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HomeTechNATO’s newest weapon is online content creators

NATO’s newest weapon is online content creators



Taylor Lorenz

Mingling with the top brass and world leaders at the NATO summit in Washington this week will be some fresher faces on a unique mission: social media influencers recruited to improve NATO’s image with young people.

NATO invited 16 content creators from member nations including Belgium, Canada, the United States and Britain to attend the summit. The United States is running its own social media mission in support. An additional 10 creators were invited to the summit by the Department of Defense and the State Department, which last year became the first cabinet-level agency to establish a team dedicated to partnerships with digital content creators.

The creators have large followings on platforms including TikTok, YouTube and Instagram, and cover topics ranging from politics to national security to news, current events and pop culture. In the space of 48 hours this week, a band of creators met with top officials from the most powerful institutions in D.C., including the Pentagon and State Department. At the White House, they met with John Kirby, President Biden’s national security communications adviser. At least two creators were granted interviews with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Deploying social media stars in D.C. could engage NATO at a critical moment with a generation born after the enemy it was formed to resist had dissolved. The backing of Biden and unified support for Ukraine has strengthened the alliance. But concern is rising inside NATO at the possibility that Donald Trump, who uses the alliance as a punching bag in stump speeches, could return to the White House.

“NATO is one of the greatest success stories that the world has ever known, and we want to make sure that we’re reaching new and different audiences to tell that story,” said Jennifer Min, director of digital media for the Department of Defense, adding that the creators would be meeting with senior government leaders during their trip.

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On Monday, influencers posed for selfies with Gen. Philippe Lavigne, NATO’s supreme allied commander transformation, at an event hosted by the alliance at George Washington University. “Great discussions with content creators,” he later posted on X. “… Their fresh perspectives & innovative storytelling, their commitment to promoting reliable info empowers young people to make informed decisions about their future security.”

“During the Summit, creators will be given the opportunity to attend the NATO Public Forum and engage with numerous experts and senior NATO and Allied officials,” a NATO spokesperson said via email.

On Tuesday, NATO turned to Anthony John Polcari, a D.C.-based content creator known online as “Tony P,” to open the summit on Instagram. “Did you know Washington, D.C., witnessed the birth of NATO?” he asks in a video shared with his more than 200,000 followers, and NATO’s more than 1.4 million.

Polcari said that when NATO contacted him, he agreed to collaborate immediately because he believes in the alliance’s mission. He worked with NATO to produce the video posted Tuesday but was not paid for the project. “We need organizations like NATO not only to protect nations from war but to prevent war,” he said. “It’s a moral thing.”

NATO is covering the content creators’ travel expenses, including transportation, hotels and meals — perks most journalistic organizations would decline. It is not paying fees for the creators to create specific content and has no editorial control over content they produce. A NATO spokesperson said it respects the creators’ “freedom of speech.” The State Department and the Department of Defense are also not paying the creators.

“They’re treating us like media,” said V Spehar, a TikTok news content creator and independent journalist with 3.1 million followers on the platform. “They had us in the press briefing room for the Pentagon with Fox News and the Associated Press.”

This week appears to be NATO’s most prominent engagement with content creators since it started forging relationships with influencers. In 2022, NATO invited nine content creators to its headquarters in Brussels so they could learn more about the organization. In April, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed nearly a dozen content creators to NATO headquarters for a 75th anniversary event.

Preston Stewart, a YouTuber with more than 707,000 subscribers who makes content about the military and serves in the U.S. Army Reserve, said this week’s summit is his fourth event with NATO, including one where he and other creators were brought aboard an aircraft carrier off the coast of France to kick off a NATO mission in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Stewart said that NATO has always given him editorial independence, allowing him, for example, to ask military leaders about the North Atlantic Fella Organization, a group of internet activists who raise money for Ukraine and combat pro-Russian messaging about the war. “There’s never been any ‘take this down,’ ‘edit this,’ or ‘say more of that,’” Stewart said. “It’s been completely open.”

Other creators on the trip include TikTok star Aaron Parnas, who covers current events and politics; Sharon McMahon, an educational content creator; Michelle Curran, a former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot and motivational speaker; A.B. Burns-Tucker, who covers legal and political commentary in African American vernacular; Lauren Cella, a teacher who makes comedic videos about history; and U.K. news content creator Dylan Page.

NATO’s outreach to creators is part of a broader initiative called Protect the Future, which the alliance says is intended to “raise awareness of and support for NATO among young audiences across the Alliance and give them a voice in NATO’s ongoing adaptation.”

Jeremy Shapiro, research director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said he was skeptical that working with content creators would sway public opinion about the alliance.

“NATO has this view that it has a public relations problem,” he said. “Its problem is not messaging. Its problem is that the American public is becoming more self-interested, are listening more to people like Donald Trump and even those in the Democratic Party who aren’t as interested in adventures abroad and are a little annoyed that U.S. foreign policy hasn’t been going well over the past 25 years.”

Although it faces similar challenges, the State Department has made a significant effort to embrace content creators over the past year. The department has granted them interviews with Blinken and brought influencers along on state visits, including recent trips to Japan, Korea and Kenya.

“We know that more and more people are receiving news through social media channels, including via content creators,” a State Department spokesperson said. “During the NATO summit, we are engaging with these voices to reach additional audiences and explain the importance of the Alliance and its 75th Anniversary.”

Although it is a new and arguably unproven approach to statecraft, Gavin Wilde, a senior fellow in the Technology and International Affairs Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said it makes sense for NATO to launch a novel public relations campaign.

“[NATO] clearly doesn’t have the same kind of resonance that it perhaps had in previous eras,” he said.





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