Culture · Public Policy · Strategy · Technology

Shaping Strategic Culture through Social Media

Do states use social media to influence and shape a Strategic Culture among the people, to propagate their ideals and use strategy for national security and interests?

Abstract: In 2015, it is now safe to say that Social Media has come to dominate the lives of people, and it affects almost all aspects of our daily routine: from the cereals we eat for breakfast, the clothes we buy, to the civic activist groups we join and support, and the political campaigns we follow. Social media, it seems, has more success than the traditional forms of journalism and communications when it comes to certain types of information sharing and spreading. Could Strategic Culture be part of it? How do governments use social media to convey their interests to the public, gain their attention for their policies and thus, carve Strategic Culture?

The connection between national security and culture can be traced back to the writings of Sun Tzu and Thucydides. Thus, when Colin S. Gray remarked, that “all strategic behaviour is affected by humans who cannot help but be cultural agents” (Gray: 1999, 49-69) it reiterated the importance of culture in the domain of national security and national interests. Communication constitutes a big part of culture and thus, an appropriate weight should be given to it while studying Strategic Culture. States have come to understand that social media plays an important role in this matter and in Clausewitz’s opinion states should not forget the potential of a mobilized mass society (Lantis: 2002, 93). It is noteworthy that social media networks, like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube had become number one activity on the internet by 2013 (2050 magazine, July 2013). Pro-government Internet trolling in Russia, the usual presence of Uncle Sam in the USA, fake accounts from enemy states that constantly engross themselves in ‘cyber battles’ and hacks, etc. prove that social networks can be used strategically to achieve government aims, or at least be used as provocation.

Ann Swidler calls culture a ‘tool kit’ for forming strategies of action, which in turn influence behaviour (Swidler: 1986, 273-286). Traditionally, it was used by hard powers to reach their political goals, but now it is going through a ‘revolutionary’ state due to the developments and advancements in social media, as many states have come to embrace it.

To understand communication one can tread back to the Social Contract Theory by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacque Rousseau. While their opinions quite opposed each other as to how human society and culture formed and worked, they were pioneers in laying down the importance of human communication through a ‘contract’, an agreement that built a strategy for controlling and monitoring their society. This job, one may argue, is now being carried out by social media.

It is important to define the terms used here, i.e. Social media and Strategic Culture, for a better understanding of the subject matter. While Social Media, according to Oxford dictionary is ‘Websites and applications that enable users to create and share content or to participate in social networking’ Strategic Culture is not as easy to define. Despite a number of definitions by scholars since the 1970s, there is still no consensus on a common definition of the term. However, one can bring a few of these as examples. Chappell defined it as ‘’a set of beliefs, attitudes and norms towards the use of military force’’, something that is affected by historical experience of a country (Chappell 2009, p. 419). On the other hand, Jack L. Snyder, the forefather of the theory of Strategic Culture described it as ‘‘the sum of ideas, conditioned emotional responses, and patterns of habitual behaviour that members of a national strategic community share with regard to nuclear strategy’’ (Snyder: 1977, 8). Alistair Iain Johnston claims “different states have different predominant strategic preferences that are rooted in the early or formative experiences of the state, and are influenced to some degree by the philosophical, political, cultural and cognitive characteristics of the state and its elites. Ahistorical or ‘objective’ variables such as technology, polarity, or relative material capabilities are all of secondary importance” (Johnston: 1995, 34). Barry Buzan emphasized that “the relationship between culture and international society is crucial both to how the making of contemporary international society is understood, and to whether one should be optimistic or pessimistic about its prospects” (Buzan: 2010, 1). Even though one cannot disregard any of the definitions, one may conclude that national traditions, habits, values, attitudes, ways of behavior and symbols have an effect on strategic culture and nowadays, social media accentuates these features even further.

So, how do governments exploit social media to get a message across, and how this action influences the audience, i.e. the public, usually the youth, into shaping their ideas and re-imagining their values?

Technology, applications and communication systems, which are ever-changing and developing, have started to play a role in in the domains of military security, national strategy and as a result, in shaping the minds of the public on (inter)national politics in recent years. Strategic Culture through the kaleidoscope of social media is something that has gained a lot of attention in recent years and its popularity is growing tremendously, penetrating into all aspects of human life and reshaping lives on a speed that was deemed unfathomable. Media is said to be the fourth arm of the governments, (other than the Legislature, Executive and the Judiciary). However, social media, it seems, is quickly gaining up on the traditional forms of communication. It might be too far-fetched at the moment to quote Ted Hopf but he opined that “any state identity in world politics is partly the product of the social practices that constitute that identity at home” (Hopf: 1998, 914).

As mentioned above, Social media is now being increasingly used by governments around the world for strategic purposes, from having Facebook and Twitter pages to pro-government trolling on forums and various sites (Read: ‘One Professional Russian Troll Tells All’ May, 2015), some even sponsor spams and publicity through public forums, comment sections, fake accounts, etc. The persistent attempt by the Belarusian government to limit the voice of Charter 97 – a declaration which echoes the Czechoslovakian Charter 77 calling for human rights and democracy in the country, or the publicity on the Armenian and Azeri soldiers at the line of contact over the de facto Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh) and the constant reminder of their ‘holy’ duty towards their countries, etc. are only a couple of examples. The Chinese government, on the other hand, is a hard-core strategist when it comes to access to social networking sites. Having blocked almost all the major global social media sites, like Facebook, Twitter, Skype and YouTube, China has created her own networks which are usually limited and controlled. Rungeng He has analysed just how the “Chinese government has modified its public opinion management in the social media era” in his study on the case of Weibo (Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism) and the recent case of lawyers being detained for using social media for advocating human rights goes to show just how cautious the Government is when it comes to free speech and expression. It is not in vain that the country holds the 176th position out of 180 states in the World Press Freedom Index.

To sum up, these examples reflect the view that governments try to control and influence the public and in subliminal ways strive to propagate their intentions and interests, shape a culture among the public. To understand just how far they (can) go, however, needs to be studied further. It is without a doubt that this trend is still in its infancy, yet, it is a matter of time until others will join in to exploit the fruits of social media for their own gains.

By: Tatevik Tadevosyan


  • Buzan, Barry (2010) ‘Culture and International Society’, in International Affairs, Volume 86, Issue 1, pp. 1–25, January 2010
  • Chappell, L. 2009. Differing Member State Approaches to the Development of the EU Battlegroup Concept: Implications for CSDP European Security 18(4), pp. 417-439
  • Gray, C. S (1999) ‘Strategic Culture as Context: The First Generation of Theory Strikes Back’, Review of International Studies, 25(1), pp. 49–69.
  • Hopf, Ted (1998) “The Promise of Constructivism in International Relations”, International Security 23, No. 1, p. 914.
  • Johnston A. I. (1995), Thinking about Strategic Culture, International security, Vol. 19, No. 4, Spring 1995, pp. 32-64.
  • Lantis, Jeffrey S. (2002) ‘Strategic Culture and National Security Policy’, International Studies Association, Blackwell Publications, p. 93.
  • Snyder, Jack L. (1977), p. 8 in ‘The Concept of strategic Culture’ by Longhurst (2000) p.302
  • Swidler, Ann (1986) ‘Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies.’ American Sociological Review, 51, pp. 273-286.

Online Articles:

  • ‘Social Media Overtakes Pornography as the Number One Activity on the Internet’ (July, 2013), 2050 Magazine:
  • ‘One Professional Russian Troll Tells All’ (May, 2015), Radio Free Europe:
  • ‘Internet Trolls: Propaganda’s Final Frontier (March, 2015) Geopolitical Monitor:
  • ‘How does the Chinese government manage social media? The case of Weibo’ Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism:
  • ‘Why China is arresting some lawyers who use social media to reach public’ (July, 2015) The Denver Channel:

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