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October 1, 2012 |  3 comments |  Print  Your Opinion  

NATO and Social Media: New Challenges Demand Aggressive Strategies

Yasser Abumuailek: Despite its re-conception after the fall of Communism to adapt to the new challenges of an ever-changing world, NATO is facing a new challenge it must master before it’s too late: winning the hearts and minds on the social media front.

In a previous article published on, the author of this article argued that NATO did not pay enough attention to the role of media in its New Strategic Concept.

This had led to an inability to effectively counter misinformation spread by terrorist organizations over NATO's operations and motives on various theatres.

In a world that is becoming more connected by the day, NATO is in urgent need to "step up its game" in the media. Having its own online television channel with its own reporting and an account on Youtube is a good start, but certainly not enough.

A case in point: NATO-channel is severely misrepresented on the internet compared to the organization's size. A quick view of its Youtube channel shows that it has only 4,325 subscribers (7 Sept. 2012) and an overall view count of about 2.1 million. In comparison, Amnesty International has over 16,438 subscribers and 3.375 million total views.

With regards to social media platforms, namely Facebook and Twitter, credit must be paid to NATO for the regular updates made by its top officials. However, the quality of the content being published on these accounts was criticized as being a mere "lip service" paid to the social media crowd.

Concentrating on a specific region of special interest to NATO, the "Arab Spring" caused an explosion in social media usage in the Middle East, and drew attention, both wanted and unwanted, to the power of this medium as a means of communication with the average citizen, which crosses censorship and government control. It has also served as an invaluable asset in intelligence gathering and mobilization of allied local assets on the ground.

NATO even reached a historical milestone in social media interaction, by declaring the end of hostilities in Libya last year over Facebook. It did, however, underestimate this step and left it without comment or dissemination to the media, and didn't make similar steps afterwards. This fact appears to have only been picked up by several specialized blogs, but it remains until now unknown to the general public.

Thus, it is easier to speak about social media than to effectively utilize social media. Many organizations make the mistake of letting themselves get dragged into social media without thinking, and end up doing exactly what they were doing before, settling back to their daily routines.

NATO remains to fully exploit the potential of social media platforms, namely their interactivity. NATO's official Facebook page, almost 87 thousand fans strong, does not pursue an aggressive marketing campaign that includes interactive dialog with the users, constant news updates and the promotion of constructive criticism and open dialog. Critique and slander is left mostly without response from the page's moderator(s), which would project a sense of indifference, and might even lead to a decrease in subscription numbers.

Nevertheless, NATO is making a good effort in enhancing its interactivity with the public, through Q&A sessions hosting senior officials on websites such as However, these sessions attract only a modest number of professionals and do not obtain enough publicity (for example, through NATO's Facebook page) to be labeled as publicly interactive.

Additionally, NATO, while correctly identifying the importance of communicating with the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa in their own language (by releasing a Youtube channel in Arabic), does not follow suit with other platforms. Establishing a presence for NATO in Arabic is of utmost importance, since most disinformation campaigns and slander targeting NATO and its operations exists in Arabic.

Taken as a whole, NATO managed to establish a solid "body" in the social networking scene, but it needs now to search for the "soul" of that body. Posting documents or official pictures of different meetings will not distinguish NATO from other organizations on Facebook. Posting behind-the-scenes pictures or news related to its operations that are NOT yet released to the media could give the organization an edge in the complex and sometimes obscure jungle that is social media networks.

The author also mentioned in his first article about NATO and media that an effective media strategy would stem the flow of potential recruits to terrorist organizations. A proper and effective social media strategy would gain NATO recruits, both online and offline. It is hard to make such drastic changes fast, but it is important to change before it's too late to do so. The Internet never forgets, and never waits.

Yasser Abumuailek is an editor, online community manager and radio host at the Arabic Service of the German Broadcaster "Deutsche Welle" in Bonn, Germany. Before coming to Germany, he freelanced for foreign media in Gaza Strip, the Palestinian territories, and advised foreign journalists and scholars traveling to Gaza. He holds a Bachelor's Degree in Politics and Society from the University of Bonn, Germany.

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Tags: | NATO | social media | terrorism |
Ramin Daniel Rezai

October 2, 2012

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As you rightfully stated, NATO should fully take advantage of the potential of social media platforms. However, I do question whether hosting Q&A sessions with senior NATO officials on sites such as Facebook will significantly attract the kind of publicity – or provide more interactivity – that you call for in your article.

Speaking from personal experience, these sites tend to generate fewer (serious) comments. Not too long ago NATO posted one of our Q&A sessions with Dr. Jamie Shea on their website. This was NATO’s first (and to my knowledge last) post giving the public an opportunity to pose questions to a senior official in NATO. The not-so-pleasing results: an impressive 61 “likes”, but only 16 "shares", 20 comments of which five can be publicly viewed (none of which were constructive) and zero qualified contributions to the Q&A.

Though enhancing interactivity with the public through sites like Facebook might be useful, I wonder whether it is the correct medium to promote “constructive criticism and open dialog”. What are your thoughts on this?
Yasser  Abumuailek

October 3, 2012

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Dear Mr. Rezai,

while I do share your concern about negative and destructive criticism coming from social media platforms, it should also be clear that interactive dialog with senior NATO officials would not alone solve the problem. It is but a building block in the whole construction of the Organization's strategy, as I concluded in my opinion.

Of course, military and security entities, such as NATO, have and will be unfortunate enough to draw criticism from different groups of people, be it from peace activists, conspiracy theorists, terrorists and those affected by their propaganda, or simply from uninformed average citizens.

I say NATO should remain steadfast and aim for a popular base that is informed about its activities and goals. To that end, it would be of great use for the Organization to branch out into more languages and geographical areas where it's receiving the most criticism. As well, it would be most helpful to follow a policy of open information, be it of positive or negative effect, as this would contribute to enhancing its credibility on the web.

Out of personal experience, my team and I managed to raise rates of constructive criticism and "likes" on our broadcaster's facebook page by a whopping 130% in the first year, just by integrating interactive dialog with our existing fans about different and sensitive issues. We received a lot of negative feedback at the beginning, but by personally moderating the dialog and paying good attention to the messages behind those negative comments, we managed to allay a lot of misconceptions and worries our fans had concerning certain topics, which helped turn yesterday's foe into today's friend.

This may sound utopian or far-fetched at the moment, but it is not impossible, and NATO is not known for surrendering too fast. I have trust in the staff of this Organizations, and I know and hope they would deal with this matter in a way that reflects their eagerness to cement NATO's presence in the social media scene.
Paul-Robert  Lookman

October 4, 2012

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One can only sensibly communicate the values of a product if there is a real need for the product. If one defines a military alliance as a product (or service) in marketing terms, then communication to the consumer (the public) is an important tool. To that extent I agree with the author.

The problem with NATO is that consumers tend to become ever more assertive, critical. They do not trust the regular media in few hands and look for reliable information in alternative (social) media. In the case of NATO, ever more people question the Cold War narrative of a Soviet Union keen to attack and conquer Western Europe. Western leaders have known all along this to be a lie, but kept their audiences in the dark, in the interest of the military-industrial complex. NATO was never established as a defence against Soviet intentions, but against Soviet resources.

People also witness how NATO operates with disregard to civilian casualties and infrastructural damage, and without any accountability. People see alternatives to resolve conflicts, for example the Kenyan-led African coalition’s invasion of Somalia to quell the al-Shabaab islamist insurgency. With a UNSC mandate, this type of limited military actions minimizes the intrusion of foreign agendas into local issues and allows for combatants to be held accountable. With the UN as a mediator, people feel that these operations could ultimately render NATO redundant as an international intervention force, and - given the organization’s huge price tag - relieve its burden on national budgets.

To summarize: one cannot sell a poor product with good communication.

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