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Can NATO Weaponize Memes?

There’s a small group of experts calling for NATO governments to throw memes into the fight against online iihadi or pro-Kremlin trolls.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
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Good news. NATO is “no longer obsolete,” according to President Donald Trump. On Wednesday, during his meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump touted an alliance he once bashed because, after fifteen-odd years of alliance operations against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the former reality television host just realized “now they fight terrorism.”

But if the most powerful political-military alliance has the real battlefield on lockdown, some worry it’s floundering in the battlefield of the internet, where ideas go to clash, Kremlin trolls go to spread half-truths, and ISIS goes to recruit foreign fighters.

The answer, some experts argue, lies in memes -- those strange jokes and references that come out of the internet’s woodworks from seemingly nowhere, and seem to end up everywhere at once. A small contingent of academics and experts want NATO to get in on the action to confront pro-Russian, anti-NATO trolls, or to push back against internet jihadists in the cyber space.

Good news. NATO is “no longer obsolete,” according to President Donald Trump. On Wednesday, during his meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump touted an alliance he once bashed because, after fifteen-odd years of alliance operations against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the former reality television host just realized “now they fight terrorism.”

But if the most powerful political-military alliance has the real battlefield on lockdown, some worry it’s floundering in the battlefield of the internet, where ideas go to clash, Kremlin trolls go to spread half-truths, and ISIS goes to recruit foreign fighters.

The answer, some experts argue, lies in memes — those strange jokes and references that come out of the internet’s woodworks from seemingly nowhere, and seem to end up everywhere at once. A small contingent of academics and experts want NATO to get in on the action to confront pro-Russian, anti-NATO trolls, or to push back against internet jihadists in the cyber space.

“It’s time to embrace memetic warfare,” wrote Jeff Giesea, a widely-known social media and tech guru, in an article in 2015. “Trolling, it might be said, is the social media equivalent of guerrilla warfare, and memes are its currency of propaganda.” Giesea wasn’t writing in Wired or TechCrunch, but rather in Defence Strategic Communications, the journal of NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence (or Stratcom COE, because nothing’s complete without an onerous acronym).

“Daesh is conducting memetic warfare. The Kremlin is doing it. It’s inexpensive. The capabilities exist. Why aren’t we trying it?” Giesea asked.

It’s a question many military minds have been asking for years. A Marine Corps Major, Michael B. Prosser advocated for the U.S. military to develop a Meme Warfare Center (MWC) in his 2006 study, “Memetics–A Growth Industry in U.S. Military Operations” (abstract here).

Five years later, a specialized Pentagon unit, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) funded a study on “Military Memetics,” one of several related research programs into what it calls a “subset of neuro-cognitive warfare.” It argued the “war of ideas” was fundamental, especially when it comes to fighting terrorists, and the key characteristics of a military meme is that it be “information that propagates, has impact, and persists.” Like dancing cat videos, in other words, but with sharper claws.

The problem is that NATO, like governments everywhere, are pretty terrible at the internet. Meme’s aren’t really part of NATO’s arsenal yet, even if the alliance is desperately trying to tap into ideas from the private sector about how best to use social media.

Kremlin-backed trolls and internet-savvy ISIS supporters run circles around government social media programs, often run by stodgy diplomats with no authority to be creative. (The quest for funny memes is particularly tortured: In March, NATO’s Stratcom COE published “Stratcom Laughs: In Search of an Analytical Framework,” which included a chapter on “Humor as a Communication Tool: Designing Framework for Analysis.”)

And government attempts at weaponizing humor can lead to some awkward moments.

Such as the time NATO instructed its public diplomacy staff to “create a viral video” (nothing says military bureaucracy like ordering internet “virality” to be magically conjured up.)

After half a million Euros, here’s the result:

What looks to be a horror film shot on an iPhone turns out to be a nice family reunion — because of NATO, of course. (The other two videos in this weird PR series are equally strange and, based on the page views, conspicuously un-viral. The project was quietly dropped after it was rolled out.)

Or then there’s the State Department’s own “Think Again, Turn Away” program to win the hearts and minds of would-be jihadists with “snarky” retorts to the America-bashing, pro-ISIS brigades on Twitter. Alas, it turns out an official State Department social media account arguing with jihadist supporters about the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal over Twitter doesn’t actually amount to a plan for defeating ISIS.

But if these awkward attempts fail, at least they’re trying. And who knows, now that Trump has discovered what NATO does, maybe he can lend the alliance some of his own social media magic.

Photo credit: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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