Michael McFaul has spent most of his life embroiled in Russian politics. He learned Russian at Leningrad State University, was invited to aid Boris Yeltsin on his presidential campaign in 1996, and was even targeted by a gunman for his political views. He was a strong advocate for a “reset” in US-Russia relations. Thus, when McFaul was nominated to be the U.S. Ambassador to Russia in 2011, he was approved unanimously by the Senate. When he arrived in the country, he was not greeted warmly. On the second day of his tenure as ambassador, members of Russian opposition parties were seen by the state media entering the U.S. Embassy. When asked their purpose, the opposition members stated that they were there to see McFaul. The day after, the state media released this video on YouTube.
The video, titled “Получение инструкций в посольстве США” (Receiving instructions in the Embassy of the United States), was overwhelmingly received in a negative light. McFaul was accused of promoting dissent in Russia and trying to undermine the government. He became the embodiment of America and inherited all the negativity associated with it. From that point forward, McFaul was constantly on the defensive. His weapon of choice to fight back? Twitter.
It is fitting that McFaul turned to social media after it was used to attack him. Since that day, he has tweeted over 4,800 times and accumulated more than 45,000 followers. It has been his go-to method in his attempts to win over the Russian public. Written mostly in Russian, he uses it to talk about his current work and provide political information. However, McFaul primarily uses it to just to communicate with the average Russian citizen. In a way, he is trying to humanize himself after being depicted as a tool of the American liberal machine by the Russian media. Aside from the political posts, his Twitter feed is not very different from the average persons. McFaul’s feed is cluttered with pictures of random things, such as the people and places he’s seen or even a camel he’s met. He will have casual conversations about his hometown, Butte, or whether or not he drinks vodka.
I see this as McFaul trying to communicate with the people in a way that the Russian government does not. Almost anyone can send him a tweet and have him respond. It does not have to be about anything political either. McFaul is also very frank in his responses and I believe that this is his greatest asset. This is what can help him save face in Russia. It is the only way he can distinguish himself from the propaganda that is being thrown against him. His Twitter feed is a very stark contrast to the Kremlin’s and his counterparts in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. These are strictly official feeds with no replies or informality whatsoever. They are essentially inaccessible to the average Russian citizen. While McFaul does not have as many followers as these other feeds, his Twitter following is steadily growing.
While Twitter has become McFaul’s greatest asset, it has also become yet another avenue for his opponents to criticize him. After he held a talk about the “reset” of US-Russia relations, the Russian Ministry of Foreign affairs Twitter feed broke it’s formality and proceeded to attack him. This started a “Twitter war” between the two accounts. He also can be too frank at times. When he sent a tweet criticizing the state media’s harassment of him, he was called out for saying that the Russians were spying on him. These incidents are proof that he remains on shaky ground even within the sphere of social media.
Despite these hurdles, Michael McFaul remains as active on Twitter as he has always been. While there has been some positive progress, the question remains.
Is it enough to save his (and America’s) reputation in Russia?