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Since its establishment in 2014, the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence (NATO StratCom COE) in Riga has developed into a knowledge hub in the ever-changing world of strategic communications. The Centre is a multinational organisation recognised by NATO.

The NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence (NATO StratCom COE) is a multinational and NATO-accredited organisation. Its mission is to contribute to the Alliance’s communication processes by providing comprehensive analysis, timely advice, and practical support. Besides research studies and training for governments on strategic communication, the NATO StratCom COE has been developing significant expertise in countering hostile information activities by state and non-state actors.

The NATO StratCom COE was initially founded by Latvia, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, and the United Kingdom. The Netherlands, Finland, Sweden and Canada joined at a later stage. Additionally, France and Slovakia are finalising their joining procedures.

Participants from the civilian and military, private and academic sector – aided by modern technologies and virtual tools for analysis, research, and decision-making – constitute our advanced capabilities. At the heart of the NATO StratCom COE is a diverse group of international experts.

Since its establishment in 2014, NATO StratCom COE in Riga has become a hub of knowledge in the ever-changing world of strategic communications. Strategic communication plays an important role for NATO countries, and the Centre’s mission is to support countries in their Strategic Communications efforts by bringing together military, academic, business and government knowledge.

Arctic Narratives and Political Values

Recently, NATO StratCom COE published a report “Arctic Narratives and Political Values: Canada, Russia and China in the High North” that provides an analysis of the Arctic-related press statements, official policy doctrine and speeches that have been made publicly available in English since 2012. Researchers have analysed how countries build their arctic identities, promoting a shared national identity in the Arctic, connecting domestic audiences to the region and forging an emotional and often romanticised connection towards it.

“Virtual Russian World in the Baltics”

The report “The Virtual Russian World in the Baltics”, published in early 2018, concludes that Russia views the Baltic States – and their Russian-speaking populations – as key target groups that can be used as focal points to spread disruptive influence, reshape political and popular opinion, and reinforce misleading or false images and narratives. The main objective of this research report was to study the demographics, public posts, and behaviour patterns of Russian-speaking users of social networks like VK, OK, and Facebook in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Analysis revealed the presence of a relatively small but significant proportion of active ideological users in every network in each of the Baltic States. The study showed that 10% of Russian-speaking social network users (identified as real people rather than bots) generate 70% of the ideological information found on those networks. Many events taking place offline are used as pretexts to push certain topics into public discussion, making use of dramatic language. Particular attention is paid to topics related to the Second World War, the USSR, present-day Russia, and anti-Western sentiment. Russian-speaking sectors of social networks in the Baltic States are thus widely used both to continue Russia’s information activities against EU and NATO member countries while cementing its own positive image among the Russian-speaking population of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
Researchers identified clusters of clearly active and interconnected ideological users, each of which specialises in the creation (Writers), distribution (Distributors), or consumption (Readers) of ideological information. There is a significant – and growing – number of Russian-speaking social media communities based in the Baltic States which exhibit pro-Kremlin, pro-Russian and anti-Western orientations. They serve as sources of ideological posts that are widely disseminated by active users who capitalise on their connectivity and visibility among the Russian-speaking users of VK, OK and FB in the Baltics.

The “Robotrolling” Quarterly Report

The latest quarterly of the Robotrolling report has concluded that anonymous human-controlled English-language accounts, expressing positions in support of or in opposition to the US President, have dominated online conversations on Twitter. Robotrolling considers mentions on Twitter of NATO together with one or more of the host countries Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. In the period from 1 May to 31 July 2018, Russian-language bots created 49% of all Russian-language messages about NATO in the Baltic States and Poland. In comparison, bots created 19% of all English-language messages for the quarter. The increasing proportion of anonymous accounts active during key political moments indicates that anonymity is being abused to cloak manipulation on social networks. The Centre thus calls on social media companies to keep investing in countering platform misuse.

The structure of NATO’s StratCom COE

Additionally, the Robotrolling report presents the first quantitative analysis comparing English- and Russian-language posts from accounts attributed to the St Petersburg ‘troll factory’. Amongst the accounts identified by Twitter as originating from the notorious St Petersburg ‘troll factory’ – the Internet Research Agency (IRA) – 26 also posted about NATO in the Baltics and Poland. Our algorithm correctly identified 24 of these as bot accounts. The other two accounts were anonymous human-controlled (troll) accounts.

The IRA bombarded citizens in Russia and neighbouring states with pro-Kremlin propaganda. English-language content created by the IRA sought to exacerbate societal divisions by posting to fake accounts supposedly operated by Trump supporters, and by arguing both sides of the Black Lives Matter controversy. Russian-language material closely echoed and amplified the narratives popularised by Russian state media. The fake accounts posted messages in support of Putin, his government, and its positions on Syria and Ukraine, and also published material exaggerating threats to Western democracies.

“The News Hero” Game

Use of technology and social media is a focus point of the NATO StratCom COE. After a hackathon that took place in 2017, the Centre gave an opportunity to execute one of the ideas – a Facebook game designed to help readers develop ‘fake news’ spotting abilities. The game is hosted on Facebook and is open for all Facebook users. Players are put in charge of their own publishing company; they earn virtual currency and gain an audience for publishing accurate news. The game is divided into three levels, each encouraging the players to think about the possible ways they could be fooled. The Fact Checker screen prompts the players to question the sources and provides tips on how to distinguish between an accurate and a misleading story. With this game, the NATO StratCom COE hopes to burst the bubble of an elite-dominated discussion about critical thinking and empower the society to become more conscious users of media through a gamified approach. The game intends to enhance readers’ resilience against the disinformation.

The Riga StratCom Dialogue

Each year, NATO StratCom COE organises the the two-day conference ‘The Riga StratCom Dialogue’. In 2018, the conference looked at what makes an impact on people, how we process information, how technology affects us, and how it affects social processes, and in particular, elections. The Riga StratCom Dialogue gathered 700 people from 42 countries which provides for a multitude of very different perspectives, a rich background for the debate, and an even richer background for the potential solutions. All conference sessions are published on the Centre’s YouTube channel. The next Riga StratCom Dialogue will take place on 11-12 June 2019.

Linda Curika is Public Relation Officer at the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence.