Best Defense

Essay contest (13): We need effective operations in the realm of social media

The United States military and government in general must effectively harness the power of social media.

An application icon for Line Corp.'s internet messaging and calling service, controlled by Naver Corp., and other application icons are displayed on an Apple Inc. iPhone 5s in an arranged photograph in Hong Kong, China, on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014. SoftBank Corp. is seeking to buy a stake in Line, people with knowledge of the matter said. Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Images
An application icon for Line Corp.'s internet messaging and calling service, controlled by Naver Corp., and other application icons are displayed on an Apple Inc. iPhone 5s in an arranged photograph in Hong Kong, China, on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014. SoftBank Corp. is seeking to buy a stake in Line, people with knowledge of the matter said. Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Images

 

By Maj. Ian Bertram, USAF
Best Defense essay contest entrant

The United States military and government in general must effectively harness the power of social media.

Without this critical first step, the U.S. will continue to fall behind its foes in producing a constructive narrative. Right now, the military’s efforts are laughable at best, and often nonexistent due to an overabundance of operational security. This problem allows our opponents to set the public agenda, leaving us to respond with “nuh-uh!” in our best playground voice.

Social media is how the modern world communicates, and it happens almost instantaneously. Who can forget the Pakistani that unknowingly live-tweeted the Osama bin Laden raid? Facebook boasts that 1.55 billion monthly users, with one billion of those people logging on daily. As of 2013, Google Plus had over a billion users, and 500 million people were registered with Twitter. Many people worldwide now use social media as their primary mode of receiving news and information. The military is not blind to this phenomenon, and many major commands and senior officers have some social media presence. The problem is that these outlets rarely pass any useful information, and even general attempts to sell the U.S. military come across as flat.

The U.S. State Department showed how not to apply social media in their pathetic attempts to counter the Islamic State narrative in 2014. The best known video released played much like the ISIS’s own recruiting ads. Since then, there has been little else that the government has pushed to the public in a prominent way. Therefore we have to question the effectiveness of the anti-ISIS social media narrative. Why isn’t the military publicizing the bombing campaign whenever and however possible?  Why aren’t Iraqi offensives covered and the counter-ISIS operations broadcast far and wide? It seems the military is only good at sharing these stories with its own people and the defense community at large, it at all. The efforts to push the narrative to the public, both in the United States and abroad, are exceedingly lacking.

Other states grasp the importance and potential threat of social media, and their fear of the open information that can be provided is a huge indicator of social media’s potential. Russia has essentially taken over social media within their borders, and has created an “information juggernaut” to sell its version of the conflict in Ukraine both at home and abroad. China’s government fears the power of social media to the point that only Chinese developed and hosted social media sites are allowed.

If our foes use or fear social media, why aren’t we taking advantage of it? Without effectively using this critical tool of the information age, we cede the narrative to media savvy terrorists, foreign leaders, and even a misinformed U.S. public. There are reportedly more mobile phones, tablets, and PCs than people on Earth, and anyone who worked with Afghans or Iraqis can attest that they all have smart phones to share information. Social media is the most direct link to today’s “fifth columns” in every conflict, and to ignore this fact is to lose the fight before we even enter it. The military can no longer give lip service to social media, and must apply serious effort into harnessing its potential if it wants to operate in the digital age.

Major Ian Bertram is an air force helicopter pilot. He has served assignments in nuclear defense and at the Air Force Helicopter Formal Training Unit. In 2012 he deployed to Afghanistan as an air advisor. This essay represents his own views, which are not necessarily those of the Air Force or the Department of Defense.  

Photo credit: BRENT LEWIN/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1
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