An Advocacy for Social Media and Digital Collaboration in the Military
by Jeff Gilmore
I often wonder how General Billy Mitchell must have felt as he relentlessly advocated for the use of strategic airpower while surrounded by leadership who did not understand his vision. He saw a technology that was so revolutionary, such a game changer, that it consumed his every thought of how he could employ it to save his nation. I also wonder what must have been going through his mind during the last year of World War I as French aircraft provided top-cover above American soldiers. Those airplanes were French-built because America’s leadership at the time failed to make the necessary investments in the rapidly emerging technology of armed aircraft. What is clear is that Mitchell’s level of frustration reached an apex at this moment because the loss of life was preventable; that it resulted from a lack of military leadership’s “control and effectiveness.” Mitchell spent the interwar years fighting to sensibly and effectively align an emerging civilian technology with military requirements. Relentlessly, even to the point of court-martial, he stood up against old-guard leadership that was complacent due in part to their negligence in understanding how emerging technology would change the course of warfare forever. Mitchell was not held in high esteem amongst the top brass; he left the military as a convicted man for his beliefs. Fortunately, his ideas were eventually vindicated as his theories formed much of the foundation for our nation’s airpower success in World War II and paved the way for America’s superpower status. His ideas were just ahead of his time.
It is frustrating to note the parallels today between Mitchell’s fight for strategic airpower and our military’s current lack of understanding as it relates to harnessing social media to achieve strategic military objectives. In 1925, Billy Mitchell said, “Those interested in the future of the country, not only from a national defense standpoint but from a civil, commercial and economic one as well, should study this matter carefully, because air power has not only come to stay but is, and will be, a dominating factor in the world’s development.” If you replace the words “air power” with “social media” today, you could make that exact statement at any professional conference or in any corporate board room and earn high respect. More important than respect is that the person who makes that statement is right. Social media in particular and social collaboration in general have fundamentally changed the world. Over one billion people use Facebook. Twitter users post 140 million tweets daily. YouTube users upload 72 hours of video every minute. Combined, these three powerhouse forces of social media directly contributed to the Arab Spring and regime changes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Social media also contributed to the creation of popular uprisings in Syria, Iran, Yemen and Bahrain, highlighting that the most effective weapon isn’t always kinetic. Dictators, autocratic governments, and religious police live in fear of the power that is social media. Nations like China and Iran have banned sites like Facebook and Twitter because of the threat these web sites pose to information control. Even some midlevel military leaders set limits on social media’s use by periodically blocking sites like YouTube and Facebook on government networks. It begs the question: why does social media scare these powerful, established forces? Why are we as a military not more fully invested in embracing the power of these tools? Social media and digital collaboration are two of the 21st Century’s most revolutionary tools that our armed forces must invest in and exploit in order to disrupt our enemies, dominate the informational battle space and spark true innovative solutions to counter a challenging global security environment. In an austere fiscal environment, social media and digital collaboration are programs that truly do more with less and should be embraced.
The first step to solve any problem is to define the current state of the issue. To be blunt, the current social media strategy in the military is best defined by its lack of a coherent and simple-to-understand strategy. A quick search of the Department of Defense (DoD) social media regulations shows that there are at least 12 different DoD social media policy documents containing numerous rules, policy letters and directives in a disjointed and sometimes inconsistent manner. Each specific service has at least three additional policy regulations detailing their own rules and limitations in arcane language, while computer based training slides litter these unappealing websites. Simplifying or at least streamlining these complex and sometimes conflicting regulations is the first step to adopting the widespread usage of effective social media in the military. The layers of red tape have already smothered an environment that demands collaboration, not stagnation.
In its simplest form, social media exists to quickly and personally convey a message to the masses. While basic communication is as old as time, the concept of personal communication to the masses via portable and pocket-sized devices is unique and quickly evolving. The struggles that our traditional military public affairs teams face in the realm of social media today are similar to the difficulties that mainstream media outlets have encountered trying to rapidly adapt to this new media environment. In the 1980s, mainstream media produced the highly polished nightly news broadcast that was the centerpiece of news and information for most Americans. A 2010 study by the Pew Research Center shows that nearly two-thirds of the total nightly news viewers are now over 50 years old. During the past 30 years, viewing habits changed and greatly shifted as the younger generations shunned their parent’s traditional news model. Nightly news broadcasts lost 55% of their market over the past 30 years, while online news from sites like Huffington Post, Breitbart, Politico and Drudge Report continue to gain users. This new generation of media thrives because it doesn’t operate on a controlled news cycle that requires careful preparation and vetting. Young people now demand news at anytime, anywhere. The top online news sites deliver streaming news and dedicate resources to attract and respond to what their viewers want. The DoD can greatly benefit from doing the same.
As an observer, it appears that the Pentagon has mirrored mainstream media in its slow transformation and ability to control the message in a now very fragmented media environment. Viewing traditional military news sources like the Pentagon Channel are about as appealing as watching C-SPAN or the Home Shopping Network to the average member of the millennial generation, who is used to more attention grabbing internet and social media news sources. (Of note, Nielsen does not track Pentagon Channel or C-SPAN viewership to allow an actual comparison of viewing statistics.) Additionally, current defense websites lack the graphical refinements and functionality of their commercial counterparts. It is not only the quality of the programming but also the content of the programming itself that adds significant value to the broadcasts. The news presented on The Pentagon Channel and DoD controlled websites is outdated, somewhat amateur and widely seen as unrefined propaganda with little strategic analysis or debate. The unappealing nature of DoD media makes it a very unlikely source viewers will turn to when news breaks, thereby failing to establish or control the message. The military’s lack of message control results in other media entities framing the military’s story, no matter the accuracy or content.
To be fair, the services have made many attempts to use social media and the web with varying degrees of success. It is important to note that tools like Facebook and Twitter are being employed by public affairs agencies across the DoD. Yet there seems to be very little coordination and high-level focus on how to maximize the value and measure success across the DoD enterprise. Very few DoD sites understand how to interpret current trends and use this information to not only attract an audience, but keep them engaged. A very illustrative example of this lack of know-how can be seen in the social media operations of Air Mobility Command (AMC). AMC is one of the Air Force's largest Major Commands (MAJCOMs) comprising the largest mobility fleet of aircraft in the world. Worldwide missions require an AMC (including Air Force Reserve Command and Air National Guard) aircraft departure every 90 seconds, every day! AMC was one of the first MAJCOMs with boots on the ground in Haiti. Their forces were also among the first to respond to the 2011 earthquake and ensuing tsunami in Japan, as well as the devastating earthquake and tsunami of 2004 that struck Indonesia, Thailand and other parts of the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions. AMC and its supporting agencies directly helped millions of people with its immense air cargo and air refueling capacity and unrivaled humanitarian relief expertise . Unfortunately, very few people see these amazing successes because their social media postings fail to capture the audience’s attention enough to go viral. AMC currently has just over 640 “likes” on their Facebook page. Including the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserves, there are over 134,000 airmen who work for AMC. The total amount of fans on AMC’s Facebook pages represents an engagement rate of just over .4% of AMC’s own work force. By comparison, a commercial company like Coca-Cola’s Facebook fan page has 51,000,000 fans on Facebook.
Each fan represents a real person who sees messages posted by the page that they “like” every single time they log into Facebook. A “like” represents the social media pathway to sharing a potentially strategic message on the Facebook user’s newsfeed. Unfortunately, AMC’s online presence today is minuscule. Despite doing very worthwhile and respected work for our nation, AMC’s current Facebook audience represents less than .00125% than that of a soda company. Even worse, until September of 2012, AMC's Facebook was oddly titled "Mobility Airmen". This meant that any user who searched for AMC’s page on Facebook would not be directed to an official page but instead directed to pages owned by civilian users that were not even associated with the command. AMC then attempted to rectify this problem by creating an additional page called "Air Mobility Command (Official)" but their Facebook fan base once again started from zero. From a social media and search engine perspective, AMC’s inconsistent product branding is confusing and just doesn’t make sense. Their strategy results in very low Facebook exposure rates and makes it seem that those in charge of the social media operations do not fully understand the strategic potential of a well organized and professional Facebook presence. AMC’s inability to effectively distribute its page to the masses is evident by the page’s lack of engagement by Facebook users and no noted viral content even after playing a critical national role in providing relief from hurricane Sandy in the Northeast United States. AMC is not an isolated case.
Our military consistently makes these types of social media and online faux pas that limit its social exposure. The lack of effective engagement occurs across social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and even the more established web. If you type the search term “Afghanistan” into the Google search engine, you must click through almost six pages of results until you finally come across an official NATO or DoD site discussing Afghan strategy. With a lack of a cohesive social media and web strategy, it is easy to see why many of our greatest successes, humanitarian efforts and national strategy objectives aren't being effectively shared with the world. Think of the potential if every humanitarian aid delivery or school being built in Afghanistan went viral across the web. If military commands like AMC could capture just 1% of Facebook’s one billion users, they could bypass mainstream media and share their message to a much larger audience. The United States is spending significant national treasure helping others abroad. We gain little tangible goodwill in return partially because of our failure to effectively broadcast our story to the world in this social media age.
As our military struggles to convey an effective message through social media, a more hostile story is still being told on our behalf and without our consent. From Abu Ghraib to Afghanistan and even to Inspire magazine by AlQaeda, other entities--fueled by social media—have successfully painted our military in a negative light and forced senior leadership to defend our operations to a hostile media in a very reactionary way. A draft report on our shortcomings by the Joint Staff echoes this assessment stating, “While the military was slow to adapt to these developments [negative press events], the enemy was not, developing considerable skill in using these new means of dissemination to their own ends." This slow reaction to comprehending the effects of social media was not limited to just Afghanistan and Iraq. An even more ominous failure of our ability to control the message in this modern era became apparent during the Libya campaign of 2011. With the Twitter handle @FMCNL, a shadowy former Netherlands military officer tweeted nearly every takeoff and landing of the Libyan bombing campaign with frightening precision just by monitoring air traffic control along with data mining open source records and monitoring chat rooms. Accurate tail numbers, routings, home bases for fighters and intercepted propaganda messages by C-130 Commando Solo aircraft are still available on the web for all to hear. It is downright scary to think of our nation's vulnerabilities from just one overzealous aviation fan. US lives could be at dire risk in future conflicts if we ever engage enemies more capable than Libya. Our failure to understand information flow in this social media era could be the reason for unnecessary casualties in future conflicts.
It is true to say that social networking presents many new challenges but it also presents innumerable potential opportunities. It's an understatement to say that social networking has fundamentally changed our society from the way it was just twenty years ago. America's extreme addiction to texting, status updates and collaborative thought are only matched in intensity by its former addiction to smoking in the 1950s. Most members of the millennial generation can't make it through a single meal without checking-in or texting someone. Many become visibly edgy without metered doses of touching their mobile devices. Ideas and problem solving pass effortlessly between people through digital devices during the most random times and locations. Digital collaborative thought, a staple of commercial tech businesses, has yet to take hold in our military. And that is something that is intensely frustrating to the millennial generation of officers and enlisted.
Take Mark Zuckerberg for example--the 28 year-old, billionaire founder of Facebook. In less than the length of a Captain's career, Mr. Zuckerberg has done more to influence regime change in more nations than most senior elected and military leaders since the Cold War ended. Whether positive or negative, it is fair to say that his idea was the tool that contributed to regime change in more nations than our military's two major conflicts of this past decade. Utilizing his Facebook product as a medium, repressed Middle East citizens established rallies and rapidly disseminated intelligence in a decentralized manner. His product overwhelmed powerful intelligence apparatuses and crippled even more repressive regimes. Yet with all of the successes that Facebook has enjoyed, one has to wonder why those types of innovations rarely come out of a similarly aged and equally talented officer and enlisted corps.
The old adage of learning to be tactical first, then operational then strategic over a long military career would have most certainly delayed Zuckerberg's ingenious strategic vision had he been a Company Grade Officer (CGO) in the military. A revolutionary concept like Facebook might have never become reality had he chosen to go to West Point or the Air Force Academy instead of Harvard. If Mr. Zuckerberg was Lieutenant (or ensign) Zuckerberg, his revolutionary ideas most likely would have never percolated up to the level where they could be heard by someone of a high enough rank to champion them. In advice often repeated to young innovative troops, he would have been told by mid-level leadership to focus on his primary duties now and wait his turn to think strategically. Even if he staffed his Facebook idea perfectly up his chain of command, his concept would most likely have been snuffed out by suffocating bureaucracy, regulatory hurdle, or at the very least, slowed down to a point where it was most likely was outmoded or made irrelevant by the time his vision was implemented. The opportunities for a real-life Lt Zuckerberg coming forward with a game changing idea within the current military bureaucracy are limited.
Yet there is still hope for positive change. A warning article like this is pointless without proposing positive steps to solve these troubling issues. When implemented appropriately, social media and collaborative thinking can enhance strategy, which in turn will save lives and resources and boost our image in the court of public opinion. With burgeoning budget woes and no significant economic recovery in sight, now is the time to adopt a comprehensive and consistent social media strategy for our armed forces. Below are 4 critical ways to begin to reverse the lack of effective social media in the military:
1.) Define a social media strategy, simplify DoD guidance and train for success.
The military can no longer look at social media as just a fun toy for tweens and teens. It has to be seen as a critical strategic and operational tool (or weapon) that can literally alter the world's perspective of our nation, influencing our ability to successfully accomplish the mission. The myriad of social media regulations must be simplified into a one-page, common sense policy that every Soldier, Sailor, Airman, and Marine can understand. A clear, concise strategy for employing social media must be formulated and conveyed. Service members of every level need to be educated about its benefits, its uses, and its potential pitfalls. Public Affairs staffs must shift their attention away from traditional media to producing high-quality digital content in collaboration with our nation’s cyber forces. Cyber leadership must also set clear, concise and reasonable security restrictions so that Public Affairs staffs can operate with as few content restrictions as possible while still protecting our military networks. Those same Public Affairs staffs must also recruit members who have a passion for new media so that their social media and web content emulates the content and style of popular new media outlets. Troops of all ranks need to be trained and then empowered to tell their story in blogs and on Facebook and Twitter. As with physical weapons, soldiers must be taught that with great power of social media comes even greater responsibility. Every basic trainee must be educated on the strategic value of social media. They must learn how to properly engage the masses when called upon to do so and share military successes that will positively impact mission accomplishment and our nation’s perception at home and abroad. Public Affairs staffs must offer a consistent and timely approval policy to scrub compromising information so that all service members can post information without the fear of retribution. Once this strategy is implemented, every service member will possess the basic tools necessary to be a spokesperson and ambassador for our nation, exponentially increasing our nation’s voice in order to effectively engage with social media.
2.) Actively cultivate social media expertise from the millennial generation.
Back in 2001, author Marc Prensky coined the terms “Digital Immigrants” and “Digital Natives” in a research article published in the journal “On The Horizon.” In his research, he noted the vast differences in behavior and thought between those who were raised in a technology rich environment versus those who were older and incorporated the use of technology as adults. He hypothesized that the intense use of technology might actually mean that digital a native’s thought processes and thinking patterns were different. In military terms, a digital native is an officer or enlisted aged 35 or below. If Prensky’s research is correct, there exists a very tangible generational difference in how technology is used to build trust and relationships across the generational gap. Therefore, those selected to build social media doctrine for the military should be heavily stacked with digital natives who best understand the nuances of the technology. These digital natives with strategic talents must be developed at a young age. Standard BDE and IDE programs must encourage more think tank-like structures. Developmental education for younger officers and enlisted needs to include many more internships and professional interactions with forward thinking companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google. Senior leaders should also not be afraid to surround themselves with cells of mid-level and younger troops who demonstrate technical skills, operational expertise and critical thinking ability. Using these skills, they can best translate leadership’s message onto social media outlets. Because of the unique nature of social media, this cell should have the ability to meet unencumbered with leadership so that messages can be conveyed rapidly and effectively, bypassing layers of bureaucracy. Alternatively, DoD leadership could put a digital native civilian in charge of a team and surround that person with senior leadership who could effectively convey leadership’s message to the digital masses.
3.) Collaboration is a force multiplier.
In the tech industry, collaborative thought is extremely common and effective. Companies like Facebook hold "hackerthons" where they spend a 24-hour period dedicated to problem solving. Other companies internally post company deficiencies on forums and offer incentives for employees to post their solutions. This concept could easily be applied to the armed forces. Think if the Air Force Portal or Army Knowledge Now had a “Challenge of the Week” posted prominently on their homepage for feedback. Collaborative thought encourages brainstorming and builds upon other's ideas. Each “Challenge” would present perplexing problems like Low Cost, Low Altitude (LCLA) Airdrop to Forward Operating Bases in Afghanistan, hypoxia incidents in the F-22s or IED detection weaknesses. These problems might be solved by a random 21 year-old enlistee with a fresh perspective who is unencumbered by group think or yet to be fully molded by the enterprise. Even better, permit personnel from other agencies like the State Department and CIA to view the weekly challenges so that cross talk at the lower levels of government becomes standard. In an era of shrinking budgets and sequestration, the cost of implementing collaborative thinking is extremely low and the potential payback could be tremendously high. Collaborative problem solving is the way that senior leaders can identify the next Mark Zuckerberg--like problem solvers early in their careers. Once the next generation of brilliant minds is identified, leadership must figure out how to remove bureaucratic barriers in order to rapidly capitalize on their talents.
4.) Most importantly, tell our story effectively.
The military is a tremendous organization with extraordinary men and women who truly embody the greatness of our nation. Now is the time to effectively convey the great things that our troops and supporting personnel are doing every single day despite tremendous personal risk. Southwest Airlines has a program on TV called "On The Fly". The show plainly illustrates the ups and downs of travel while highlighting the personal care and humanity of Southwest employees. USCG Alaska does so in a similar fashion. In that light, think of the potential of the following scenario that could be shared simultaneously on the Web, Twitter, Facebook and traditional media: Follow a captivating story of an M-ATV craftsman building a vehicle destined for Helmand province. Then follow that same vehicle as a C-17 crew and support personnel all team together to deliver the vehicle into theater like clockwork. Finally, follow the selected M-ATV driver as that vehicle accomplishes its mission in Afghanistan, highlighting that fire team's interaction with the locals, their children and the difference that they are making through their physical presence. Include the ups and the downs, just like reality TV, but also emphasize the overarching goal of accomplishing a mission with honor and care, just like the Southwest TV show. If an airline can accomplish a show like "On the Fly" effectively, how much more potential does our military have to change our perception abroad if done with the same level of passion and attention to detail?
This is truly a transformational period in our nation’s military and geopolitics. Similar to how advances in aviation connected continents in a matter of hours, social media now connects cultures at the speed of light. The result--a global ecosystem where a once isolated protester in Tunisia or Egypt can now instantly be heard by tens of millions worldwide. Also, our young officers and enlisted are engaged in the longest sustained period of conflict in our nation’s history, while continuing to provide humanitarian assistance on an unrivaled scale. Effective use of social media and digital collaboration will harness this unparalleled operational expertise to positively affect public opinion, thereby strengthening national security. These tools will better shape our story to the world audience and solve formerly unsolvable challenges. With so many young Americans still in harm’s way, we must explore the use of sensible technologies and resources that will keep them safe. Social media and digital collaboration are the vital tools that represent unique, low-risk opportunities for the military to shape public opinion, inspire new ideas and achieve national objectives.
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