Browse the Russian Internet and it won’t take you long to find photoshopped images lampooning Jen Psaki, the spokesperson for the U.S. State Department. Most Americans have never heard of Psaki, but she’s a household name in Russia, where the Kremlin and its loyalists in the media have made her into a national punching bag.
One of the latest attacks, however, reveals how even Russia’s noblest patriots seem to rely on American resources when deriding the State Department. Indeed, a new anti-Psaki meme uses a photograph taken from an American website that Russian government censors recently banned. The website, deviantArt, might still be blocked, were it not for a petition organized on another American website, Change.org.
The campaign against Psaki has produced several Internet memes, usually mocking her supposedly weak grasp of reality. Russian Internet users scour every press briefing, searching desperately for any mistakes. When close inspection turns up nothing, people have been happy to invent gaffes. One of Psaki’s most infamous blunders—saying that Belarus has “shores”—is a complete fiction. She never said it.
In early June, perhaps as a countermeasure against Russia’s Psaki propaganda, Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf began delivering more of the U.S. State Department’s daily briefings. (In fact, many in Russia seemed genuinely alarmed when Harf first started performing this role.) The castling move, however, hasn’t stopped Russians online from distorting what the spokesperson says at the briefings. Indeed, much of the RuNet—or whatever diabolical PR firm coordinates this effort—has continued pretending that Psaki is the State Department’s only representative.
Last week, on August 14, Marie Harf delivered the State Department’s daily briefing. When asked to comment on Vladimir Putin’s visit to Crimea, Harf poked fun at the struggles of Russia’s post-annexation tourism industry, joking, “Well, from what I hear, he’s the only tourist that’s actually gone there this summer.” Russian news outlets immediately reported Harf’s comment, portraying it as a serious claim. Deputy Prime Minster Dmitry Rogozin declared, “the U.S. State Department is degenerating before our very eyes,” implying that Harf’s joke has no basis in reality. (As it happens, just a few hours before Harf’s press conference, Russia’s tourism industry union reported that foreign tourism to Russia is down 50 percent this year.)
Even though Harf is the one who said it, most of Russia’s backlash to the “tourism joke” addresses Psaki. The RuNet, it seems, has invested too much into ridiculing Psaki to shift gears comfortably. As expected, bloggers promptly updated a popular meme, attributing the tourism joke to Psaki. The meme features Psaki cornered in a padded room, wearing nothing but a straightjacket and underwear. To the right is a photograph of crowded beach in Sevastopol. On Psaki’s shoulder is the “Stoned Fox,” who is shown trying to calm Psaki by saying, “Don’t worry—these people are just figments of your imagination. Only Putin is there.”
The original photo of the woman in the padded room belongs to a San-Francisco-based model named Rayna, who published the image in October 2007 on deviantart.com. Psaki’s detractors, it turns out, could have found more patriotic source material, as Russian censors recently blocked deviantArt for hosting ecchi pornography. Russian Internet providers only began restoring access to deviantArt’s domain after fans organized a petition on another American website, change.org, where over 12,000 Russians signed a public letter demanding the site’s return.
This is where the campaign against Jen Psaki has led us: Russians are using American lobbying resources to persuade their own authorities to unblock American photo-sharing websites, where Russia’s “patriots” steal erotic pictures of Californian women, in order to misattribute and misrepresent one offhand joke from a press briefing.