Stratcom to be strengthened

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Maarjamäe memorial.

PHOTO: Sander Ilvest

The time when Ilmar Raag and a single assistant coordinated Estonia’s strategic communication is over. The Government Office is building an entirely new capacity with which to contain disinformation and solve crises more painlessly.

Estonia’s strategic communication budget will grow by leaps and bounds (13.3 times) this year: from €60,000 to €800,000 a year, which is where it will stay for at least the next found years.

Stenbock House will complement its existing stratcom staff of two people by another eight experts, each with their own set of tasks. Estonia must develop capacity to monitor, communicate counter-messages, and manage crises more effectively than previously. This will take €3.26 million between now and 2021 and must result in a functional system no longer based on a single person.

The entire subject matter is understandably sensitive and includes details that can never be published in a newspaper. Head of stratcom at the government’s communication bureau Martin Jaško says that if in the past there have been attempts to paint stratcom as state propaganda, the whole thing is strictly a matter of security.

“Today, our strategic communication is largely reactionary. At best we can identify information harmful for Estonia in time, especially as concerns the international arena,” he says. “Provided there is good cooperation, planning, and early warning, I believe we will be able to prevent some things in the future.”

That is the point of the entire plan: snowballs need to be stopped before they can gather enough momentum to become avalanches. To do that, the Government Office needs capacities it currently lacks.

One of the tasks of the new team is to get a much better foreign and social media picture as far as Estonia is concerned. Analysts must have the ability to tell what is important apart from what is not and see patterns: who is pulling strings against Estonia and following what agenda. Stratcom also requires a contacts base of foreign journalists and think tank representatives who take an interest in Estonia.

“If attitudes become suspicions or lean toward the negative, or if our actions are not understood, it can hurt allied relations,” Jaško explains.

The third important task of the Stenbock House team is to train experts of strategic communication during peaceful times and mobilize them, so to speak, in a crisis. An example of such a crisis was the Bronze Night – foreign media interest in Estonia exploded and the number of information requests grew by 200 times.

Ceaseless propaganda warfare

Anyone who believes talk of threats is baseless couldn’t be more wrong. Estonian facts check portal Propastop, run by a handful of Defense League members, reported last week that Kremlin-controlled media launched a series of articles accusing Estonia of intent to destroy yet another Soviet era monument – the Maarjamäe Memorial.

Jaško says that one of the more frequent narratives of the Kremlin is that Estonia doesn’t really spend 2 percent of GDP on defense. “It is an absurd but occasionally die-hard topic.”

The latest biased information operation in Estonia took place in late June when Italian journalist Tomaso Clavarino was after a photo frame-up of Estonian children holding guns. He had visited all the Baltic countries, while the Estonian authorities barely learned of it in time.

“It is very difficult to catch a tendentious piece that’s on the verge of being published. Once it’s out there, you must move very quickly to refute it,” Jaško says.

The piece was originally published in a Dutch alternative media portal with relatively few readers, but ended up in the Danish left-wing newspaper and magazine Der Spiegel.

Estonia is not without its tools today. One of our success stories was the communication of the abduction of Estonian Internal Security Service operative Eston Kohver from the Estonia-Russia border line. “Estonia was very quick and smart. Success was based on how quickly we got it out there,” Jaško finds.

The positions of information analyst, planner, communication center project manager, and campaign managers will be created at Stenbock House. The Government Office will count its plan a success if it manages to fill most of the positions by the end of the year.

These people will not constitute a magic wand. Rather we’re talking about a coordination team as Estonia’s strategic communication is not centrally managed. The Defense Forces, security services, and seemingly unrelated ministries (education, culture, economic affairs) have their own stratcom departments.

The reason is simple: the latter are indirectly in charge of security in situations where questions in need of answers concern integration, language policy, or energy supply security. The recent such position, that of a stratcom adviser with the foreign ministry, was created last summer and went to former head of the Estonian representation with the European Commission Hannes Rumm.

“Agencies are quite successful in their respective fields today, but it is the component of value added by cooperation that is lacking today,” Jaško says.

Back to the original plan

Ilmar Raag, who worked as Estonia’s strategic communication adviser in 2015-2016, says that the plan to empower stratcom is not new and has been in the works for years.

“If we want to address disinformation, we must first monitor it. When we first launched the system, we realized we have a single person who can only work on a single aspect. However, there are a lot of fields out there,” Raag recalls.

For example, Estonia has kept an eye on Russia’s main media networks but lacked a continuous and proper content analysis of Western media. This means one cannot know how messages are transmitted or who’s in charge.

“We have realized that modern monitoring has to rely on big data. We need to look for trends and patterns, not isolated pieces we then nervously try to quash as quickly as possible,” Raag says. A better overview means better decisions.

Creating Estonia’s own messages with which to ensure security is the most difficult task of the new team, Raag says. He believes campaigns could be created and deployed in situations like welcoming the first NATO battalion to Estonia.

“There was a lot of hearsay in both the Estonian and Russian communities at the time, and the question was whether we could bring about a situation where Estonians and Russians would have the same facts and read them the same way.”

The decision to improve strategic communication at the government office was made by then defense minister Margus Tsahkna years ago. He now says he saw stratcom’s weakness as a security risk that was not being addressed.

“Looking at where the world has moved since then, we have actual propaganda warfare. There were attempts to create that system after the Bronze Night, but they slowly died away, the MP says.

Tsahkna says that the team must be apolitical, which its structure requires it to be. “It is very important to understand what we’re doing this time, and to put Estonia’s fragmented resources to synchronous use,” he recommends.

Estonia is no exception in its ambition to boost strategic communication capacity. The Finns have maintained a similar team since 2014. The European Union has three such stratcom task forces, one of which is aimed at Russia, the second toward the West Balkan, and the third looks at the Arab world.

Jaško believes that Estonia has largely survived the birthing pains of stratcom thanks to past debates. “I believe critics who once said the state will develop its own propaganda service that will be used against its citizens have to eat their words today. It has not happened, and I can assure you that it won’t,” he says.