NATO pressed to adapt its defences against social media risks

Tbilisi, 28 May 2017 - NATO nations need to step up their game against social-media threats – from Daesh recruiters to Russian fake-news propagandists – that seek to sow fear and division in Western societies, lawmakers from Alliance countries said Sunday.

“Countering these new threats should be elevated to the top of the Euro-Atlantic community’s agenda,” said a draft report debated by NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly. “Terrorist and other hostile use of social media has already resulted in the loss of human life, and it threatens to weaken and divide the Western world.”

The draft report’s author, Senator Jane Cordy of Canada, recognised social media’s positive impact.

“Social media expanded public dialogue, brought new issues to the fore, empowered anti-corruption crusaders and helped mobilize civil society across the globe. For authoritarian regimes, the cost of repression increases as it becomes more difficult to conceal human rights abuses,” she said.

“At the same time, the very architecture of social media could lead to a greater polarisation and segregation within our societies, and this could have a negative effect on our current model of democracy,” Cordy added. “Social media surrounds users with like-minded people and entrenches them within ideological cocoons.”

Cordy spoke at the Spring Session of the NATO PA in Tbilisi, held just days after an Alliance summit in Brussels where leaders agreed on a more robust response against terrorism. The NATO PA debate looked at how social media is being “weaponized” by terrorists and hostile states.

“Social media, as we see them today are being weaponized, strategically used by a lot of different actors for what we would call traditional military purposes: from intelligence collection, to the targeting of individuals and networks, from informing and influencing different kinds of target audiences, to actual cyber-attacks,” said Thomas Elkjar Nissen, Special Consultant at the Royal Danish Defence College, who addressed lawmakers.

The successful exploitation of social networks by Daesh and Russia was highlighted as a particular concern for NATO nations.

“Putin’s Russia exploits and mobilises various forms of media, including social media to achieve foreign policy goals. The Kremlin has "weaponised" information turning media into a weapon of mass deception and distraction and a de facto extension of its military and diplomacy,” said the draft report. Daesh has elevated the malicious use of social media to a new level.”

Russian tactics have included hijacking the accounts of prominent figures and media in the West; publishing personal information of hacked opponents; and spreading fake news such as recent false reports of chemical accidents in the USA, or the fabricated story of a NATO solider committing rape in Lithuania.

NATO and its member nations are moving to counter such threats, but the draft report – expected to be adopted later this year - recommends stronger action, including by empowering press councils to enforce objective standards in the media; improving education for young people on fact-based debate and critical thinking; better coordination between security forces to take down Daesh’s social media structure.

“It is important for the Euro-Atlantic community to maintain the higher moral ground in social media use and to refrain from using the methods of its unscrupulous opponents,” wrote Cordy. “Openness, pluralism and inclusion are key to separating truth from falsehood.”