Nothing to laugh about? How States Use Humor in Public Diplomacy

In today’s digital media environment, how a story is told cannot be any less important than whether the story is true. Dmitry Chernobrov examines how states strategically use humor as a tool of public diplomacy for the truth to promote narratives that advance state interests, deflect criticism, and shape opinions on controversial events.

When Western governments and media accused Russia of meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, Moscow responded with humor. Russia’s external broadcaster RT ran ads saying “Missed the train? Lost voice? Blame us! ‘ and ‘Check out RT and find out who we want to hack next’. During the 2020 presidential campaign, RT jokingly offered Donald Trump a job.

Russian officials and state media have also repeatedly ridiculed Western politicians for having been betrayed by pro-Kremlin jokes. Joke calls claiming Russia is interested in fictional countries have been used to show that Western governments are only too happy to support trumped-up allegations against Russia and to impose sanctions on false pretenses. Russian embassies often tweet viral humorous messages designed to fend off criticism, challenge Russian opponents’ claims and turn propaganda allegations into a joke.

Russia is not the only one trying to use humor to shape public opinion at home and abroad about controversial international events. Israel has used humor in public diplomacy campaigns to defend the country against external criticism, while Poland has used humor to mock Britain’s Brexit position, and Canadian and US embassies have both produced viral memes of Russia’s conduct in Ukraine ridicule. In all of these cases, the messages reached a wider and more diverse audience. They have been picked up by the news media and helped promote state narratives in ways that dry, official statements often fail.

Strategic humor

Humor has a long history in politics and propaganda. But with social media, public diplomacy has changed – and short, newsworthy, memorable, easy-to-share sarcastic messages have become an increasingly popular way of communicating foreign policy to citizens and waging the war of narratives.

Humor is rarely taken seriously – and that paradoxically makes it a useful tool for testing or conveying serious messages. Stories told with humor – from jokes about politicians and nations to viral memes – are some of the most widespread and best remembered.

Research shows that political comedy is better remembered by audiences than news and is increasingly becoming a news source. The accuracy and truthfulness of humorous claims are not as scrutinized (after all, they’re just kidding), making them easier to reproduce and harder to question. Humor can provide fertile ground for expressing controversial ideas, perpetuating stereotypes, fueling conspiracies, confirming boundaries of identity, reducing opponents, and creating hierarchies.

In a current study I present the concept of strategic humor – the use of humor by state and representative actors in order to convey instrumental interpretations of controversial international events to the domestic and foreign audiences. The concept highlights two main aspects: the use of humor as a strategy to communicate and formulate controversial international issues for the benefit of a particular actor, and the choice of humor for its ability to maximize reach and engage audiences emotionally. Importantly, humor describes more than just an isolated event – it often weaves it into a broader political script, linking its perception to popular and recognizable cultural symbols.

States use humor to shape events in such a way that they promote state interests, distract criticism, legitimize politics and challenge the narratives of others in order to achieve foreign policy goals. Although powerful or respected states also use humor, it can be an asymmetrical instrument of influence where traditional power resources have been limited or constrained.

Russia, for example, has used humor to articulate some of the most problematic issues in its relations with the West, where it is politically isolated, distrusted, sanctioned, unfavorably portrayed by foreign media and viewed as a revisionist power. In various cultures, humor has long been the weapon of the oppressed, a tool to resist dictators or hegemony. Today, some states use humor strategically to claim a similar symbolic position of resistance to internationally dominant media and political discourse.

Strategic humor drives public diplomacy for the truth. It is characterized by emotional messages, the construction and exploitation of uncertainty, and the pursuit of popularity as a mechanism for asserting claims to truth. But it doesn’t necessarily construct falsehoods – ridiculing opponents invites the audience to doubt you Trustworthiness, expose you hidden motives that feed the uncertainty surrounding controversial events. Such humor enables states to confront mainstream international interpretations and their own “truth” which they assert through popular humorous style rather than factual evidence.

After all, humor in public diplomacy is aimed at a broad – and hazy – audience. The distinction between domestic / foreign public, which has traditionally been central to influencing and persuasive strategies, is giving way to online / offline. By actively using digital tools, states use humor to shape public opinion at home and abroad. And while the persuasiveness of humor (and general propaganda) can be denied, humor maximizes the quantity, if not the quality, of public relations.

For more information, see the author’s accompanying study in British Journal of Politics and International Relations and his current book Public perception of international crises

Note: This article reflects the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Photo credit: Andrew Parsons / 10 Downing Street (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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