Sunday, February 28, 2010

The military and social media - hugging it out

Like all gigantasarus bureaucracies, it sometimes takes the military a while to put out official policies on new topics/subject matters. ( So, it should come as no surprise that only now are U.S. military personnel *officially* allowed to Tweet/Facebook/e-harmonize in ways that relate to their profession. And while all the PR gurus are claiming it's a match made in heaven now, based on my personal experience, I foresee a far rockier relationship ensuing between the Great Camo gods in the sky and social media.

Military structure is designed around control. There are rules, they are clear, and they are to be followed. They flow from the top-down, and on a macro level, are not conducive to interactive feedback from the bottom-up. As we've seen over the past few years though, social media allows interaction to occur between the top and the bottom, taking away control from the middle. Trust me when I say that the middle doesn't like this inability to filter messages. Further, as e-society develops, it's clear that the emo sub-current of expression is a tool utilized constantly and consistently in social media forums, especially amongst the young. Bitching about life/the job/etc. isn't just likely with soldiers at war, it's inevitable. And while the rules may claim only operational security violations will incur Higher's wrath for enterprising military social media-ites, I'm certain that the fine print includes a whole slew of other ways to do it. Like, I don't know. Describing a senior officer in an unflattering light. It's been known to happen, I guess.

If the military is going to successfully embrace social media, rather than having it embrace them - either can occur, because let's face it, even Delta Force can't kill the internet - it's going to have to do something it pays great lip service to, but isn't always great at executing - empowering junior leadership. The Pentagon can't read every blog, Tweet, or status update our brave soldiers/sailors/Marines/air-people produce. But each one of those personnel have a layer of leadership that can. If properly educated, junior leadership in the military can and will harness the beast of social media. Will they fall off, sometimes? Sure, but no rule implementation, no matter how rigidly or loosely enforced, proves perfect.

Big military has rules on underage drinking, but it relies on local leadership to enforce those rules. Social media restrictions should be no different, despite the possibility for high visibility violations. The alternative is to create a high level regulatory mechanism, which will only further the "us vs them" mentality that those on the tactical level feel exists. (Not saying it's true, just that the perception does). And pragmatically, this level of regulation simply won't work, and will only generate more acts of social media rebellion amongst the rank-and-file. (Damn the Man! And such). Official policies are swell and everything, but their direct impact in the trenches is minimal. How those are enforced matters far more. If the military is serious about utilizing social media constructs, it needs to accept the good and the bad now, and teach all levels of leadership what right looks like. If it doesn't, stories like Colby Buzzell's and mine will multiply tenfold.

In other news, I'm hoping to hire Optimus Prime's voice for the audio version of Kaboom. In no way am I kidding.


Hardtack said...

When will you announce the Movie contract??? But seriously, I am really looking forward to reading this book.

trisha l said...

def kaboom the the opimus prime idea

Anonymous said...

So...are these evolving micro-techniques of power and discipline representative of the next phase of the US military's netcentric warfare strategies?

Anonymous said...

Here is a story for you.

This and the “loose lips sink ships” axiom and its history are a perfect reason against blogging. As a former 1SG I completely understand how griping soldiers are just venting frustrations. But, do they need to blog it to the entire planet. What purpose does it serve? Do our service men and women need to tell everyone they know and many they don’t know everything that they are doing at all times. Are all of these men and women able to understand the difference between what sensitive information is and what is not? In my opinion, there are some that are not. Did you ever get punished because one man in your unit made an error? Sure you have. How would you feel if you lost some of your men because one of them sent out information on facebook? Where do you think those internet connections in Iraq and Afghanistan are routed through. There are no direct links to the US. WWW is World Wide Web. It is an open system and does not take a genius to tap into. And finally, if you read soldiers blog from Iraq of Afghanistan, how much OpSec could you get from it? Try it, you will be surprised and as upset as the Great Camo Gods in the sky.
I am certain that you know this, but, our enemy is getting smarter. The part I don’t think you realize is how smart he is. I believe you are downplaying the military censorship. I used to tell my troops “Read your enlistment contract, yes I can”. I believe leadership still can. Unless the enlistment contract has some new “Bill of Rights” and soldiers can now do whatever they want.
We are at war. Stop the blogging and get back to work.
1SG, Retired
Security Contractor, Iraq

Matt said...


Thanks for the feedback. Obviously, any OPSEC violation takes precedence over new media's benefits, especially one as egregious as that one. But would a black-and-white no blogging policy be as effective as educating those soldiers (and this soldier, in particular) about the do and don'ts of blogging? In the short term, yes. In the long term, I personally doubt it.

Yes, we are at war. That is something the military is painfully aware of, but the country, even now, doesn't quite grasp as a whole. And you know as well as I do that deployed soldiers need down-time - it's a requirement to keep them mentally sharp and physically fit. Whether particular leaders like it or not, some of those soldiers are going to utilize social media, often as a personal outlet back to the civilized world. I'd compare this debate to porn downrange - some things are going to occur no matter how many rules and restrictions are placed there. So, the question is - does the leadership adapt with their soldiers and their ways, or does it hold fast onto the knowns of the past?

That's up to each battalion, company, platoon, and squad leader/NCOIC. Personally, I just don't think extreme examples such as the one you cite are justifications enough to shut down the whole thing. In fact, I think it would have the exact opposite affect. As we've learned in Iraq and now Afghanistan, taking a hammer to a fly just makes the problems worse. Sometimes, the counterintuitive and slower approach works best. I'm clearly of the opinion that this one of those cases.

And I can't believe a security contractor is telling me to get back to work! (I kid, I kid)


Matt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt said...

One further thought on this, which came to me in the shower on this lazy Saturday afternoon (I know what you're thinking, but give me a break, I was hoopin' today):

Are we as an American military going to defensively react to a known violent minority with our concerns about OPSEC in the digital world? Or are we going to offensively anticipate its benefits, engaging a greater populace in another forum, both at home and in the countries where we're conducting operations? By placing faces and thoughts and human emotions to the soldier visage, aren't we offensively destroying the typical storm-trooper image we sometimes are accused of? Further, the resources need to conduct these missions, which are still controversial back home, require the support of the American people and democracy. Aren't we achieving the same goals outlined above for our own citizenry in this way? (Rhetorical questions gets a literal answer: yes)

I think any cursory study of American military history yields that we are at our best when conducting operations on the offense. Again, just my take.

Grandpa said...

Matt and Jim, thank you both for the debate. It is this kind of interchange that is needed at all levels, maybe even part of basic. What you tweet, etc. is the same as talking in an unfriendly bar over a few brews. The individual soldier must be made acutely aware that what they say, they say to the world, including those that do not have the best interest of the soldier, his friends, and his countries in mind. Let alone would they tweet anything that they would not say out loud in the mess hall?

Trident Military University said...

With the advent of social media it is possible for soldiers to post info that may be confidential or very sensitive. I agree that having junior leadership keeping an eye out seems like a good idea. It's also important for members of the military to be able to express themselves and keep a journal etc and not receive flack for it as long as they don't give out sensitive information.