using Google reviews on Google maps to post harrowing pictures from Ukraine in order to tell their Russian cousins what is going on. The Russian social channel is being unbanned in Ukraine to allow the network to be flooded with messages to ordinary Russians from Ukrainians. The BBC is upping short wave broadcasts to by-pass the internet entirely. And other ways for Russians.

On TikTok, residents are filming actions. The car driver who stopped and offered to tow the broken down tank back to the border. The myth of the ghost airplane that shoots down Russian jets.

Some Russians are uysing VPNs to by-pass the bans. But the vox pop of real Russians I saw yesterday is depressing. They still support Putin because and they’re not exposed to what’s going on.

Winning the PR war?

A few days ago, I was reading optimistic commentary pieces on how Ukraine was winning the information war. A video of the country’s President in fatigues surrounded by his chief ministers was posted to deploy Russian misinformation that he had fled the country. What chops, the comments ran. They’re right.

But no war is not won by information alone. There are bullets and guns and in the case of Russia, the casual threat of nuclear war, too.

I stop short of reading too many PR blogs with hot takes on how company CEOs need to be more like Zelenskiy. Please, don’t. This isn’t a place for hot takes. I’m using this blog to think things through rather than deliver a zinger. .

Internet pioneers

In ‘Here Comes Everyone’ Clay Shirky wrote of how social media was going to change things and people will no longer be passive consumers. In the old model, media gatekeepers would filter and then publish, he said. In the new model, we are all producers. There will be publish and then filter. There was no mention of the bad guys winning.

But it’s filter of journalists that I’m finding most important in 2022. Good journalism isn’t dead. It’s never been more needed to cut through the avalanche of misinformation.

Those of us who saw social media as a purely force for good have had our minds changed a lot since Shirky first published his bold ideas.

The reality is obscene truths from Ukraine can be found if you look for them on social media. There are dead bodies. There is the news crew ambushed in their car. A Facebook Live broadcast will happen which shows a family’s painful death in realtime.

But that won’t be the truly shocking part.

The really terrifying thing will be that nothing may change as a result.

Then what?

You can donate to the UK’s Disasters Emergency Committee appeal for Ukraine here.

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