On April 25–27, 2018, in Chisinau (Moldova), the Center for Civic Participation and Democracy (CPD) from SNSPA (Romania)the Institute for Development and Social Initiatives (IDIS) from the Republic of Moldova organized the NATO Advanced Research Workshop focused on “Challenges in strategic communication and fighting propaganda in Eastern Europe. Solutions for a future common project”, with direct support from the NATO Science for Peace and Security Programme.
The main objective of the Workshop was to enhance the strategic perspective and the practical insight necessary in dealing with hybrid threats, fighting propaganda and planning advanced strategic communication in Eastern Europe, looking for solutions in a complicated regional landscape.
The Workshop brought together institutional, academic and civic actors, from Europe and the US, with advanced expertise in social sciences, journalism, computer science and international relations, to share insights in security and strategic communication, research results and expertise in the impact of social media and technological innovation, in order to shape a new project, with a common methodology, to monitor, collect, process and interpret reliable data on strategic communication, which can enable the devising of efficient tools to counteract anti-Western propaganda.
While working together, our aim was to use our common experience in tracking hostile narratives and evaluating public agenda, in order to identify new tools in open source tracking and integrate the results into one common approach, with the potential to be applied on a regional and larger scale. The challenges are: detecting propaganda, identifying the social groups most vulnerable to its influence, building mechanisms to strengthen the trust in the Western democratic model.
What resulted was a vivid exchange of ideas, a multifaceted debate centered on the similarities, variations and specificities of national contexts and also the creation of what we hope will be a long-lasting, collaborative network of experts with various backgrounds, trying to link and assemble their specific expertise as part of a broader solution-generating complex.
The Western model is under attack all across the countries of Eastern and Central Europe, but also “at home”, in the countries belonging to the core of the EU and even in the United States. And while the messages and dissemination methods differ and adjust to each national context, the effect is the same – the slow, but progressive erosion of trust in the democratic values, as well as the institutions which embody this model. This is the main reason why we concluded that stopping this erosion and defending this model must be a coordinated effort, using the best-suited methods and channels for each segment of the public. The novelty of the approach we proposed resides in coordination (which can also mean the sharing of best-practice models to be adjusted and reproduced in other regions) and also in using the most advanced research and online communication methods, creating a complex methodological mix (based on traditional research tools, but also incorporating Big Data analysis and exploration into the latest, most effective communication tools across social networks).
Reviewing some of the ideas and results, which are also included in this volume, showcases a broad array of recommendations which can be included in strategies built to counter anti-Western propaganda in NATO countries.
Rusty Brooks pinpoints the role of local journalists for strengthening resilience in the face of propaganda and also for consolidating the democratic spirit in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Our team from CPD-SNSPA puts forward the project of a NATO Barometer, as an integrated instrument to be implemented in all member states, created to evaluate the risks and impact of these propaganda campaigns. From this perspective, there is a need to extend the horizon to include not only threats coming from Russia, but also threats emanating from the extended geopolitical competition affecting the region, where we witness confrontations for “hearts and minds” between the Western model and the alternative models from Russia and China, and more.
Although we present the Romanian case in an extensive manner (in the study conducted by CPD-SNSPA), this volume includes solutions regarding Moldova (Igor Munteanu), Ukraine (Mahda) or the Western Balkans (Cappello), all of them areas where this type of hybrid conflict must be considered just as serious as other types of conventional confrontation.
The role of the mainstream media in the region must not be neglected (as John Cappello underlines in the study on Serbia – a case study which can be extended in the future towards other affected regions such as Hungary). The role of social media is becoming increasingly important (as demonstrated here by Bret Schafer and Corina Rebegea, representatives of two renowned US think-tanks).
Ambassador Sorin Ducaru, former NATO Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges, also underlined this aspect during our Workshop in Chisinau, welcoming recent approaches by NATO to acknowledge the impact of hybrid threats. Our Romanian colleagues from the INSCOP team emphasize the importance of studying the effects that narratives have on public opinion, while professors Bârgăoanu and Cucută highlight the academic paradigm shifts in studying these concepts. Several authors underline the need to consolidate the Western model in all these newly-democratic societies, through a major focus on strengthening the rule of law, civic participation, democratic education, in addition to military strengthening. Fighting media illiteracy is just as important.
We also welcome the advancement of new, sophisticated solutions making use of new technologies in computer science to complete current research efforts and to build new innovative tools to measure and evaluate propaganda (Itai Himelboim details such an approach, which is to be operationalized into a regional cooperation project involving several international partners, to be forwarded to NATO shortly – an anti-propaganda Radar).
Among other solutions worth mentioning, we underline the need to increase NATO-EU cooperation in this field, as well as to intensify the links between existing structures (such as the EU East StratCom Task Force and NATO StratCom COE) and the academic and civic organizations in the region.
We do not believe we need counter-propaganda to fight propaganda, or that fake news should be combatted by generating an inflation of other fake news, half-truths and false enemies. But we do believe that the public in Eastern and Central Europe (especially, but not exclusively) can become victims of anti-Western propaganda and, slowly, but surely, lose faith and turn against the values that created the very essence of the free and democratic societies they live in – through sheer passivity and lack of involvement from the civic activists, academics and institutions which should be safeguarding these values.
In 2019, Eastern Europe celebrates 30 years since the fall of communism, but this celebration takes place in a context of increased geopolitical competition in the region. Challenges come from various areas, and the Western model needs to be defended even more resolutely since the specificities of the states in this region suggest that the model of political culture characteristic for countries with democratic tradition has not yet been attained.
Our initiative was meant to bring together several very different minds that can cooperate to jumpstart this effort throughout the Euro-Atlantic space. It is not only a scientific effort, but also a civic one, in defense of the values our societies are built on and our future must rely on. We'd like to express gratitude to all the partners who contributed to this project, from Romania, Moldova, the Czech Republic, Poland, Turkey, Ukraine, the US, as well as NATO StratCom COE and the EU East StratCom Task Force; to the NATO Science for Peace and Security Programme for the support offered to our project; to Ambassador Sorin Ducaru, who has always supported research efforts in this field; to the partners from the US Department of State and the US think-tanks we collaborated with, as well as to all the colleagues from the US and European academic environment who contributed to the ideas and solutions advanced during this year.
NATO Workshop Co-Director and Executive Director, CPD-SNSPA, Bucharest