- Reset + Print

At the StratCom Dialogue Conference in Latvia

At the StratCom Dialogue Conference in Latvia
President Kaljulaid speaking at the Opening of the Riga StratCom Dialogue
© Office of the President of the Republic of Estonia


Communication is everywhere. A dog wags its tail. A bird chirps a warning. A politician looks angrily at a little child in a shopping mall and someone snaps a photo. We live in a world of meaning, stories, emotions, interpretations, fears, and hopes. All these are parts of communication.

Obviously, creating some direction in the chaos becomes ever more important. But going overboard and adopting propaganda measures leads to limiting freedoms. It is extremely important that we manage to deliver strategic communication without compromising media freedom.

What do we mean by strategic communications, and why do we need it?

First, strategic communications satisfy an implicit constitutional obligation laid upon democratic governments to inform and explain and, therefore, to communicate. Things need to be in balance. It is possible for governments to communicate too little, or without sincerity, just as it is possible for them to communicate too much and be accused of manipulation and ‘spin’.

Second, when the desired point of balance is found, governments learn that strategic communications can help to ‘accentuate the positive’, as a vehicle with which to demonstrate competence and credibility.

Third, in pursuit of coherence and consistency, strategic communications can not only have a disciplining effect on national strategic thinking, by requiring that strategy be clear and communicable, but also ensure that what is communicated by government is strategically credible.

Finally, strategic communications can assist in the pursuit of comprehensiveness and cooperation in government policy. If correctly conceived, they can improve national strategy, as well as communicate it.

Good communication is both a function and a proof of good governance. In a democracy, informative and transparent communication is essential to the maintenance of a productive and enduring relationship between the executive, the legislature, the judiciary, and the electorate. Communication therefore has a constitutional significance. The democratic process can be damaged when communication is insincere, inadequate, or incomplete.

I hope this Riga StratCom Dialogue can provide some answers to the pressing issues that trouble all democratic governments universally:

• How do governments move beyond the traditional framework of target audiences, messaging, and products to understand and address the complex psycho-social structures and dynamics that lie at the root of our security problems?

• How do we cope with the rapidly changing technological environment – an era of pervasive communication in which narrative, even if it is a simple sequencing of facts, can no longer be controlled or ‘owned’, and in which every event needs to be simultaneously discussed in both global and local environments?

Oxford Dictionaries picked ‘post-truth’ as its word of the year for 2016. We have seen divisive political campaigns in which popular frustration and anger took precedence over reason and facts. The word, Oxford said, captures the mood of the English-speaking public. Oxford defines the term as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’

To me, though, simply appealing for emotion and personal belief is not a big problem – all political communication does that. Rather, a much bigger problem is creating high emotions based on facts which could be easily wrong-footed. A decade ago it would have been impossible to say, ‘We have had enough of experts,’ and base an emotional campaign on simply unfounded data or wrong facts, even clearly refutable promises.

Language is not just about communication. It is the vehicle of ideas. No communication strategy can save an unconvincing and ineffective policy. We need the ‘leaders’ intent’. This intent needs to carry from the election campaign to the process of governing. If the link from promise to practice is not possible, as it by definition will be with post-truth campaign wins, it must lead, and ultimately will lead, to governing failure.

No communication strategy can save an unconvincing and ineffective policy. We need to have actual policy results in the fields of social, economic, cultural, and foreign and security policy. Post-truth is a short-termist strategy.

To counter post-truth politics, we need better political leadership. We need leaders to take a stand even if it threatens re-election. Citizens expect decisive responses to crises. When traditional parties do not provide them, they look for those whose rhetoric sounds decisive, yet carries within it the ‘decisiveness’ of reaction, of simple, illiberal solutions the EU was created to rid Europe of forever.

What we have seen in some countries has been exactly this: a lack of leadership cruelly exposed at the moment when the post-truth campaign ends. It has amplified the feelings of insecurity and, while democracies facing this in the most exemplary way are sure to stand the test and will sooner or later return to the reasonable centre ground, a weaker, less deep democracy risks collapse. Because, if post-truth promises cannot be fulfilled, people might look for even less democratic options and ‘one strong man to decide’. It sounds simple. We know it would be wrong. But going through a cycle of finding out would be painful and costly.

We have also seen strategic decisions of not running to extremes and simple propositions, standing on the centre ground and developing common-sense, rational politics. We have seen that one can win with honesty and realism. But this, of course, also takes skilful strategic communication. The advantage is that words can then be transferred into convincing policy-making.

The same, incidentally, applies to the communication about our EU. One country found out that non-convincing messaging about the union can lead to talking yourself out of the union. Long have politicians thought that blaming Brussels is a cheap and convenient fig leaf to the deficiencies of your own governance. It appears this is not the case. We have seen rhetoric adjusting and mainstream parties no longer taking risks. It works: I know this because Estonia has had 25 years of successive governments talking honestly about our union, and we are one of the most euro-optimist countries. It is not structural funds or CAP (other countries have similar levels of financial support), it is clear messaging about the fact that EU is the best option for security and development.

What does the shifted communications environment mean for relations between government and media? Responding to blatant lies and rebutting false charges is important, but it is not enough. Hostile influence operations will fail when publics understand them for what they are. The best response of democratic governments is to defend the ability of accurate information to circulate freely. The challenge is, however, how to do it in the same time frame as the disinformation spreads.

The new information landscape demands governments and security institutions be more open. Hacks and leaks force us to comment on issues that were once considered ‘sensitive’. One example of the trend are public reports issued by intelligence services. Governments in our region must be better at explaining our foreign and security policy choices as well as concerns to our own public. Yet, also to the wider international audience – to our friends and allies.

It is important to support media diversity and the think-tank landscape, and to encourage cooperation between think-tanks, governments, and media. It is important not to respond to propaganda with counter-propaganda. It is important to teach people the merits of honest and open discussion; to actually talk to people to explain why exactly antipropaganda is just as limiting as propaganda.

A good working relationship does not mean that the media writes what the government says. It means that journalists receive regular in-depth, off-the-record briefings, and that these briefings actually supplement their knowledge and are not mere talking-points presentations. It means that journalists have contacts to rely on for quick information checks. Ones, which they can use for fast fact-checking or to verify the source of information.

In Estonia, security institutions have opened up. We have the Internal Security Service’s annual report, the Foreign Intelligence Agency’s public risk assessment, and the Defence Forces’ annual activity overview. The Information System Authority also does annual reports on cyber security and developments. The importance of this approach is that it provides reliable information from a trusted source. It increases public awareness, enriches debates in expert communities, and offers security and defence officials an arena for participating in public debate.

Let me now turn specifically to social media and democracy. The Internet and social media companies are challenging the traditional media’s function as gatekeepers and agenda setters. It is not only the media which has to adapt, but also governments are feeling these challenges. A key question is how to get our message through while adapting to these platforms and meeting public expectations.

The era of press releases is over. My great inspiration, Madeleine Albright, has said: ‘These days, people are talking to their governments using 21st-century technology, while governments listen on 20th-century technology and respond with 19th-century policies.’ Governments must scale their online communications to meet the needs and expectations of their constituents.

However, social media platforms must restore the integrity of information in turn. Facebook is changing democracy. A full 65% of people in the US read their news on Facebook. Targeting specific voters is more effective and cheaper than speaking to the public on TV. Targeting is becoming more precise. Ads appear in a user’s feed, amid media news and updates from friends. Many users do not even realize that an ad is an ad. By now, Facebook knows everything about its users. It feeds people with the information they would like to see, and that creates mass feelings best expressed by the age-old saying ‘everybody thinks this way’. Everyone does not; it’s just that algorithms have decided to show you the thoughts that match your own. I am glad to note that at least Facebook has already taken some steps in distinguishing lies from the truth by letting their users report posts as fake news stories.

Fake news is a subset of the problem. Lying is rarely punished on social networks. You do not have to source claims. Indeed, many voters probably trust home-made, unbranded content more than the mainstream media. And you can hire fake commenters to chatter about a post, thereby extending its life.

Looking at this debate, some sort of regulation seems inevitable. Mainly, there are issues of user anonymity online, which allows for illegal behaviour. ‘On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.’ As my friend and journalist, Estonia’s first e-resident Edward Lucas says: ‘Anonymity has its uses, but civilization depends on trustful interaction between people who do not know each other well.’

Authentication using, for example, real-world data such as credit card references; making two-step authentication compulsory; and using secure solutions such as Smart-ID are all available options. And above all, governments have held a monopoly in safe identification by providing passports.

Today, Estonia is presently alone among other world governments in guaranteeing a compulsory electronic ID that is provided together with a large number of trusted services. Multinational corporations have control over the other offers on the market. Do we really want to cede that governmental responsibility? I do not think we have the right. The government leaves visible traces upon the streets so they might be safe and secure. The same must be true for cyberspace.