13.07.2021 – 17:43
By Dmitry Chernobrov – London School of Economics
When Western governments and media accused Russia of meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, Moscow reacted humorously. Russian television “Russia Today” broadcast an ironic spot where it said “Did you miss the train? Did you lose a vote? Blame us! ”, Or“ Follow RT and find out who we are planning to hit with cyber attacks ”.
During the US presidential election campaign last year, Russia Today jokingly offered Donald Trump a job at its editorial office. Russian state officials and media have repeatedly ridiculed Western politicians for allegedly being mocked by pro-Kremlin fraudsters.
Russian embassies often post ironic messages on social media to face criticism from various countries, to challenge the claims of Russia’s opponents, and to turn propaganda allegations into a joke.
But Russia is not alone in using humor in an attempt to test and shape domestic and international opinion on controversial international events.
Israel, too, has often used humor in public diplomacy campaigns to protect itself from outside criticism. Poland, meanwhile, has used humor to ridicule Britain’s post-Brexit position, as Canadian and US embassies have produced viral memes that mock Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
In all of these cases, the messages reached a wider and more diverse audience. They were taken over by the news media and helped promote state narratives in a way that dry official statements fail to do.
Humor has a long history of use in politics and propaganda. But with the advent of social media, public diplomacy has changed. Short sarcastic messages, worth making news, memorable, easily shared, have become an increasingly popular way of communicating foreign policy with citizens and fighting narratives.
Humor is rarely taken seriously. But paradoxically, this makes it a useful tool for testing or sending serious messages. Stories told through humor – from jokes about politicians and nations, to viral memes – are among the most circulated and remembered on the web.
Studies show that political comedies are better remembered by audiences than news, and they increasingly represent a source of news. The accuracy and truthfulness of humorous statements are not examined in such detail (after all, they are mere jokes), making them easier to reproduce and more difficult to challenge.
Humor can provide a fertile ground for expressing controversial ideas, supporting stereotypes, fostering conspiracies, asserting identity boundaries, “shrinking” opponents, and creating hierarchies.
In a recent study, I talk about the concept of strategic humor, i.e. the use of humor by state actors and representatives to promote instrumental interpretations of internationally contested events for domestic and foreign audiences.
The concept highlights two main aspects: the use of humor as a communication strategy and the inclusion of internationally contested issues to the advantage of a particular actor, and the selection of humor as a tool because of its ability to maximize message dissemination. , and to engage audiences in an emotional way.
Most importantly: humor does more than just describe an isolated event. Too often he intertwines it into a broader political scenario, linking his perception to popular and well-known cultural symbols. Through humor, states frame events in ways that advance their own interests, avoid criticism, legitimize politics, and challenge the narratives of others to achieve foreign policy goals.
Although powerful or respected states also use humor, it can be an asymmetric means of influence, in cases where traditional energy sources have been limited.
Russia, for example, has used humor to address some of the most problematic issues in its relations with the West, where it finds itself politically isolated, unreliable by others, under sanctions, unfavorably portrayed by foreign media. and regarded as a revisionist power.
In different cultures, humor has long been the weapon of the oppressed, a means of resisting dictators or hegemony. Today, some countries use humor strategically, to claim a similar symbolic position, to resist the prevailing international political discourses.
Strategic humor drives public diplomacy into the post-truth era. It is characterized by emotional messages, the construction and exploitation of uncertainties, and the pursuit of popularity as a mechanism for asserting truth claims.
However, he does not necessarily create lies. The ridicule of the opponents invites the audience to doubt their credibility, to expose their hidden motives, further fueling uncertainty about the disputed events.
Such humor allows states to underline the contrast of common international interpretations and their “truth,” which they affirm through popular humorous style rather than factual evidence. Finally, humor in public diplomacy targets a wide and vague audience.
The difference between local and foreign audiences, traditionally essential in influence and persuasion strategies, is giving way to online / offline access. Through the active use of digital media, states use humor to shape domestic and foreign public opinion. And while the persuasive power of humor (and more broadly propaganda) can be argued, humor maximizes the quantity, if not the quality, of the extent of public diplomacy.
* Dmitry Chernobrov, is a lecturer on media and international politics at the University of Sheffield, UK, and co-chair of the Digital Society Network.