Wooing Russia’s Twitterati

How the U.S. ambassador in Moscow is using social media to get his message out.

Astrid Riecken/Getty Images
Astrid Riecken/Getty Images

In early December, Michael McFaul, the U.S. Ambassador to Russia, embarked on a marathon question-and-answer session with Russian Twitter users. I watched as McFaul walked into an embassy press office and sat down at the computer where he would compose his responses to tweets from his interlocutors. Several aides sat at desks, glancing up at the wall where a flat-screen monitor displayed McFaul’s personal Twitter page. As the session began, questions from users began to crop up in McFaul’s feed. His curious followers wanted to know everything, it seemed, from his views on Russia and the world to the details of his personal life — and he was happy to oblige, churning out answers (including a few jokes) in Russian and English. As a novice Twitter user myself, I was intrigued to watch a professional confront the conflicting imperatives of the medium, balancing the demand for maximum exposure with the need for diplomatic tact.

The themes of the conversation ranged from geopolitics to private emotions. Is there a danger of a nuclear strike in the Middle East? How’s your broken finger? Will Obama attend the Olympics in Sochi? What’s your favorite TV show? Notably, no one asked about Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker. McFaul’s followers were more interested in Iran, Syria, visas to America, and U.S.-Russia relations. "I’m a bit worried that I’m going to run too long," McFaul told one of his aides. Diplomacy requires careful use of language — but on Twitter, whatever the ambassador wants to say has to be expressed in no more than 140 characters. "I’m better live," McFaul joked.

Nonetheless, he confesses to a certain fondness for Twitter. "It’s a medium that offers me great advantages as an ambassador trying to explain our policies to this giant country," McFaul told me recently. "I can just go to my computer and talk with a scholar in Vladivostok or to an ecologist in Novosibirsk." To some Russians, it’s been a great shock to be able to communicate directly with the U.S. State Department — an experience that seems to run counter to everything they’ve heard on Russian television about the U.S. trying to undermine the power of the Kremlin.

Before his arrival in Russia two years ago, McFaul didn’t know what a tweet looked like. It was then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who urged him to use social media to engage with society. (The photo above shows McFaul with Clinton during his swearing-in ceremony in 2011.) A former professor at Stanford University, McFaul appears to be a quick learner: on the day we met, last month, he had more than 57,000 followers. Admittedly, that’s just a quarter of the number of those following Kseniya Sobchak, the high-profile socialite and political activist. Yet it’s also worth noting that McFaul’s contingent of followers is nearly two and a half times more than that of one of his frequent debating opponents, Aleksei Pushkov, the Chairman of the Russian parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.

It’s true that Russian Twitter users are a tiny minority in a country where the government controls all forms of media that have the greatest reach — like national TV, far and away the main source of information for most ordinary Russians. (Lately, as some diplomatic sources note, the big, government-controlled Russian TV channels have been notably reluctant to invite McFaul on, perhaps because his open and engaging manner during his first appearances was a bit too effective for the Kremlin’s taste.) Other Russian media, however, often cite McFaul’s tweets and Facebook posts in cases where the embassy’s press representatives haven’t been contacted for comment. This isn’t to say that McFaul never gets exposure in other Russian media; there are still several smaller private TV broadcasters and print outlets that are happy to interview him. But it’s clear that the ambassador’s shrewd use of social media is proving highly effective at spreading his message, in undiluted form, to even broader audiences.

When leading opposition activist Alexei Navalny was sentenced on alleged embezzlement charges last year, for example, McFaul’s Twitter comment decrying the verdict as "politically motivated" was retweeted 578 times (and favorited 60 times — although, to be fair, some 50 percent of the Russian responses to McFaul’s remarks about the Navalny trial were negative). According to tweetreach.com, McFaul’s Twitter Q&A sessions reached an average of 300,000 accounts per session. The fact that he’s spending his time engaging with the Russian public on Twitter Q&A sessions is already a diplomatic success in itself, one State Department official told me.

McFaul’s popularity is especially noteworthy considering the recent tension between Washington and Moscow, not to mention the distinctly anti-American tone of the reporting by Russia’s state-dominated mainstream media. "Pretty much every night somebody writes that U.S. government is aiming to destabilize Russia and overthrow the regime," said McFaul. The ambassador also noted that death threats sometimes crop up amid the messages he receives from the Russian public. He hastened to point out that Russian officials have always reacted to the threats with reassuring speed and efficiency.

Even after two years of tweeting, McFaul still can’t explain his popularity. "We’ve embarked on a grand experiment here," he told me. "We’re only two years in. Before us, there were almost no diplomats on Twitter or Facebook. Academics will be studying this experiment for years. What’s important is to stay engaged on a daily basis." The ambassador was also at pains to explain that Twitter isn’t the only way he interacts with his host country. Just like his predecessors, he still makes the official rounds, attending events, meeting Russian government officials, and seizing every opportunity to socialize with Russians from all walks of life.

McFaul’s social media presence has won him more fame than other public figures — but it has also confronted him with the tricky task of figuring out what’s private and what isn’t. Attending a recent concert at the Kremlin, McFaul took a photo of the event and was about to post it online when he suddenly had second thoughts. The event was closed to the public, and McFaul’s security officials have counseled him against revealing his whereabouts in real time. "It’s really hard to figure out where the boundary runs between the personal and public," says McFaul. "’Here’s a picture of what I had to eat today and here are some photographs explaining diplomacy.’"

And there are moments when the heightened attention looks more like harassment. Last year, he set off to what he was expecting to be a private meeting with activist Lev Ponomarev. Someone, however, had leaked the details of the meeting. Upon his arrival, McFaul was confronted by TV journalists and a large, hostile group of nationalist demonstrators. (Caught off guard, an indignant McFaul vented at the TV crew — and later had to apologize for some of his remarks.)

Yet most of his encounters with the citizens of his host country are far less confrontational. During the ambassador’s two years in Russia, McFaul has spoken to audiences of all types, from graduate students to ordinary people in the street. The most difficult part has been learning to lecture in Russian. "I’ve given two-hour lectures in Russian," McFaul told me with pride a few days ago. "I wonder if any other diplomats have ever done that."

But speaking is easier than writing. Russians are far more critical of his written Russian; some of his less-well-meaning followers have been happy to seize on his occasional grammatical mistakes. To improve his Twitter skills in Russian and inspire his followers, McFaul has spent many a late hour with his Russian dictionary in his upstairs room in Spaso House, the historic residence of the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, struggling to compose faultless tweets. "Another thing is not to take myself too seriously," said McFaul. "I do have a sense of humor in real life, but on Twitter, it took me a while to come up with my own voice."

McFaul’s approach to diplomacy irritates some Russian diplomats and Kremlin officials. "Our diplomacy is on the opposite side of the scale," says Sergei Markov, an old friend of McFaul’s who works for the Russian government. "Right now we’re reinventing our own exotic, imperialistic diplomacy with much more discipline, since that’s what we need." That said, Markov still admires McFaul’s talents and social media skills. "He’s a trendsetter," says Markov, noting that McFaul was the first diplomat in Moscow to begin communicating with Russians on Twitter. "Even our own Ministry of Foreign Affairs is now following his example by using Twitter. McFaul is pushing everybody forward."

Anna Nemtsova is a Moscow-based correspondent for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, covering Russia and the former Soviet states. She is also the winner of the 2012 Persephone Miel Fellowship and the 2015 IWMF Courage in Journalism award. Twitter: @annanemtsova