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The military's social media challenge

Contributor:  Roy Revie
Posted:  05/08/2012  12:00:00 AM EDT  | 
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The growth of social and new media in the last decade has produced widespread change as new social practices, political strategies, and ways of doing business have quickly emerged to become accepted and integrated features of our everyday lives. The impact of new media on the conduct of conflict is just as important, although the process of adaption has not been as smooth as in other areas. The networked, ubiquitous, and near-uncontrollable communication tools of the new media age present multiple challenges to traditional information environment practices of military actors, as well as new opportunities for engagement. If militaries have been slower to adapt to these new phenomena than other sectors it is because the cost of getting it wrong is so much higher, yet there is a growing consensus that radical changes to military information practices are a necessity in Internet Age conflict.

The primary defining impact on contemporary information operations is the expansion of what is conceived of as the ‘information space’ during conflict. This is not simply to do with new Internet tools, as simultaneous with the rise in impact of new and social media has been the increasing prominence of forms of military engagement in which information is central. Contemporary conflicts are marked by their asymmetry and increasing complexity: from the messy coalition building and fuzzy loyalties of the Libyan war, to the amorphous sprawl of the “War on Terror” from Afghanistan to drone attacks and other military engagements in multiple countries, the ‘information space’ relevant to information operations is increasingly difficult to delineate. The conception of the field of information operations has changed drastically as the concept of “military operations” itself becomes stretched in time and space – accompanied by what Secretary Robert Gates called “the erosion of traditional boundaries between foreign and domestic, civilian and combatant, state and non-state actors, and war and peace”. The controversies over legal and organisational jurisdiction in American information operations and public diplomacy programmes is indicative of the challenges faced in the changing communication environment.

Yet these complications do not diminish the impact or importance of information operations, rather, as Lieutenant General Thomas F. Metz writes, as “the capabilities to move information not only around the battlefield but also around the world have grown exponentially, IO’s importance grows daily”. The impact of new media-enabled information events like the publication of the Abu Ghraib torture photos, jihadi beheading videos, Saddam Hussein’s execution video, and WikiLeaks, demonstrate how intertwined local and global information flows are, and by extension how central information operations are to both current military operations and broader strategic goals. This breadth of impact is underlined by Admiral Mike Mullen, who noted that now “videos and images plastered on the Web – or even the idea of their being so posted – can and often do drive national security decision making”.1

Furthermore, asymmetric conflicts which pitch strong military actors against weaker state or non-state actors give rise to a situation in which the weaker actor seeks to shift the conflict to the realm of public opinion – to the information space. In the new media age organisational and material strength does not translate directly into information superiority – some of the most effective tools for communication are free, easy to use, and are those which an intuitive grasp of regional culture and social media norms can give the upper hand more readily than any number of trained spokespeople can. Exemplary here is the case of Hezbollah, who, in the 2006 war with Israel, were judged to have outmanoeuvred a militarily stronger adversary through “shifting the centre of gravity into the information space”2 , thus thwarting Israeli military objectives. This example is particularly important as Hezbollah is a group seen by military analysts as having characteristics that “make the organization a paradigm for future U.S. adversaries”.3

Academics Andrew Hoskins and Ben O’Loughlin have emphasised the importance of information in warfare in the new media environment by characterising the situation as the mediatization of war. Mediatization is a process whereby “social and cultural institutions and modes of interaction are changed as a consequence of the growth of the media’s influence”4 such that, in the case of war, it affects “practices in which actually coercive or kinetic force is exercised”. The main features driving this process are well known – the ubiquity of cheap, simple recording devices such as camera phones; the ease of access to publication platforms such as YouTube, Flickr, and Tumblr; the declining influence of traditional gatekeepers – from public affairs spokespeople to newspaper editors; and their replacement with a vast and complex global population of networked ‘prosumers’ of information. The new flows of information in the Internet Age challenge all old forms of communication, pushing information operations practices to prominence while challenging their traditional working assumptions.

It is in this new global environment that information operations practitioners find themselves having to adapt and develop effective methods and tools for influence. There are a number of examples in the three conceptual dimensions of the ‘information environment’5– connectivity, content, and cognitive – which suggests future paths of development and areas of activity. One element which is found throughout discussions of information operations in the Internet Age is the necessity to be proactive. Concerns about operational security (OPSEC) issues with social media are seen to inhibit proper engagement with new platforms, it is argued that while there are legitimate concerns these can be addressed with proper training and sensible regulation. An institutional shift is emerging which sees the initiative handed to younger ‘digital native’ officers who are “used to connectivity and have learned from it” and who have “reinforced and invigorated a culture of peer learning” through new media tools, in order to overcome the over-cautious, OPSEC-focussed approach of ‘digital immigrant’ senior officers.6  This new embrace of connectivity is seen as important in order not to “cede the high ground by ignoring or short changing new media”.7

Shifts are also emerging in approaches to military-civilian interaction: information operations now take place on a number of platforms (social media, leaflets, face-to-face, radio, etc.) and should be conducted under a concept, a comprehensive report by the US Army War College suggests8, based on the idea of “information engagement” rather than “information dominance” – a now impossible aim. This means a move away from the broadcasting of content and towards discourse, from monologic to dialogic forms of communication. If social media tools are simply seen as another platform on which to broadcast set messages, they will not be seen as credible. This ‘engagement’ imperative also calls for prolonged and consistent engagement with audiences, rather than simply reactive initiatives – this is described by Professor Dennis Murphy9as becoming “proactively reactive”.10  This stresses the importance of developing a latent knowledge of and relationship with audiences so that when more acute interaction is required there is a base of credibility from which to communicate. The message put out as information operations products should not be seen, it is argued, as attempting to dominate the information environment; information operations should aim to analyse the ‘static’ of the communicative space “find messages that are in [their] interests, and figure out how to increase their ‘volume’”11.

New capabilities in quickly analysing the information environment to tailor messages is one of the areas in which social media offers an opportunity to information operations practitioners. Depending on the audience, there is potentially a huge amount of open source information (in social networks and blogs particularly) about preferences, culture, and opinions which can be drawn on to tailor messages and inform engagement. Colonel Thomas Mayfield III for example likens engaging online thorough social media to the counterinsurgent’s imperative to “live among the people”12. Such engagement allows military units to develop situational awareness, with potential “’social media scouts’ observing, monitoring, and collecting information on the state of the online communication in the AOR” – laying the ground for a beneficial engagement with other COIN necessities such as familiarising combatants with local language and customs.13Thus while the new online environment throws up many challenges for information operations practitioners, it also offers opportunities to enhance interaction with audiences at the cognitive level, and develop practices which can harness new social media capabilities.

The pace of change of new communication technologies is something which information operations practitioners are beginning to come to terms with – and new concepts and practices are emerging which attempt to leverage these technologies in the new communication environment. However, as the rapid proliferation of these technologies continues the challenges experienced thus-far may be only the opening salvos in a long struggle in the information environment. With this in mind, the information operations challenges faced by NATO and the US in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya – where internet penetration had a relatively low influence – pale in comparison to potential conflict in hyper-connected environments. An area of operations as connected as Cairo during the Egyptian Revolution or London during the 2011 riots presents an informational environment many orders of magnitude more complex than anything previously faced. It is this sort of challenge the information operations practitioners look ahead to as they consider the impact of social and new media on their work.

1 Mullen (2009), ‘From The Chairman – Strategic Communication: Getting Back to Basics’, Joint Chief of Staffs Official Website

2 USAWC, 2008, Bullets and Blogs: New Media and the Warfighter, page iv

3 Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell, Dennis M. Murphy and Anton Menning (2009), ‘Learning to Leverage New Media: The Israeli Defense Forces in Recent Conflicts’, Military Review, May-June 2009

4 Hjarvard, 2008:144, quoted in Hoskins and O’Loughlin (2010), War and The Media: The Emergence of Diffused War, p 5

5 According to US Army War College’s 2011 Information Operations Primer

 6 USAWC, 2008, Bullets and Blogs: New Media and the Warfighter, page v

7 Caldwell, 2009: 27

8 USAWC, 2008, Bullets and Blogs: New Media and the Warfighter, page2

9 Professor Murphy is the Director of the Information in Warfare Group in the Center for Strategic Leadership at the U.S. Army War College.

10 Murphy, D (2012), ‘The Future of Influence in Warfare’, Joint Forces Quarterly, 64 (Q1)

11 USAWC, 2008, Bullets and Blogs: New Media and the Warfighter, page 16

12 Colonel Thomas Mayfield III (2011), ‘A Commander’s Strategy for Social Media’, Joint Forces Quarterly

13 Colonel Thomas Mayfield III (2011), ‘A Commander’s Strategy for Social Media’, Joint Forces Quarterly



Roy Revie Contributor:   Roy Revie


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