Social Media Field Manual: The Iraqi Ministry of Defense Learned to Take the War to Facebook
Since the Islamic State (ISIS) swept through northern Iraq in the summer of 2014, many observers have examined efforts by the Iraqi Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Security Forces (ISF) to learn and adapt. Such conversations typically revolve around battlefield inputs and effects—the number of recruits, training programs, soldier skills, and territorial gains--and have generally concluded that while the ISF has improved in terms of combat lethality, the force must work still to professionalize. Few, however, have discussed the Iraqi government’s efforts to adapt in the digital domain. But the Iraqi MoD’s presence on social media--and Facebook in particular--has been a crucial element of its military learning process since 2014. This adaptation demonstrates that the MoD has co-opted one of its enemy’s most valuable weapons: social media.
Although the MoD joined Facebook in 2010, it was not apparently active on the site until 2014. A Facebook search yields no results before the spring of 2014, when it posted its first “profile picture.” The MoD also did not have a Twitter until August 2014, nor a YouTube account until December 2014-- suggesting that for some time, the MoD was not focused on developing its social media image. Meanwhile, militant groups learned to embrace social media sites months or even years prior. These groups realized early on that sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube make for cheap, convenient, and effective platforms to spread propaganda. So when ISIS made rapid territorial gains in Iraq in 2014, the Iraqi government’s first response was to shut down the internet in certain areas of the country.
Its next steps, however, were to adopt its enemy’s tactics to compete in the digital domain. Just 10 days after ISIS seized control of Mosul in June 2014, the Ministry began publishing short videos on Facebook; the first was a shoddily-filmed depiction of a meeting between tribal leaders and military generals to discuss the terrorist threat. A few days later, the MoD posted a seemingly almost unedited surveillance video of an Iraqi military strike on enemy assets near Baiji Oil Refinery. These first films attracted less than 1,000 views, and in the first couple months after it began posting videos, it usually posted only a few per week. Likewise, in early 2014, the Ministry updated its status every couple days at most. Since then, posts have grown increasingly frequent and detailed. In the present day, the Ministry updates its status and posts new photos multiple times a day; it also publishes around 100 videos a month, many of which are posted to its YouTube account as well. The increasing frequency and sophistication of MoD posts suggests that social media messaging has become one of its top priorities. The page’s popularity is an indication of its success. Nearly 2 million Facebook users follow the Iraqi MoD’s page, making it more popular than that of any other Arab military on the platform to date. Many of these users interact quite regularly with the MoD page; nearly each post prompts dozens--if not hundreds--of comments, masses of which express overwhelming support for the ISF.
The MoD’s videos on social media are particularly noteworthy for their cinematography and for their sheer numbers. Of course, military propaganda videos are nothing new. But the Iraqi MoD’s videos go beyond a show of force, and also appear to be a show of governance. They capture an array of government-related activities, including banal diplomatic engagements and Defense Minister Erfan al Hayali’s visits to soldiers. Others showcase events that have little to do with defense affairs, but rather promote arts and culture. And of course, many are military propaganda aimed at bolstering reputation and recruitment, like one from October 2016 depicting the Iraqi Air Force demolishing ‘terrorist’ equipment to the tune of military parade music. For the most part, these propaganda videos feature impressive cinematography. In one video from October 2017, the scene opens on Iraqi soldiers in training and mortars firing, with stirring music playing in the background. Defense Minister Erfan al Hayali, surrounded by top brass, then tells a camera crew, “...we’re ready,” followed by shots of rockets and the air force. The video ends with an image of helicopters flying into the sunset, with the words #TalAfar #OurComingVictory superimposed onto the shot.
Other videos are more austere, in the style of a documentary. Appearing to have been filmed spontaneously and edited only slightly, these short films convey a sense of honesty and reality. Some videos are surprisingly transparent, describing recent military operations in detail and even revealing the specific locations of featured units. Such transparency suggests that the benefits of projecting an image of strength outweigh those of operations security for the Iraqi MoD. More than the Iraqi military needs operations security, it needs to secure the trust and support of Iraqi citizens.
The MoD also engages in public conversations with followers on its Facebook page. For example, a self-identified Iraqi fighter pleaded in one comment, “I was shot in the battle of Mosul…my condition is not good, and I didn’t receive my entitlements…please help.” He also left his phone number. The MoD simply replied to the comment, “Your request is submitted, with much appreciation.” When a user messages the MoD’s page on Facebook, the Ministry automatically responds, “Greetings...we will reply to you as soon as possible, and we thank you for contacting us...with great thanks and much appreciation, the Department of the Iraqi Ministry of Defense.”
A key benefit of communicating with constituents via Facebook as opposed to a government or other social media website is the platform’s enormous popularity and public accessibility. When the MoD replies to a soldier’s request for entitlements, anyone can see them. In this way, Facebook allows the MoD to communicate with a variety of audiences simultaneously. Whether the Facebook follower is a constituent, the enemy, or even an allied military force, the MoD can convey the same message at once, perhaps with even the same post: the Army is powerful, the government is capable of providing services, and the MoD is on its way to victory.
The Iraqi security sector has long suffered from a tarnished reputation. After years of corruption scandals, human rights violations, and near disintegration in 2014, it has a long way to go before fully earning back the trust and respect of its citizenry. As the MoD confronts these internal image issues, it also faces serious potential challenges to its authority. Iranian-backed paramilitary groups, for example, have been far more successful at recruiting fighters than the MoD; the recent Kurdish referendum and dissent is likewise foreboding from an Iraqi government perspective. But Facebook has allowed the MoD to increase transparency, connect with its constituency, and display its political and military capabilities. All of these are key to restoring citizens’ trust in government and emphasizing its capabilities and authority. Iraqi military learning in the realm of social media demonstrates its recognition and successful adaptation to the reality that the battle for legitimacy will be fought in all domains.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.