Thoughts On Shitpost Diplomacy

Approximately three hours ago, the official twitter account of the United States Embassy in Kiev posted this meme. 1

1

U.S. Embassy Kyiv, tweet, 22 February 2022.

The meme is idiotic at even the surface level: in face of Russian claims that Ukraine is a 20th century political fiction artificially dividing the Russian people into national categories that would not have made sense to any European who lived before Lenin, and that this cradle of Russian culture should not be allowed to fall within the geopolitical ambit of a hostile anti-Russian alliance, the American embassy tweets a meme that highlights Kiev’s role as the origin point of Russian civilization. This is not hard. A Russian sixth-grader could explain why celebrating the glories of Kievan Rus does not subvert Putin’s claims about the history of the Russian nation so much as reinforce them.

The American diplomat who posted this meme should have known this. He or she was almost certainly a Foreign Service Officer in the Public Diplomacy cone; a public diplomat’s first charge is learning how to communicate persuasively to the people of the region stationed in. It is not that this officer lacked the raw intelligence to fulfill this role: four out of every five applicants fail the Foreign Service’s selective entrance tests. It is what this diplomat did after receiving his or her post that mattered. This diplomat did not study. Memes like these are the product of a culture that retweets more than it reads.   

The internet operates on its own logic. In the world of Twitter, Twitch and Tiktok, fame is the aim and exposure the goal. The influence of an influencer is measured in retweets, reblogs, and runaway memes. The internet-addled man glories in the hashtag that takes on its own life; he revels in the image that entire subcultures make their own. His battleground is “the discourse.” In this ethereal realm of images and threads, prestige comes from being clever, being funny, and being first. One’s internet enemies are to be cancelled where possible, and lampooned when not. The social media addict knows victory when the right words are used by the right sorts.

But not all enemies can be cancelled. Not all fights can be won through clever retweets. The world of flesh and blood does not always work like the world of memes and tweets. Those given responsibility in the world of physical things court disaster when they confuse internet politics with the real thing.

This was the lesson we all should have learned from the fall of Hong Kong. Here is how the internet’s most thoughtful tankie described the lessons of Hong Kong for revolutionary leftists of the future:

It’s my belief that the Hong Kong protest campaign has had good (not perfect) tactics and a very distorted strategy, that has caused it to throw away some absolutely monumental gains in favour of the maximum possible international media outreach – I believe this strategy was pursued not even wholly consciously, but partially because of the history and culture of the movement and also because of the warping nature of one of the main mediums of organisation and communication of the movement: that being the internet.

…The movement that emerged in 2019 has proved through its internet-savvy and energy quite masterful at controlling the narrative, at imposing upon the whole world – not only Hong Kong – a story of heroic underdog youth versus a corrupt government and a capital-c Communist superpower. The number of amateur and professional photographers and reporters who followed the protests, capturing both the worst moments of the police and best, most surreal and exciting moments of the protesters themselves, was remarkable. The images and rhetoric employed, whether a simple HONG KONG ADD OIL, the stark, powerful LIBERATE HONG KONG REVOLUTION OF OUR TIMES, or the by-now iconic FIVE DEMANDS AND NOT ONE LESS, all stuck out in contrast to the muddled symbolism of past HK localist efforts…. All of this created an atmosphere of delirious, incredible unreality, where the movement had power far beyond its actual ability, where it seemed for a while that all of the impossible things the first and second phases of the democracy movement had balked at really were possible, or at least were impossible and worth dying gloriously for.

…And yet these dizzying heights and the incredible global reach of the protest movement came at a cost that those paying for it didn’t really understand. In a revolutionary moment – and in the sense of its definitive break with the prior reality, the seductive touch of its ideas, Hong Kong represented the vague stirrings of one – the most important thing, once the structure has fallen in, is to consolidate it… The Hong Kong protestors did not go for this. They did not attempt to create a dual power system in the Soviet style in 1917, or attempt to build alternative structures or forces that could rival the HKSAR government; they did not bide their time or wait or plan. The truly revolutionary impulse – of construction rather than destruction – escaped them, and after their victory in the fight over the Extradition Bill they immediately escalated, and they escalated in the stupidest possible way. Five Demands that were impossible, that trapped the HKSAR government, and increasingly strident rhetoric that was designed to irritate Beijing, and ever-increasing acts of violence and disruption, and finally the HK PolyU siege, a pointless act of supreme grandstanding that gave the police everything they wanted…

And they saw their own photographs and memes being uploaded and looking great and the mass hashtags showing their numbers, and they saw foreign newspapers fawning and international leaders speaking out, and with that all the disinformation of modern social media, of Epoch Times articles and clickbait journalism and people from all over the world who they’d never met expressing support, and this became their new reality; the world versus ChiNazi. Their behaviour became unmoored from strategy and their tactics thus dissolved.

And so in the end China, roused by LIBERATE HONG KONG and the American flag and their own flag being burned and tossed aside, by so much intentional provocation on the side of the protestors for the whole of the course of the movement, finally pushed back; it didn’t give them what they wanted, the Tiananmen 2.0 that would have vindicated all the suffering they endured by at least proving them right. Instead it slammed Hong Kong shut with the National Security Law, destroying them with bureaucracy instead of bullets. And the 2019 that set Hong Kong ablaze, its end delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, finally came to a close just as unsatisfying and meaningless as the Umbrella Movement before it.2

How many divisions does Twitter have?3 That question is the lesson of Hong Kong. Victory in the meme wars means nothing when actual war comes knocking. If success on the webz convinces activists that they have more momentum and outside support than is really available, meme victories may undermine the greater cause. As in Hong Kong, the energy of a movement “too online” perpetually threatens to shift from strategic calculation in the real world to chasing performative victories in the virtual.

3

I have taken this line from Robert Tracinski (tweet, 22 February 2022). The phrase is an allusion to an apocryphal statement by Stalin, the history of which is traced in Pascal Tregeur, “The History of the Phrase ‘How Many Divisions Has the Pope?” Word Histories, 23 August 2019.

Our unnamed diplomat is not the leader of a movement. He is a junior representative of a government that is unable to stop the Russian attack on his new home. Forced to evacuate in chaos, this diplomat must hate the autocrat who turned his life upside down, fear for the friends he left behind, and feel the guilt that stalks all privileged survivors of catastrophe. Behind this poorly conceived tweet is a broken young 20-something raging at the powerlessness of his position. Who am I to judge his actions from the safety and comfort of a DC suburb?  My life has not been upended. No one I know will die this week. Judgements cheapen with distance.

Yet in politics intentions shrink before outcomes. No Ukrainian in two weeks’ time, mourning the death of a family member in the rubble, or shivering in a foreign refugee camp, will say “at least in the lead-up to war the American embassy pwned the Russians with a dank meme!”4 And that would be true for a meme that actually pawned the Putin, instead of one that inadvertently reinforces his cause.

4

Thought adapted from Adam Elkus, tweet, 22 February 2022.

This meme is an isolated diplomat’s attempt to reclaim his agency and fight back the only way he knows how. That our diplomat’s first impulse is to resort to a self-defeating meme speaks to a broader problem—the sort of cultural problem instinctual reactions to crisis make most clear. This is a problem of an entire generation—my generation. We are a people that retweets when we could be reading.  The minds of best and our brightest have been poisoned by ratios, “god tweets,” and memes. We came of age on Twitter, Tumblr, and 4chan, and still see the world through their frames. We find it harder and harder to distinguish the actual from the image; we struggle to disentangle perception management from problem management. This is what it looks like when the terminally online ascend to positions of real responsibility. Welcome to the age of shitpost diplomacy.   

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If you would like to read some of my essays on similar topics, you might find the posts “So Begins the Age of Instagram Diplomacy,” “The World That Twitter Made,” and “On Cultures That Build”  of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.
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18 Comments

Two mostly unrelated thoughts about this topic.

With regards to the Hong Kong protests, one thing which I recollect very vividly at the time was the (ludicrous) allegations hurled by Beijing that the protesters were “CIA-funded” cutouts fomenting a color revolution to topple China’s rule over Hong Kong. Nearly every person not operating under ideological blinders, whether for or against the protesters, dismissed this charge as arrant nonsense. Why?

One reason, of course, was that the charges *were* arrant nonsense, no evidence surfaced then or since of such cooperation. But the writings of the tankie you quote, and this post itself, hint at a slightly different interpretation: had the protesters *truly* sought to foment a color revolution and topple the HKSAR government, asking for substantive material assistance from the CIA (or building it themselves) to do all the things necessary to accomplish such a task – the tankie specifically cites creating parallel governance structures, turning a massive popular groundswell into a revolutionary organization – *would* have been the very natural thing to do. Beijing, in a very real sense, may have been giving the protesters more credit as a revolutionary movement than they truly warranted, which was very little, as future events came to demonstrate. But in some sense it also seems that even at the time, everyone observing events in Hong Kong realized, though most were unwilling to admit it, that the protesters’ true capability to substantively change the course of events in Hong Kong was virtually nil. So to acknowledge that the Hong Kong protests did not have “CIA assistance” was to acknowledge that they would not have known what to do with or how to use such outside assistance even if they were granted such assistance in an unlimited form.

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Earlier, I saw two separate tweets on Twitter. One of these was from media personality Glenn Greenwald, harshly criticizing the Canadian government’s response to the trucker protests. He took issue with the fact that the Canadian government had “seized” the trucker protesters’ financial assets, presumably a reference to the Canadian government’s freezing of bank accounts under an emergencies law. Whether this was justified or not is not the topic of this comment (I lean towards “this is egregious government overreach, even if you don’t actually support the overall goals of the protesters”), but I found it notable because earlier in my feed, I saw a different tweet highlighting the percentages of Russian oligarch assets that are held outside Russia (and in countries where USG has substantial influence). The tweeter in this case was implying that seizure of those assets presented a very real and credible threat, arguably even a substantial deterrent, to the Russian government. Now, I am not saying that outright asset seizure, which is a very aggressive action, and carries with it potentially high risk of escalation, is the kind of action USG *should* have taken. But I have to wonder, can our anonymous American diplomat in Kyiv, whose job ostensibly involves canvassing Twitter (to formulate and disseminate USG public affairs messaging to be sure) be so powerless or so disempowered that he could not even *conceive* of messaging how the USG does in fact have very credible threats in it’s quiver?

What the HK protests and the errant Ukraine Embassy tweeter have in common is that, at the core of it, neither could actually change the situations themselves. No matter how many books a member of the US Foreign Service read, they could not hold back Putin’s tanks. No matter how many books a HK protester might have read, they could not hold back the CCP’s armed power. Should they have simply done nothing? In the case of the US Foreign Service officer, the answer is clearly yes. The tweet was dumb, and the diagnosis in this post is entirely accurate for that.

But what should protesters in HK have done? Surrendered honorably? Fled their homes to immigrate elsewhere? Continued the protests without trying to get any foreign support? The linked post suggesting organizing a Bolshevik-style shadow government seems even less likely to have succeeded than the failed strategy of trying to convince the West to do something while provoking a Tiananmen-style crackdown.

It’s easy to criticize strategies that were doomed to fail, but I don’t blame the HK protesters for grasping at publicity abroad–it was a desperate strategy, but one that perhaps gave them .5% of a chance instead of 0%. Besides, every now and then, those desperate gambles do, in fact, succeed, and it seems quite possible that online virality might play a prominent role in future successes.

Great points Chris, especially the last two paragraphs. It will be fascinating to see how things change as the 90s and beyond generation take on leading roles in the next couple decades.

RE: “What should have the Hong Kongers done?”

I must tread carefully here as my understanding of HK is imperfect; I never lived there, and have far less understanding of its internal politics than I do Taiwan and PRC intrigues. With that said, a few generalizations I feel comfortable making:

–> The end outcome of the HK protests was total defeat.
–> The scale and severity of this defeat far outstrip the situation faced by the protestors in early 2019. What would have taken a decade of slow chipping on the part of Beijing and their HKSAR underlings was accomplished in about two months. Those actions would not have happened so forcefully, nor on such a condensed timeline, without the 2019 flare up. This was the worst outcome for all parties involved (except the DPP in Taiwan!)
–>The protests were too decentralized and chaotic to be guided by anything like a “strategy.” Many of the protestors involved were involved for the sort of emotional things I talk about here (https://scholars-stage.org/questing-for-transcendence/). I am hardly the only one to make this point (see https://www.newyorker.com/news/dispatch/bravery-and-nihilism-amid-the-protests-in-hong-kong). it was all over their own slogans (“burn together!”) Inasmuch as feeling short bursts of “agency,” “glory,” and “purpose” were the goals of many participants, then they served their goal, but the sort of things that fulfill those emotional drives were often at direct cross purposes of striking a better settlement.

To this I will add something I am unsure about, but currently believe (though am very open to being proven otherwise):

–> There was a moment before “Five Demands” and after the walk down on extradition where the pro-democracy forces could have pulled back, consolidated their wins, and planned for more effective protest in the future. The decision to jump straight to “Five Demands” was what pushed the movement over the precipice and made a PRC crackdown inevitable.

So given all this, what should they have done? If that moment of consolidation was possible, they should have taken it. If it wasn’t, then they should have accepted that any action was only going to hasten their defeat. At worst, they would only be in the same position they are in now, but ten years down the line. At best, in that ten years something internal to China might change–civil war, collapse, liberals taking over, etc–that would allow them another shot. Trying to force the issue immediately was always bound to fail, and there was something irresponsible in Westerners who cheered it on, knowing full well that there was no other way out. (The only defensible reason to support the protests IMHO was b/c of their galvanizing effect in Taiwan; arguably they are primarily responsible for Han Kuo-yu’s defeat).

If looked at discretely the Occupy Central in 2014 can also be described as a total defeat. However there is a link between the two events. A viral slogan from the 2019 protests was “It was you who taught me that peaceful marches are useless” referencing the lack of engagement from authorities after the peaceful Occupy Central demonstrations were broken up in 2014. The Occupy Central was the precursor to the 2019 protests and the suggestion from both yourself and the tankie that the issues are resolved are premature.

The next stage is deeply concerning as it could easily lead to more extreme violence and bloodshed. The Police have arrested 10,200 people in connection with the 2019 protests many of them secondary school and University aged. A high number will be found guilty and jailed and on release will be effectively unemployable. A large number of young, educated with no hope or prospects is a potent mix for further social instability.

The focus on the protesters who were a large decentralized mass is only half of the question. What should the HK Government have done? What should the Central Authorities in Beijing have done? What should the Police have done? There were missed opportunities for de-escalation from HK Government who chose the path of violence and intimidation with the attacks on public by Govt-backed triads (July 2019 – Tuen Mun) and by Police (August 2019 – MTR attack).

A HK liberal, capitalist system is due to converge with the mainland China system of law, finance, and politics in 2049. This was always going to be a bumpy transition and the expectation that HK would gradually be subsumed by the mainland proved unrealistic. An acknowledgment of the challenges ahead and a roadmap to attain a working merger could have blunted much of the protesters anger. The main outcome for the world has been to lift the mask of the CCP to expose “the cruel men .. from Tianamen”

I agree that the “lift[ing of] the mask of the CCP” was valuable insofar as accelerating the degree to which the West (and, as Tanner pointed out, perhaps Taiwan as well) realized that the CCP had changed from the pre-Xi era. My impression was that there had been some growing concerns by 2018 that Xi was getting particularly authoritarian and that nationalism was on the rise, but there was nowhere near the level of popular attention until the protests and the images from them came out.

I don’t quite agree with Tanner that HKers got nothing out of it. Hong Kongers did get some concrete gains in terms of the relaxing of visa restrictions by a number of countries (notably the UK), which probably would not have happened without the draconian crackdown and the international sympathy that it engendered. The clear crackdown also boosted the asylum claims for those who were able to flee. It would have been nice if the US had taken more advantage of this to get more strongly anti-CCP HKers over here, but it seems like the exodus of the educated and wealthy is continuing. It’s a disaster for HK itself as a cultural center, but that was, as Fenton notes, inevitable in the face of the CCP, and the protests simply pushed the timetable for mainlander takeover forward by a few years.

Shitposting doesn’t matter, until it does. One of the richest men in the world got there in part because shitposting and the coincident media coverage (as well as media capture and well paid pr) of said shitposting convinced the world he was a genius. The former president wouldn’t have been elected without shitposting (and the same media things that made the other guy rich). The problem with shitposting is most of its shit, it’s a high risk strategy, and you really need media dysfunction to make it work.

Hilarious. Most of the occupiers weren’t truckers, and most Canadian truckers opposed them, while many of the “virtual class” supported them. The actual divide was the majority of the country vs a minority of right wing extremists and a handful of useful idiots and propagandists that spanned class and profession. The author implies the occupation of Ottawa was some sort of harbinger of a general strike, but given the absence of organized labour, the presence of fascist militias, and the explicit support of many in law enforcement, if an actual general strike ever broke out, most of the occupiers would be the first to cheer when the police started putting the boots to the strikers.

But then what’s to be expected from an author who writes about “Wokeness” without a hint of irony or shame.

“In war, moral power is to physical as three parts out of four.” – Napoleon Bonaparte
The Taliban kicked our asses in large part due to their superior shitposting capabilities (for a target audience). Ukraine will, sooner or later, do the same to Russia.
Yes, this only works if you have enough LAWs, MANPADs, and assault rifles. The HK protestors did not, but the Taliban did and Ukraine does.
We could ship literally a million Javelins and Stingers to Taiwan for the cost of one carrier strike group. With the current balance of military tech, any polity that actually wants do defend itself can and will. But that requires will and morale, which requires building up national unity and moral purpose, which requires a lot of tweeting.

I do generally agree with your essay, however I do think you’re severely underestimating the power of an idea and of ideals which are today, fortunately or unfortunately, also communicated by memes. The meme you linked may not be true, but it does not need to be true as it’s communicating an idea more so than historical accuracy; we were there while you weren’t.
And this war of ideas is currently working pretty well for Ukraine. They have international support, a lot of countries is sending them weapons, never before seen economic consequences on Russia, Putin and russian oligarchs. This support is, yes, in part because it was an unprovoked invasion, but also because Ukraine is winning this war of ideas. This propaganda war. And this win is only upping the morale of the people.
As much as I admire Zelensky for his decision to stay, the fact that he stays transmits an ideal, gives hope, and perpetuates an idea. Him, with his people, a military shirt and under-eye bags and Putin, in his well polished desk, waging the war from afar. As an actor, he knows the ideal, the image, he represents by staying.
To finish, while I do understand the critic of “tweeting instead of reading” and find it all too true a lot of times, I think the problem here lies not mainly with individual people, as much as an entire education system that does not encourage critical thinking and curiosity. And in the instance you provided, tweeting was more important than reading.

Regarding Hindutva hating, Russia delenda est at all costs WorldWarWokeness permeating the State Department and alienating Russophilic India, this woman is speaking my language, b-ba-ba-based:

https://twitter.com/RepMTG/status/1524544171868045312

Next up she should call out Kinzinger’s McCainiac, Anglomaniacal subservience to a distinctly British version of neocon ideology. And make it clear that future Steele Dossiers and UK-taxpayer funded meddling vs America First GOP candidates will be punished.