Tweeting the Russian revolution: RT’s #1917LIVE and social media re-enactments as public diplomacy

Crilley, Rhys; Gillespie, Marie and Willis, Alistair (2020). Tweeting the Russian revolution: RT’s #1917LIVE and social media re-enactments as public diplomacy. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 23(3) pp. 354–373.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1367549419871353

Abstract

Throughout 2017, the Russian state broadcaster, RT (formerly Russia Today), commemorated the centenary of the 1917 revolution with a social media re-enactment. Centred on Twitter, the 1917LIVE project involved over 90 revolution-era characters tweeting in real time as if the 1917 revolution was happening live on social media. This article is based on an analysis of a sample of tweets by users who engaged with 1917LIVE, alongside focus group discussions with its followers. We argue that a cultural studies perspective can shed important light on the political significance of RT’s social media re-enactment in ways that current studies of public diplomacy as a soft power resource often fail to do. It can advance soft power theory by offering a more nuanced, dynamic analysis of how state media mobilise, and how audiences engage with, social media re-enactments as commemorative events. We find that rather than promoting a unitary propagandistic narrative about Russia, 1917LIVE served instead to soften attitudes towards RT itself – encouraging audiences to view RT as an educator and entertainer as well as a news broadcaster – normalising its presence as a Russian public diplomacy resource in the international news media landscape. Our analysis of audience interactions with and interpretations of 1917LIVE affords insights into how the 1917 re-enactment worked as didactic entertainment eliciting affective identification with the characters of the revolution. Such public diplomacy projects contribute in the short term to a strengthening of the engagement required to create longer-term soft power effects.

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