Today, the battle for hearts and minds is unfolding on the devices in the palms of our hands. The media environment operates with unfamiliar rules and without systems of checks and balances, and information proliferates at an extraordinary pace. How do governments and international organisations get ahead in this new war of narratives, and how do we secure the victory for truth?
By Elizabeth Kennedy Trudeau
In our current chapter of the information age, the unparalleled speed and pervasive nature of mis- and disinformation divide, confuse and create a culture of political and civic disengagement. This is a global problem. It’s something we experience in the United States and across the NATO Alliance as acutely as in any other part of the world and it is designed to introduce chaos into our global media environments.
To be clear, the primary purpose of disinformation is not to spread individual untruths and persuade vulnerable audiences of any single narrative supporting a hostile actor’s malicious agenda. It is to pervade the information environment with so many illogical statements, false and inconsistent narratives, and flat-out absurdities that global audiences grow tired, confused, and ultimately disengage, rejecting their civic responsibilities to remain informed, politically active and ethically engaged citizens. When nothing is true, and everything contradicts everything else, we grow frustrated, and we check out completely.
Disinformation is a fast-moving and ever-evolving challenge that does not adhere to borders. The international community needs to address the issue of disinformation collectively. The question becomes; how do we make sure citizens have the tools they need to be able to identify it, discourage them from sharing it, and set them on a path to discover the truth?
First and foremost, we need to educate people about how to recognise disinformation and foster a culture of calling it out when they see it. Media literacy is an invaluable skill that can be taught and reinforced in the universal battle for the truth, especially to journalists, who are the most critical advocates for the truth, and youth, who are the most active, outspoken and passionate community engaged in the information environment globally. Media literacy must be a part of school curricula; part of civic engagement; and a topic reinforced in daily life among family, friends, and peers. It starts in schools, in community organisations and in our homes. NGOs and advocacy groups have integral roles to play in this issue, and civil society must speak up effectively to ensure education remains a priority.
Another essential pillar in securing the victory for truth is the adamant support and protection of independent media organisations, which can only operate effectively in a free and open media environment unsuppressed by government regulation. Recently, we have seen a dangerous trend with the crackdown of independent media and the censorship of journalists’ voices in autocratic and authoritarian countries. In the fight for truth – a domain as important as land, sea, and air – journalism is the frontline for democracy, and free and open media is the necessary foundation.
At its best, journalism is founded in altruistic ideals and is a necessary tool to hold governments, corporations, and individuals to account, and independent media organisations are just as essential. They are not working for governments; they are working for the public. To provide access to uncensored and unbiased information worldwide, the United States government, for example, supports establishments such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America, international public service broadcasters whose editorial independence is protected by U.S. law. These organisations provide accurate news in countries where free press is threatened, employing local journalists and broadcasting in local languages and dialects, and serve as examples of how independent media can truly flourish with the right support.
And while education and media freedom provide the foundation for positive messaging to take root, NATO and member government communicators can only be effective if they lead a proactive effort to share positive narratives based on facts. To be clear, if communicators try to respond to each and every lie – an impossible feat – they will not win. But they must be targeted in their messaging, they must be timely, and they have to carry it out with determination. Retroactively calling out false narratives is a necessary tactic and is the primary function of invaluable international fact-checking organisations, but this is only part of an effective communications strategy. By focusing on countering mis- and disinformation reactively, communicators forfeit the opportunity to craft comprehensive global narratives from the start. By beating adversaries to the punch with accurate, evidence-based narratives and messaging proactively, words will stand on their own, and when they are rooted in fact, there is no room for debate.
Through a comprehensive and coordinated effort to communicate NATO’s unity and resolve in its fight to safeguard our safety and security, NATO communicators can effectively counteract malicious disinformation. In a comprehensive effort, the messaging is relentless and targeted. It is essential to have a deep understanding of the audience and their values, and a clear, concise, and purposeful message. In a coordinated effort, NATO communicators are aligned on a singular goal in their communications, in sync in their messages, and coordinating with local voices: independent outlets, community leaders, and local media.
To reach audiences globally, governments and international organisations need to focus on meeting them where they are and speaking to them in a language they understand. There are several ways to achieve this. For one, reporting is richer when conducted directly with or alongside local outlets that have a capacity to contextualise communications and make them comprehensible and relevant to the situation on the ground. We have a responsibility to work in partnership with these local organisations. NATO communicators, for example, will often not be the most effective messengers on the topics most important to its audiences. People respond best to positive messages reinforced by diverse and credible voices, which may include industry experts and academics, scientific and religious leaders, or most importantly – a point which cannot be reiterated enough – trusted voices from within their own communities. It is essential to build a network that can help communicators to reach the right audience and carry their message forward. Public interest helps drive policy, and the world is safer when the Alliance has the world’s support with a full understanding of its mission, its capabilities and accomplishments.
Today, it is more important than ever to spread NATO’s critical message of supporting individual liberty, democracy, and human rights both within its borders and across the globe. With Russia’s war in Ukraine at the Alliance’s doorstep, the fundamental values of territorial integrity and our rules-based international order are being challenged, and tremendous new security threats are looming. But the Alliance has history on its side. It is NATO’s ability to remain unified in the face of these threats that guarantees our freedom and security. The shared history and principles of Allies over many decades have made the ability to defend each other resolute. Unity across the Alliance and with partners around the world is imperative.
We also live in a period of volatile and rapidly shifting global alliances as nations and economies organise themselves around shared principles and values. AUKUS, the Quad, and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) have brought together likeminded partners to promote and uphold regional peace, prosperity, and security in the Indo-Pacific; and the historic accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO membership is underway. At the same time, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is advancing its alternative vision for the international order and rapidly expanding its influence in developing countries, Russia is attempting to find inroads with partners who are ideologically aligned, and the two powers continue to reinforce political and economic ties with their BRICS counterparts.
The world is faced with new uncertainty amidst deepening strategic competition, and in these conditions, NATO’s open door continues to provide indispensable value in forming lasting international bonds and strengthening its defenses. It becomes essential that we not only maintain the partnerships within the Alliance and with those that share our values, but that we ensure we are taking a seat at the table with emerging partners as well, whether in the Indo-Pacific, the Balkans, or beyond. As Russia and the PRC continue to gain influence and develop strategic relations with these same prospective partners around the world, our need to strengthen our values-based network becomes all the more important in securing political stability, economic prosperity, and national defense beyond the borders of our Alliance.
In this effort, NATO and Allies must approach all countries equally as partners. When approaching them, we have to sit across the table and engage in as much listening as we do talking. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken refers to this as forming a “partnership of equals,” and when we all meet in the UN General Assembly Hall to debate and vote on critical decisions deciding the future of our world, we all have one vote, and each vote cast carries equal weight. We do not have all the answers and need to approach these partnerships with humility, understanding we have as much to learn as we do to teach. Countries will have a choice with whom they partner, and NATO needs to be at the table.
Of the countless global challenges faced by NATO and the international community – the looming threats of climate change, emerging disruptive technologies, and energy insecurity; the restructuring of global alliances and disruption of the basic international rule of law; the unrestrained spread of mis- and disinformation and an ongoing unjustified war at our doorstep – the common denominator is our transatlantic bond. Without a coordinated effort across the Alliance to face these challenges, we cannot remain strong in the face of the current and future security crises.
NATO’s Strategic Concept reinforces the need to strengthen deterrence and defense but also highlights the need to enhance dialogue and cooperation with partners that share our values and to strengthen strategic communications. The world needs NATO’s support as we secure our collective defense, and we equally need the support of global publics and their full understanding of our mission for freedom and security in order to be successful. It is the responsibility of NATO and its Allies to communicate this message. In the information war, this means educating global audiences on disinformation, getting ahead of malicious messaging, conducting messaging proactively and factually, and working to contextualise communications in a way that makes sense to audiences at home and abroad. And although we cannot avoid the increasing polarity between global powers and shifting alliances in the current geopolitical landscape, when we take a seat at the table and make NATO’s positive message understood with audiences globally, we can trust they will make the informed decision to support our mission to secure a just and peaceful future for our world.
(Source: NATO; What is published in NATO Review does not constitute the official position or policy of NATO or member governments.
NATO Review seeks to inform and promote debate on security issues. The views expressed by authors are their own)
Elizabeth Kennedy Trudeau served as Acting Assistant Secretary for Global Public Affairs at the U.S. Department of State from May 2022 to February 2023. She now serves as the director of external affairs for the U.S. Agency for Global Media. An independent federal entity, USAGM oversees six entities: two federal organizations — the Voice of America and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which oversees Radio and TV Martí — and four non-profit organizations — Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, and the Open Technology Fund — which receive grants from USAGM. Together, USAGM entities communicate each week with more than 410 million people across the globe. The views and opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not represent the U.S. Government.