NATO—and its allies—is increasingly the target of disinformation campaigns aimed at disrupting democratic institutions, rule of law, and support for “western” multilateralism. Individual NATO member countries have found limited success when combatting Russia, China, and other authoritarian proxies’ misinformation on their own. Many member countries also view these campaigns as a form of hybrid warfare which should invoke NATO’s Article V of collective security. To combat these campaigns, NATO must increase coordination within the alliance as a means to deal with the issue more effectively. In addition, NATO and its members must coordinate communication strategies about the alliance’s importance and pursue forward-looking policy making.
To address these concerns, the McCain Institute built an interactive dashboard which displays the public perception of NATO and how each of its members are targeted by misinformation. Informed by the dashboard’s findings, the McCain Institute convened a series of private discussion groups with more than 40 unique participants from 15 NATO member countries to discuss the effects, perpetrators, and means to combat disinformation in their own countries. Here, participants provided valuable best practices, lessons learned, and suggested ways that NATO member countries could collaborate to make the overall effort more effective. Finally, the McCain Institute disseminated the discussion group’s findings during a series of public events with experts on Russia, China, NATO, and misinformation.
Improving NATO’s Public Image and Building Awareness of the MDM Threat
The first discussion group and public event focused on discussing the perception of NATO and disinformation campaigns. The event was titled “Improving NATO’s Public Image and Building Awareness of the MDM Threat.” The speakers were: Laura Thornton, who was then the director and senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund; Jamie Fly, the President and Chief Executive Officer of RFE/RL; and Harry Nedelcu, the director of policy and business development for Rasmussen Global. The one-hour and one-minute live-streamed virtual event was moderated by our Director for Human Rights & Democracy Program Paul Fagan.
“The best strategy is to have a critical citizenry. We cannot eliminate disinformation as it will always be there – the point is to make your citizens immune to it by trying to inform consumers to question the origin and intent of sources.” – Harry Nedelcu, Director of Policy and Business Development for Rasmussen Global
The second discussion group and public event focused on the threat Russian disinformation poses to the NATO alliance and its member countries. The public event was called “What is the Future of the NATO Alliance with a More Aggressive Russia?”. The panel included H.E. Mr. Jüri Luik, Permanent Representative of Estonia to NATO; Dr. Evelyn N. Farkas, now the Executive Director of the McCain Institute; and Edward Lucas, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. The conversation was moderated by David J. Kramer, then the Managing Director for Global Policy at the George W. Bush Institute.
“Vladimir Putin wants to preserve his autocratic and kleptocratic system. In order to do that he believes he needs to exercise his sphere of influence over the former Soviet space, He would like to go back to a 19th century sphere of influence system whereby these states do not have the right to exercise their own sovereignty and that Moscow can essentially rule over and dominate them.” – Dr. Evelyn Farkas, Executive Director of the McCain Institute
The third discussion group and public event was called, “NATO & China: Has a European War Changed NATO’s Approach to China?” and focused on China’s information war on NATO member countries. The panel convened experts including Žygimantas Pavilionis, Member of the Lithuanian Parliament and former ambassador to the United States; Bobo Lo, Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis; Jakub Janda, Associate Fellow at the Slovak Security Policy Institute; and was moderated by Paul Fagan: Human Rights and Democracy Programs Director at the McCain Institute.
“We have to stand for democracies from Ukraine to Taiwan; we have to stand for each other and defend each other, because if the Russians win the war in Ukraine, China will learn that lesson. Today we have to be back on blocks defending democracy, extending NATO to Sweden and Finland and even Ukraine. Together, we have to make that red line really clear, and we really have to rethink some of our international institutions.” – Žygimantas Pavilionis, Member of the Lithuanian Parliament and former Ambassador to the United States
The fourth discussion group and public discussion was called “A 21st Century Iron Curtain? Looking at the Future of NATO”. The conversation was forward looking and addressed future challenges the alliance might face. The panel featured Tiina Uudeberg, Undersecretary for Defence Planning for the Estonian Ministry of Defence and Yordan Bozhilov, Deputy Minister of Defense of the Republic of Bulgaria. The conversation was moderated by Pedro Pizano, Program Manager for the Democracy & Human Rights Programs at the McCain Institute.
“One thing is clear: Irrespective of the outcome of the war against Ukraine, Putin’s strategic objectives and Russia’s posture vis-a-vis NATO will not change. As allies, we must not be afraid, we must be ready, we must be capable, we must be determined, we must be serious to handle it.” – Tiina Uudeberg, Undersecretary for Defence Planning Estonian Ministry of Defence
Drawing on the discussion groups and public panel’s findings, the McCain Institute has summarized a list of recommendations for the NATO alliance to collectively combat future misinformation campaigns. All of the conversations convened by this project emphasized that NATO must enhance its cooperative efforts across the board including alliance members’ communication strategies, sanctions targeting the perpetrators of misinformation, and foreign policy objectives. Furthermore, the project participants stressed that NATO member countries must equip their citizens with the media literacy skills to identify misinformation in their own newsfeeds, thereby reducing overall societal susceptibility to these types of campaigns. Finally, the alliance must address Moscow’s misinformation campaigns about the alliance by providing the appropriate counter facts and proactively reshaping the narrative to citizens in the alliance and in Russia.
The full list of recommendations is as follows:
- Proactively engage local news outlets in member countries. NATO officials should make themselves available to journalists from local outlets to increase citizens’ understanding and support their governments’ commitments to NATO.
- Modernize public relations and improve social media presence on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat to reach the next generation of leaders.
- Increase public communications presence by having a press office in each NATO member state.
- Build citizens’ digital literacy and MDM recognition skills to reduce susceptibility to disinformation. NATO should partner with civil society organizations to educate citizens on how to be critical information consumers. This means teaching citizens to interrogate the source and the messenger; its and their intent, biases, and opinions; and the medium.
- The NATO liaison office, NATO information centers, and member countries’ ministries of defense should collaborate to find common talking points which explain the value and function of the alliance.
- Strengthen resilience to Russia’s hybrid attacks by understanding geographic location, political stance, and age. Specifically focus on countries in the Western Balkans like Moldova and Georgia where Russia will use all methods short of war.
- Member countries should fit their individual foreign policy objectives within NATO’s security objectives to speak with a unified voice across the alliance. A unified response will mitigate the risk of Russian and Chinese MDM campaigns exploiting divisions across the NATO alliance.
- Make clear to global authoritarian powers that the alliance will not close its doors to potential new member countries.
- Shore up domestic compliance with sanctions in NATO member countries. Businesses in the West that enable Russian elites to bypass sanctions must be exposed and held accountable.
- Pursue a solid and more militarily meaningful presence in the Baltic countries.
For more information on the project, please visit the McCain Institute’s website or YouTube channel or read the coverage of one of our events on ASU NOW. Throughout this project, the McCain Institute worked with Bakamo Social to create and update the interactive dashboard. Additionally, the project was funded in part by a grant from the United States Department of State – NATO Mission. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Department of State.
*Luke Englebert, Pedro Pizano, and Paul Fagan served as co-investigators on this grant, with Pedro leading it as the principal investigator. They, with Berivan Orocuglu, lead the Human Rights & Democracy Program at the McCain Institute.