When Iran’s supreme leader tweeted criticism of Israel on Sunday, Israel’s Embassy in the United States fired back with an image from the movie “Mean Girls” to poke fun at Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
While dismissed as internet trolling, experts say the embassy snark is part of a pattern of internet diplomacy increasingly used around the world amid a resurgence of populist rhetoric.
Governments seeking to please their most vocal political bases domestically are becoming cavalier with how they communicate with countries abroad — at least online.
In 2013, as Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani was publicly signaling a willingness to negotiate a nuclear deal, the Israeli Embassy tweeted a link to a parody LinkedIn account it made for Rouhani.
The profile described the Iranian president as an “Expert Salesman, PR Professional and Nuclear Proliferation Advocate,” and listed professional skills like “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” “Ballistics” and “Military Justice.”
Iran has sought to fight fire with fire — or trolling with trolling, in this case.
In one of the more memorable examples, Khamenei took to Instagram after President TrumpDonald TrumpGraham says he hopes that Trump runs again Trump says Stacey Abrams 'might be better than existing governor' Kemp Executive privilege fight poses hurdles for Trump MORE scrapped the U.S. nuclear deal with Iran to show a picture of himself reading “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” a controversial book that detailed the extreme dysfunction of Trump’s White House.
“It’s the populist regimes which tend to be doing this,” said Ben Nimmo, a researcher at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, the international affairs think tank’s digitally focused arm.
Nimmo pointed to Iran and Israel, but also to government Twitter accounts in Russia and Trump’s own social media posts.
Each employs an aggressive social media strategy that aims to skewer foreign countries.
Trump is so expected to bring foreign policy fights to Twitter that it is almost predictable.
He has criticized allies and foes alike directly, sometimes with disparaging language. Think “Little Rocket Man” for North Korea leader Kim Jong Un.
Russia has also used Twitter trolling as a foreign policy maneuver, but not just to influence U.S. politics with armies of proxy accounts.
In March, Russia’s Embassy in the United Kingdom tweeted a series of sarcastic barbs aimed at the U.K. government after its expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats. The tweets lampooned the U.K. for blaming Russia for poisoning a former spy, jokingly claiming that the U.K. would probably blame Russia for unrelated things like bad weather.
In many cases, the trolling serves as a form of peacocking for a country, letting a state reaffirm and project its identity to its tens or hundreds of thousands of often sympathetic followers, Constance Duncombe, a researcher at Australia's Monash University, wrote in a 2017 paper.
“That kind of aggressive polemic style has been the characteristic of populist governments since there have been populist governments,” said Nimmo. “If you think of a populist government, their biggest audience is their own base at home.”
The difference today, he said, is that governments now operate online.
Israel and Russia have specific mechanisms that they’ve developed to make sure that their Twitter posts get pushed in front of their supporters.
Israel has a “Twitter Hive” which Elad Ratson, an Israeli diplomat who regularly engages with reporters on social media, told NBC News serves as “a community” of thousands of people “who enable their Twitter account to automatically amplify important factual information about Israel, thus contributing to its large exposure.”
Russia also has its own “diplomatic club” that offers Twitter users “regular competitions and prize draws” and invitations to the ambassador’s residence in exchange for letting their account to be used to automatically retweet some official posts.
Corneliu Bjola, a diplomacy researcher at the University of Oxford, warned that excessively trolling and the use of memes can backfire.
“If you overuse memes (like the Russian embassy in London) you risk further controversy as diplomats are supposed to operate within a certain horizon of professional expectations,” he said.
Experts say that at some point, more traditional forms of diplomacy are needed to build real ties between countries and overcome differences. The risk is that the trolling will get in the way.