ANALYSIS – STRATCOM in context of new social movements


With the end of 2019 approaching, a series of protests, ongoing in many countries, constitute the third wave of the phenomenon known as “new social movements”. These protests became global with the demonstrations in core countries as well as those in the semi-periphery after the financial crisis of 2008, which gave rise to momentous incidents, such as the “Occupy Wall Street” campaign and rallies such as those held against the G20 Summit in Hamburg in 2017.

The “Yellow Vests” movement in France, initially triggered by fuel price hikes and which will enter its second year in December, was followed by the Brexit protests in the UK. Also important are protests staged on a massive scale against corruption, economic problems, and the unfair distribution of wealth, which have recently led to major political crises in Hong Kong, Iraq, Lebanon, Chile, and most recently, in Bolivia.

Holding rallies, marches, or demonstrations are among the basic rights and freedoms of people, and they are salient components for a democratic society and political participation, notwithstanding the possibility that these tools might be manipulated through hybrid methods intended to bring the democratic process to a standstill.

Various forms of incitement, the use of disproportionate force, and physical interventions may instigate the protesters to turn violent and cause economic, social and political crises in the countries involved as the demonstrations may spiral into uprisings in a very short span of time.

Impact of information operations

Recent studies suggest that the incubation period of civil disobedience usually starts when the larger society arrives at a point where the people are now convinced that their expectations or sensitivities are not being taken into account. Disobedience further grows as various groups decide to take to the streets in order to voice their problems and frustrations.

A fundamental dilemma here is that most conventional options to respond to such social movements tend to depend too much on physical intervention. The majority of the methods and established practices used to contain civil disobedience are mostly associated with security units. The structure of the organizations employed as well as the equipment preferred during civil disobedience also appear to be intended for physical intervention.

However, with the security forces’ physical reaction, these movements may easily reach uncontrollable levels like a chain reaction: when the number of protesters reaches the critical mass, as in nuclear fusion, protests may turn into violent conflicts.

At this point, there are two most likely courses for protests: Some mass movements may go down the three-stage path of “change-revolution-civil war”, while some others result in the security forces thinning out the crowd, suppressing the uprising, gaining control and re-establishing the public order.

It should be emphasized that strategic information operations driven by new technologies are taking on greater and greater urgency when juxtaposed with the traditional approaches and the use of brute force since the former is incomparably more efficient in terms of speed, reaching the urban population and with the multiplier effect it creates.

The protests, which recently emerged in Chile, and in a more distant past in Estonia, and turned into mass upheavals, are remarkable in terms of the tools used for containment and the crisis management and strategic communication (STRATCOM) methods employed.

‘Boots’ return streets after 29 years

The traces of the coup led by General Augusto Pinochet still fresh in Chile’s collective memory, the very first reaction of President Sebastian Pinera to the protests was to declare a “state of emergency” in various cities against the activists who set fire to metro stations in protest of the increase in transportation fees and the overall economic injustices in the country.

The harshness of the measures that followed the president’s live press conference at the army command center, at which he pointed out that Chile was fighting “against a strong enemy”, means the return of the army to the streets after 29 years, which has caused the protests to receive a lot of coverage in the international news media.

The ensuing curfews declared by the army in a number of cities resulted in clashes between the security forces and protesters, and at least 23 people were killed and 1,218 injured. Additionally, 9,203 protesters were taken into custody.

However, on Oct. 22nd, one million people poured into the capital’s symbolic Plaza Italia square to protest the government’s economic policies by shouting “not for 30 pesos, but for 30 years”, and demanded the resignation of President Pinera and called for a new constitution.

The news of the protests spread to the world in a very short time with the drone images shared on digital platforms showing the masses and hours-long demonstrations in the main roads of the capital city.

Perceptions and public opinion

The recent military intervention understandably raised heckles in the public since the coup, after which 3,000 people lost their lives or went missing between 1973-1990, had not succeeded in suppressing the riots and had a negative impact on the masses who lost relatives.

In spite of the Chilean government’s failure to use the communication channels correctly from the beginning of the crisis to the end, strategic steps taken by the demonstrators through information operations at decisive breakpoints provided psychological superiority to their actions with the multiplier effect they created.

After the demonstrations spread country-wide with the number of participants swelling to millions, Pinera spoke to the public with what he called “modest empathy”, offered an apology, saying that he took the protesters’ message seriously, withdrew the price increase, adding that they were working on a new social support package.

However, very soon afterwards, a video showing the president celebrating his grandson’s birthday in a luxury restaurant began to make the rounds on digital media although the clashes were continuing in the streets, which caused people to think that Pinera did not care enough about the crisis.

Pinera, who took office in 2014, is going through his second term. A poll conducted during the riots showed his approval ratings under 15% while, the same poll indicates, the demand for a new constitution rose to 87%.

In Chile, where the protests have been continuing since October, the cost of the crisis to the economy has already reached $1.5 billion.

The harsh physical measures taken by the Santiago government as a first reaction to the protests caused the events to spread throughout the country in a short while, especially with the government and media’s failure to keep the communication process going.

As one of the richest countries in Latin America with a population of 18 million, Chile’s government had to lower its year-end growth expectations and cancel a number of international summits to be held in November in Chile, which shows the magnitude of the crisis.

Estonia and “Bronze Soldier Uprisings”

The “Bronze Soldier Uprisings”, which took place in Estonia in 2009, provide us with one of the best examples of how social tensions can be very efficiently contained and controlled through an appropriately defined, impact-oriented communication strategy.

Despite its relatively small size with a population of only 1.3 million, Estonia became one of the first countries in history to experience cyber warfare.

The Bronze Soldier Monument erected for the Soviet soldiers who lost their lives during the Second World War has a spiritual importance for many Russian-speaking Estons, but for the rest of the society, it is seen as a symbol of Soviet occupation and subsequent persecution.

The first stage of the crisis there was ignited when suggestions were made to relocate the monument. As a reaction to these suggestions, some extremist groups in Tallinn organized and conducted mass riots.

The security forces took extra care to use proportional force. The members of the security forces who did not have any prior experience and were thus psychologically unprepared were given a crash course by emergency response teams and prison personnel in how to remain calm in the face of a violent group.

“Strategic silence”

Mass communication technologies and traditional media having a considerable impact on both sides, the main strategy of Estonian television channels was to broadcast events live, as they were unfolding, to prevent any disinformation campaign. Also of paramount importance, however, was to reduce the level of tension.

Yet the channels bent on manipulating the events followed a biased broadcast policy in order to escalate the tensions and eventually cause a greater number of people to become involved in acts of violence. Thus far the only images broadcast to the rest of the world had been of Estonian security forces aggressively intervening to quash what were supposedly “peaceful” protests.

Therefore, on the first day of violence, the Estonian national channel ETV followed a policy of “strategic silence” in order to avoid escalating the tension and declared that it refused to broadcast the riots.

Estonian newspapers followed a different strategy and started publishing special additions at regular intervals. These supplements came with to-do lists and described in detail what actions should be taken in the event the uprising spread far and wide, as well as provided useful tips on how to defuse the polarization to the extent possible given the circumstances.

The Postimees daily, published in both Russian and Estonian, drew special attention to its Russian columnists calling for restraint and calm in its original issue addressing Estonians; it did the opposite with its Estonian columnists. In the days of the riots, the newspaper’s Russian edition was printed in much higher quantities than usual.

Text messages were sent to citizens by the state, informing them about the riots in Tallinn and cautioned them against going anywhere near the city center.

Keeping the mainstream against manipulations

Estonian media’s persistence in keeping to a mainstream broadcast policy and delivering facts without distorting or “versionizing” them strongly encouraged the world media to base their news on reports from the unbiased journalists on the ground, which, overall, ensured a fair and accurate presentation of the events.

The first 48 hours in a crisis are highly critical, and especially the first 24-hour period is of vital importance in terms of fighting against disinformation and information pollution and ensuring an uninterrupted transmission of accurate and reliable information. In such crises, misinformation can spread like a wildfire and be used to manipulate the masses.

Therefore, the Tallinn government prioritized public diplomacy and its public relations efforts against disinformation campaigns and provocations during the riots.

As a method to reduce the tensions after the crisis emerged, special efforts were exerted to increase the visibility of the mainstream and sensible groups in order to sway the people yet undecided as to which side to take.

The result of a poll following the first two days of the uprising showed an 89% support for the government and mostly found the interventions of the security forces rightly guided and correct. This, despite the tensions, violence and looting provoked by the right-wing media groups in the country turned Tallinn into a battlefield, the likes of which had not been seen since the Second World War.

However, in the aftermath of the riots Estonia strengthened its social cohesion by turning the crisis into an opportunity, and in the following 10 years, Estonia became one of the best examples of public diplomacy and national cyber defense.

Urban crisis and STRATCOM

According to UN estimates, 62% of the total world population will be living in urban areas by 2035, and the number of people living in residential areas are expected to increase by 3 billion in the next 30 years.

Therefore, it is essential that cities be considered as sites of possible future crises and that mass uprisings be included as case studies discussed in crisis management handbooks.

The crisis management concept that currently prevails in the West in particular incorporates a range of measures, from the methods to be followed in case of mass uprisings to safe gathering areas, and from the people in charge to the communication strategies to be implemented.

The success of STRATCOM comes from constructing a clear and comprehensible narrative compatible with the values ​​and assumptions of the target audience, as opposed to merely conveying didactic information.

It should not be forgotten that, for the urban population that actively uses digital media, the tools used to manage crises are perceived as interfaces, and the classical methods, influenced by this process, are also being transformed into evocative messages imbued with symbolic meanings.

If the new-generation STRATCOM concept is considered as an effective tool that can be used in crisis scenarios for mass uprisings and acts of violence, and is made into a multi-layered, diverse method, both pre- and post-crisis, through the coordination and cooperation of the relevant organizations, non-state actors, and traditional as well as digital media, it will be able to provide a very strong alternative method against hybrid threats.

[Yuksel Serdar Oguz teaches strategic communication classes for members of the Turkish Army, and at the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), and the Anadolu Agency News Academy. He focuses on public diplomacy, new media policies, and the management of migration.]

[Levent Berke Capli is the chair of the NATO Research Committee for Gamification Cyber Defense/Resilience. He focuses on multi-domain future warfare and data-driven decision-making, support and transformation processes.]
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