Disinformation is nothing new but today – thanks to social media – malign actors, both foreign and domestic, are able to manipulate the truth and reach millions of people at the click of a button. Such tactics distort information, dismiss critics, distract from the real issues and dismay audiences with a view to undermining societal resilience. It is essential to counter this hybrid threat by educating and preparing the publics of the transatlantic community – especially younger audiences.
With Allies celebrating NATO’s 70th anniversary and underlining its continued relevance in the face of a broad range of security challenges, this year offers a good opportunity to stimulate greater youth interest in defence and security matters. A promising start was made at the first ‘NATO Engages’ event, held on the margins of the NATO Summit in July 2018 (followed by the same event in April 2019 and one due in December 2019), that experimented with a new format of engagement, with 35 per cent of participants from across the transatlantic sphere being under 35.
Despite these promising initiatives, more could be done to meet youth expectations, as well as increase awareness and encourage involvement in contributing to transatlantic security. A more youth-oriented engagement process that is lifestyle friendly could be designed to offer professional empowerment chances and social opportunities to cultivate a personal connection with defence and security material. Only by encouraging ownership and incentivising participation in the field, will the youth of today take a serious interest in these matters tomorrow.
Although media savvy and hyperconnected, millennials and Generation Z are generally not well informed on issues related to defence and security. Too young to recall the existential threat of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, the horrors of the Yugoslav Wars, their introduction to security matters has primarily been shaped by the aftermath of the terror attacks on the United States on 9/11, which led to the military intervention in Afghanistan, as well as by the more recent rise of ISIS/Daesh.
Today’s security challenges bear little resemblance to those of the past. Although some features have re-emerged, such as great power rivalries and the deterrence value of nuclear weapons, the introduction of non-state actors and hybrid warfare is reconfiguring the global security architecture. Yet, one constant remains: at its most basic level, security is an inclusive topic which can bring together diverse groups of people to work together to ensure safety and stability. This concept is a powerful engagement tool and an opportunity that should not be squandered.
Current security issues need to occupy more space in the mainstream media domain as well as on social media channels. To help accomplish this, NATO and individual Allies could boost efforts in their communications to feature more young people and civilian roles in security and defence as well as present a more human face of the Alliance. For example, the #WeAreNATO video profile of Norwegian female tank commander Lt. Silje Johansen Willassen as part of the enhanced Forward Presence in Lithuania is a great example of fusing hard power imagery with a positive message of female empowerment that resonates with a larger audience.
The effectiveness of using a young spokesperson to engage young people on social media with content about NATO and its operations was demonstrated by Norwegian Lt. Lasse Løkken Matberg, whose coverage of Trident Juncture 2018 – NATO’s largest exercise since the end of the Cold War – on his Instagram account went viral. But engagement should also seek to strike a balance between traditional defence and security issues, and the priorities of younger audiences. The youth of today are not living under the fear impending of nuclear strikes and in particular youth in the western part of the alliance ascribe less value to hard security issues compared to baby boomers (i.e. the generation born between 1946 and 1964).
Consider the survey outcomes of American respondents worried about national security issues as found in the Security 2040 initiative by the Rand Corporation. On the issue of North Korea’s nuclear programme, 82.7 per cent of baby boomers assessed it as a major threat, compared to only 63.5 per cent of millennials. The same polling trend extends to the issue of the perceived threat by Islamic extremist groups, such as Al Qaeda or ISIS/Daesh, which 80.1 per cent of baby boomers considered a threat compared to only 64.5 per cent of millennials. The findings of the overall survey suggest that the general public in the US, especially millennials, prioritise the allocation of resources towards domestic-related security issues as opposed to foreign policy issues.
The international success of the ‘Fridays for Future’ movement of school students, who are cutting classes to take part in demonstrations to demand action to prevent further global warming, shows that many young people consider this to be the most important threat facing them. This supports the argument for strengthening efforts to integrate more content devoted to softer security issues like environmental preservation, disaster-relief operations and humanitarian assistance, with a view to engaging more young audiences. Of course, one should not overgeneralise – threat perceptions and views on geopolitical issues vary among audiences in different parts of the Alliance.
Ultimately, increasing the ‘likes’ for defence and security issues among the youth is an exercise in patience. Nevertheless, improving the engagement process represents an opportunity to connect with and potentially prepare millennials and Gen Z on issues of transatlantic security, like disinformation, and help ensure they are an asset and not liability when facing threatening activity.
‚More ‘Likes’ for Defence and Security Issues: Engaging Young Audiences‘ – Article by Roger Hilton – NATO Review.