Guest Post By Tom Brouns
The media landscape is quietly undergoing a revolution. NATO’s ability to remain relevant in this new media landscape as it evolves will significantly contribute to its success or failure in Afghanistan. Many observers characterize the internet as “underexploited terrain in the war of ideas” being waged – and according to some observers, being lost – over Afghanistan. Focusing only on the technology, however, overlooks a more fundamental change in the media landscape: the power to produce and disseminate information has irreversibly shifted from large organizations and corporations to the public. Technology has empowered the consumer as an increasingly equal partner in the production of information. The vital role of public perception in Afghanistan makes recognizing and adapting to this change critical to success in what is arguably the biggest test of NATO’s relevance in the 21st century.
The term “new media” is often used to describe the innovations that continue to shape the internet. Digitization of media, increasing bandwidth, cheaper storage and higher processing speeds, encoding and encryption have allowed interaction, collaboration and exchange of information that make geography increasingly irrelevant. Not only are people becoming less likely to get their news from a printed newspaper, they are increasingly empowered to produce news content in their own right. The growing trend of “citizen journalism” is not limited to the printed word, but now encompasses stock photography, edited video content, and even book publishing. Blogs and social network sites allow users to exchange information in multimedia format. In addition, the public is increasingly empowered to determine which content should be consumed by others. This is done via content rating systems, new tools to promote user-generated content, social bookmarking and news rating sites such as Digg or Reddit. While it is important to use the new tools technology gives us to disseminate information, NATO’s bigger concern should be to adapt its processes to the cultural responses to that technology. The cultural paradigm has not so much shifted in the dissemination of information; it has shifted in the production and consumption of information.
As the post-Industrial period continues to evolve, the resources and capital which enabled large organizations and media corporations to sustain their monopoly on the production and dissemination of information are becoming less relevant. As trends like home publishing and video editing grow, the software and equipment needed to produced content become cheaper and real-time worldwide collaboration becomes second-nature, the “one-to-many” mass media model is changing to a “many-to-many” model. To maintain their relevance, some organizations have attempted to change from a monologue to dialogue – not realizing that what is actually needed is a “polylogue.” Controlling the conversation is no longer a realistic objective; instead, the challenge is to be a part of the conversation – and thus remain relevant. Rather than striving to lead or control the narrative, the political and military structures within NATO should be focused on establishing conditions where the narrative can develop and flourish. Doing so will foster communication and transparency among the community of nations that make up NATO, as well as the general public.
By some estimates, there are currently a billion people worldwide with access to the internet. Each of them has anywhere from 2 to 4 hours of spare time per day. A significant fraction of this 2 to 4 billion hours of time is devoted to researching and generating media content, or consuming the content developed by others. This happens on a daily basis in the “blogosphere,” on YouTube, on personal web and wiki site, and on other media. The Billion also increasingly contributes to traditional media – often at the request of traditional media outlets seeking to remain a part of this global conversation. Media ranking sites, social bookmarking sites, and social network sites are used to exchange links, promote content and collaborate on projects. We are witnessing an era in which an obscure citizen, working from a basement computer, with a keen interest on a single narrow topic, can become the authority on a particular issue – and influence public perception thereof. In some ways, this represents a democratization of the media landscape – an environment where anyone can participate – in one of countless global conversations taking place on a 24/7 basis. Rather than expressing frustration when traditional media fail to publish the kind of content that promotes NATO objectives, it is important to recognize that we don’t necessarily need traditional media anymore. We need to find a way to “plug in” to what is increasingly replacing traditional media.
One of the keys to “plugging in” is the idea of joining or creating a community. The aforementioned Billion includes an undetermined number of people who, for one reason or another, have an interest in NATO, ISAF, or Afghanistan. This number includes those directly affiliated with military and civilian efforts in Afghanistan, their networks of friends, relatives and associates, Afghan expatriates and diaspora, and members of traditional and non-traditional media outlets. To engage and harness the power of these potential third-party advocates, NATO needs to define the common interests among this group, identify its currency in being able to address these interest, and identify the vectors by which these interests can be met.
The reasons people choose to devote their spare time to “causes” of this type are varied. Quite often, people invest energy in things like providing content for Wikipedia or commenting on blogs and news articles simply out of a sense of personal satisfaction. They identify needs to which they can contribute, or solutions to existing problems, and find it rewarding to lend a hand. There are also financial incentives, not always immediately apparent, for individuals to contribute ideas and content. Sometimes these include direct remuneration, as on the site InnoCentive or the US Department of Defense’s DARPA initiatives; other incentives may be to increase visibility or traffic on personal blog sites, YouTube channels, or small business web sites. Regardless of the personal reasons for such efforts, the primary benefit of harnessing such interests lies in the diversity of expertise, experience and ideas such initiatives will produce.
NATO’s most important currencies include its access to real-time information, and its perceived role in leading efforts to find a solution for the problems in Afghanistan. By sharing its information and its challenges in a transparent and open manner, NATO can foster a sense of collaboration. The real key in stimulating the “polylogue” that is likely to produce new ideas and solutions is our ability to convey a sense of openness to outside ideas. Only a perceived opportunity to give feedback and input – empowerment as a part of a potential solution – will persuade members of the public to contribute their spare time to the cause. NATO must foster a sense of community, equality, transparency and responsiveness. There must be a perceived willingness to learn, and an appreciation of the concerns and fears of the voting publics. NATO must impart a sense of “here’s your opportunity, as a concerned individual, to influence NATO policy in Afghanistan.” And because there is a common understanding that “ninety percent of what is out there is crud” this must include a peer rating mechanism that employs the power of the community in “separating the wheat from the chaff.”
In addition, it is not enough to simply allow the public to comment; there must be continued feedback to reinforce the sense that members of the community are being heard and taken seriously, in order to encourage repeat visits to the forum. The idea of “if we build it, they will come” does not apply. Simply hosting a YouTube channel or writing a blog is not enough. There must be continued investment in providing something of value to the audience which motivates them to become, and remain, members of the community. It is important to bear in mind that such a community cannot be directed or controlled, and will ultimately act in accordance with its own needs.
The ways in which we can develop and interact with such a community are quite diverse, and are growing day by day. They can be used in any number of combinations, but what is important is that there are linkages built between them. There are many examples of other organizations doing this successfully which should be emulated by NATO. Each forum should be developed with an eye toward first providing content of value to the audience (such as NATO’s real-time access to information, transparency and truth); second, allowing feedback directly to NATO as well as interactivity within the community (empowerment and equality); and third, links to other media being used by the audience (where can I find out more, and how can I incorporate this into my own public profile).
The full implementation of such an approach by NATO will have to overcome a number of obstacles. First, there are questions of policy – or of lacking policy. Time-honored policy boundaries that codify the differences between areas such as public affairs and psychological operations may be losing relevance, and discussing such issues in a 26-member alliance is more likely to paralyze than it is to mobilize. Still the discussion must take place; in an environment where individuals are increasingly, independently and legally producing content that influences policy and perception, it is critical to ensure NATO remains competitive in the “information market.”
The second major challenge is a fear of relinquishing control. The decentralized, interactive, dialogue-rich and sometimes chaotic aspects of the New Media Landscape defy control, and are completely anathema to traditional, hierarchical systems of control favored by the military. There is always the valid concern that something will go wrong, inconvenient truths will become public, or a career will be destroyed. We need to acknowledge, however, that the world has moved on. We have already lost control as the conversation continues – to a great extent without our involvement.
The evolving media landscape should not be viewed as an obstacle, but as an opportunity. New Media provide an opportunity to engage and empower audiences that up until now have acted independently. They also are an opportunity to harness the power of the Billion to dramatically increase the diversity of thinking within the Alliance. If NATO can manage to attract and maintain the involvement of a “community,” there are huge potential benefits to be gained. Making use of this opportunity may require the dismantling of traditional firewalls and the relinquishing of control. It may require listening more than speaking. While there are certainly risks, there are ways these risks can be mitigated. NATO must strive to become and remain a participant in the ongoing global conversation on Afghanistan as well as other areas, using technology that is readily available. Doing so may ultimately determine success or failure in our efforts to bring security and long-term stability to Afghanistan. One thing is clear, however: if we continue to do what we have always done, we will continue to get what we have always gotten.
The author, Tom Brouns, is a military officer assigned to NATO.
Guests posts are the opinions of the respective authors and published here to further the discourse on America’s global engagement and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of MountainRunner.