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NATO taps online influencers to boost its image among young people

This week at the NATO Summit in Washington, fresher faces will mingle with senior officials and world leaders, with the sole mission of being social media influencers recruited to improve NATO's image among young people.

NATO has invited 16 content creators from member countries, including Belgium, Canada, the United States and Britain, to participate in the summit. The United States is leading its own social media mission to support the initiative. Twenty-seven other creators have been invited to the summit by the Department of Defense and the State Department, which last year became the first cabinet-level agency to create a team dedicated to partnerships with digital content creators.

The creators have large followings on platforms like TikTok, YouTube and Instagram, and cover topics ranging from politics to national security to current events, current affairs and pop culture. In the span of 48 hours this week, a group of creators met with senior officials from Washington’s most powerful institutions, including the Pentagon and the State Department. At the White House, they met with John Kirby, President Biden’s national security adviser. At least two creators secured interviews with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The deployment of social media stars to Washington could engage NATO at a critical moment, facing a generation born after the dissolution of the enemy it was meant to resist. Biden’s endorsement and unified support for Ukraine have strengthened the alliance. But concern is growing within NATO that Donald Trump, who has used the alliance as a punching bag in his campaign speeches, could return to the White House.

“NATO is one of the greatest success stories the world has ever seen, and we want to make sure we reach new and different audiences to tell that story,” said Jennifer Min, the Defense Department’s director of digital media, adding that the creators would meet 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 conversations with content creators,” he later posted on X. “… Their fresh perspectives and innovative storytelling, their commitment to promoting trusted information, empower young people to make informed decisions about their future security.”

“During the summit, creators will have the opportunity to attend the NATO Public Forum and engage with a wide range of experts and senior officials from NATO and Allied countries,” a NATO spokesperson said in an email.

On Tuesday, NATO turned to Anthony John Polcari, a Washington-based content creator known online as “Tony P,” to open the summit on Instagram. “Did you know that 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 followers.

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

NATO covers travel expenses for content creators, including transportation, hotels and meals, benefits that most journalism organizations would refuse. It does not pay creators a fee for creating specific content and has no editorial control over the content they produce. A NATO spokesperson said it respects creators’ “freedom of expression.” The State Department and Defense Department also do not pay creators any compensation.

“They treat us like media,” said V Spehar, a TikTok news content creator and freelance journalist with 3.1 million followers on the platform. “They welcomed us into the Pentagon press briefing room with Fox News and the Associated Press.”

This week appears to be NATO’s biggest in terms of engagement with content creators since it began building 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 hosted nearly a dozen content creators at NATO HQ for an event marking the organization’s 75th anniversary.

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

Stewart said NATO has always granted him some editorial independence, such as allowing him to ask military leaders about the North Atlantic Fella Organization, an online activist group that raises money for Ukraine and combats pro-Russian war posts. “There was never a ‘delete this,’ ‘edit this,’ or ‘say more about that,’” Stewart said. “It was completely open.”

Other creators on the journey 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; AB Burns-Tucker, who covers legal and political commentary in African-American vernacular; Lauren Cella, a teacher who makes comedic videos about history; and British news content creator Dylan Page.

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

Jeremy Shapiro, research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said he was skeptical that working with content creators could influence public opinion on the alliance.

“NATO thinks it has a public relations problem,” he said. “Its problem is not getting a message across. Its problem is that the American public is becoming more selfish, more listening to people like Donald Trump and even people in the Democratic Party who are not as interested in foreign adventures and are a little annoyed that American foreign policy has not been doing well for 25 years.”

Despite facing similar challenges, the State Department has made significant efforts to engage content creators over the past year. The department has hosted interviews with them and invited influencers to accompany him on state visits, including recent trips to Japan, Korea, and Kenya.

“We know that more and more people are getting their information through social media, including from content creators,” a State Department spokesperson said. “During the NATO Summit, we are engaging with these voices to reach new audiences and explain the importance of the Alliance and its 75th anniversary.”

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

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

clarification

An earlier version of this article stated that the Defense Department and State Department invited 10 content creators to the NATO summit. The article has been updated to clarify that they hosted 27 creators.

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