Strengthening the intellectual foundation for our profession of arms.

Social Media in the Military: Opportunities, Perils and a Safe Middle Path

August 21st, 2016 by Brigadier Mick Ryan, AM and Brigadier Marcus Thompson, AM

Virtual Tanks attacking Computer Data

Knowledge is generated anew from connections that weren’t there before. 

Margaret Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science

Introduction

Social media has revolutionised global communication and professional discourse.  It has demonstrated a capacity for penetration that is historically unprecedented, especially compared to other means of communication.  For example Facebook took just 12 years to gain 1.65 billion users globally and Twitter has gained over 300 million users in a decade.  Social media are distinct from other forms of media primarily because of two key reasons.  First, they are more viral; users are more likely to share content in their social networks.  Second, social media users are highly mobile.  Social networking has a very high penetration of Australian society.  In June 2016, there were 15 million Facebook, 5 million Instagram and 2.8 million Twitter users in Australia.[i]

Members of the Australian Army are no different to other members of Australian society.  They have largely embraced the various forms of social media available to them, and they use it to communicate at home, on courses, in the field and on operations. The story of social media is one of opportunity and threat for members of the military.  It offers a level of transparency and global interaction that has not been possible before.  But is also presents potential threats to our people, units and operations that can materialise without clever, informed use of the various social media available.

This paper reviews the rationale for the use of social media in the military.  It does so by examining the benefits and the risks of social media use – by Army’s people, and the institution. The paper then provides an analysis of the most appropriate and effective use of social media, ensuring that individuals, units and commanders are able to exploit this most modern of communication forms in a way that is informed yet interesting, and protects essential friendly information.

Why the Military Should Use Social Media

In a recent article on the Strategy Bridge website on the lessons from employing social media in the military, Brigadier Mick Ryan described the lessons from employing social media in a single combat brigade within the Australian Army. Collectively, many lessons were learned over a year of implementing this enhanced approach to communicating with a range of different audiences. But how might this approach ‘scale up’?  That is, how can military leaders institutionalise the use of social media for the variety of ‘raise, train, sustain’ functions that are executed on a daily basis?  This is not to say that military organisations don’t have a social media presence; they do. In the Australian context, the Army Facebook page has a following nearly ten times the size of the regular Army.  The Twitter feed, while having a smaller presence, at least has established a foothold for Army in the ‘Twittersphere’.

But presence is not the same as an institution fully exploiting the potential of social media.  It is therefore worth examining the opportunities of organisational adoption of social media, and the areas where it is most likely to have a good return on the time and people invested in generating social media product, presence and discourse. And, if military institutions are to fully realise the potential of social media, it will need all leaders from top to bottom of the Services to embrace and advocate its use.  Therefore, below are seven reasons why military leaders should embrace and advocate for the institutional adoption of social media.

  1. Social media is a great way to understand, connect and interact with a global community of military professionals; many of whom are eager to engage in professional discourse and debate. Unlike email and journals, social media is open to a global audience at all times, and access is open to all. It permits leaders to gain an understanding of topical issues and challenges as a tripwire to great web content. It also permits leaders to understand the breadth of views and opinions among military professionals and to engage in debate. Initiatives such as @DEFConference have brought together young professional military personnel. It has spawned websites, and social media feeds, that enhance the breadth, and further democratised, professional military discourse.
  2. Social media is a useful mechanism to break through the generational strata and for leaders to engage their entire workforce.  It is one means that Generation X leaders can engage, interact with, and understand their Generation Y work forces, which are now the vast majority of military organisations. Generation Xers cannot fully appreciate how to best lead the Generation Y service personnel without understanding social media. Persisting only with older forms of communication, without embracing new and relevant means, is like refusing to use telephones a century ago.
  3. Social media is another means to foster and improve transparency in military organisations. Both transparency and auditability are core responsibilities of military organisations in democratic nations. Cleverly employed, and maintaining operational security constraints, it provides timely insights into the daily workings of military organisations or a broad distribution of key initiatives. Social media should also be used as a part of a broader public affairs and strategic communications approach, and complement existing public affairs mechanisms.
  4. Social media provides an additional layer of understanding for military families, and enhances their capacity to visualise the challenges and achievements of their relatives. In the case of Army units and schools, Facebook pages have been very popular with families and members of the public. Providing information on the activities of service members to their families assists in family comprehension of the contribution of their family members’ service and does so in an easily accessible and easily understood way. This is especially the case for deployed family members but is relevant for all service personnel regardless of their employment location.
  5. Social media adds to the range of tools for military leaders to recognise achievement by their people. Most military organisations have multiple ways to acknowledge achievement, courage and service through medals, ribbons, commendations, etc. However social media offers the capacity to publicise these traditional achievement recognition approaches. It also can be employed as an additional way to acknowledge achievement through rapid posts that acknowledge individuals and groups.
  6. Social media can also be employed for rapidly sharing lessons. The Internet was a critical enabler for sharing operational lessons from both Iraq and Afghanistan, and for fostering debate on the range of responses available during particularly challenging periods of those campaigns.  Social media played a role in this sharing of lessons, but could potentially offer a larger contribution if senior leaders openly use and advocate its use in this way.
  7. Finally, social media holds potential to be used as an integral part in new digital age education, training and doctrine systems. Several academics have examined the application of social media in education and training. There is still some way to go in examining the opportunities and challenges of social media in these areas. However, it is clear that digital age training, education and doctrine development – which uses a mix of residential and non-residential approaches – must exploit the most effective means of communication available. Social media therefore must be part of this ‘golf bag’ of available approaches for interaction and debate in any evolution of how the military trains and educates its people and develops its doctrine.

Some have found the challenges of social media, particularly security concerns or misunderstanding its value, difficult to surmount or to be sufficient cause to lag behind in adopting its use. For military organisations, social media must now move beyond the discretionary and into the realm of business as usual. In the absence of face-to-face interaction, social media is one of the most powerful ways for leaders to pass information, broadly convey intent, and for all of us to communicate, interact and foster professional sharing and discourse. But that is not to say that there are not some negative aspects; there are. As the following section of the paper describes, there are perils in the employment of social media which members of the military – and military institutions – must appreciate. 

The Perils of Using Social Media

War is tough. It’s tougher if you’re stupid. 

John Wayne

The key strength of social media described above, principally its ‘global audience’, ‘open access’ and ability to rapidly share information is also its Achilles heel. The use of social media and other online services by members of the Australian Defence Force generates significant security vulnerabilities for themselves, their friends, and their families, as personal information (including family details) can be exploited by malicious threat actors as a potentially rich source of intelligence.

Recent observations during a major Australian Army exercise highlight an apparent operations security risk resulting from the prolific personal use of social media by members of the Australian Defence Force. There are three potential ramifications of this operational security risk. First, threats to individual members of the Australian Defence Force, their friends, and their families in the present day. Second, it poses risks to individual members of the Australian Defence Force, their friends, and their families in the future due to the cumulative use of social media as Australian Defence Force members become more senior and potentially gain the interest of Foreign Intelligence Services. Finally, it creates conditions that allow a malicious actor to generate actionable intelligence from aggregating and correlating multiple sources of information.

During Exercise Hamel in June 2016, personal or sensitive information was identified on social media for 680 Australian Defence Force members.  This information was freely available and gained via the internet without the use of malicious or even remotely sophisticated methods. Using only openly available tools and techniques, and social media information posted by members of the Australian Defence Force, Intelligence Analysts were able to identify the location, nomenclature, equipment, and organisation of deployed forces. The process of geo-location, enables the location of images to be determined often with a very high degree of accuracy. Confirmation through the correlation of other open sources of content can, in some cases, result in the production of highly accurate, actionable intelligence that could be immediately targetable.

The advent of the smart phone and a proclivity to share information on social media with wide-ranging networks has simplified the opportunity for Australian Defence Force members to inadvertently breach security. The monitoring capability used to gather and collate this social media information during Exercise Hamel was relatively unsophisticated, when compared to known capabilities of current and potential adversaries.

Sensitive and/or personal information was freely available on social media.  The key reasons for this availability included:

  1. Poor security settings on social media profile (mostly Facebook).
  2. Geo-tagged posts linking locations to Australian Defence Force members and activities.
  3. Uploaded images linking Australian Defence Force members to their Australian Defence Force service and actual role.
  4. Australian Defence Force public affairs posts or images that linked Australian Defence Force members to Exercise Hamel.
  5. Links from Australian Defence Force members to numerous other Australian Defence Force members through friend lists, comments, and tagged posts.
  6. ‘Liked’ Defence related pages, such as the official Facebook page of the member’s unit that had uploaded defence-related images, such as a graduation from recruit training.

In isolation, the security effect of each individual observation was minor. However, the aggregation of multiple sources of open source information created significant weaknesses in the online profiles of a large number of Australian Defence Force members.

The proliferation of the use of social media and open source media platforms by Australian Defence Force members and the general public has resulted in a plethora of publicly available sensitive and personal information that has the potential to be exploited by malicious threat actors, who do not respect Australian domestic laws, such as the Privacy Act 1988. Such threat actors could potentially use sensitive and personal information on Australian Defence Force members for malicious activity such as:

  1. Defeating passwords. Personal details are often used in passwords and can be easily entered into free password cracking software as part of a cyber attack.
  2. Social engineering. Email accounts are generally used to reset passwords for multiple websites and accounts such as PayPal, eBay, and Amazon.
  3. Identity theft. One in five Australians becomes, often unknowingly, the victim of identity theft. Australians are also disproportionately likely to be the victim of identify theft over all other forms of crime.[ii]
  4. Exploitation by Foreign Intelligence Services. Foreign Intelligence Services, including Da’esh and the Cyber Caliphate employ thousands of people to regularly acquire information on military personnel and their families.
  5. Physical interception. Locations that are visited and geo-tagged online can lead to physical interception of sensitive items, such as mobile phones, that can subsequently be used to attack banking, email, and social media accounts.
  6. Blackmail. Embarrassing information from dating/adult websites or family members’ sensitive information can be used to extort individuals for financial or personal gain.

While social media has many clear benefits in sharing information regarding the raising, training and sustaining of military forces, much of that information is also relevant to operations. Details regarding the status of friendly military capabilities, including personnel information; family information; tactics, techniques and procedures; and training standards are valuable to current and potential future adversaries. The risk of using social media to share such information must be recognised, assessed, treated, and the residual risk accepted.

Noting the observations from Exercise Hamel, a re-assessment of Army’s social media usage policy is required.  This is to ensure an appropriate balance where the safety of Army personnel and sensitive information is protected, while at the same time, our people and organisations continue to employ appropriate social media to engender transparency and a closer connection between the military and Australian society.

A Safe Middle Path – Some Rules for Australian Defence Force Use

This paper does not propose that members of the Australian Defence Force, and the Army in particular, should be banned or dissuaded from using social media. The benefits of personal and institutional use of social media, and the likelihood many would ignore any bans, precludes such an approach. But the Australian Defence Force does have an obligation to ensure its members use social media responsibly and safely. This will ensure the safety of individuals and operational information.

Such a social media safety campaign would help ensure that exposure to online threats can be reduced. This might entail relatively simple security measures such as locking accounts so that they are accessible by known entities only. There are a number of other actions that can be taken by Australian Defence Force members to limit individual and organisational online vulnerability, including:

  1. Arranging privacy settings to protect a personal social media profile, noting that individual account settings can affect anyone that has links to that account.
  2. Speaking to family and friends about what they post and ‘tag’ to their social media accounts.
  3. Considering what is uploaded, whether it is an image or information, and who may access it.
  4. Awareness of geo-data attached to uploaded content.
  5. Considering whether there is a need to identify as a military member, and what other personal and sensitive information is attached to Australian Defence Force member’s social media profile.

These rules can provide the balance of safe use by our people, while allowing them to use social media for personal and professional applications.  But it is also clear that employment of social media for collecting information also has great utility.

If used appropriately, social media and open source content can also provide an excellent opportunity to develop tactical situational awareness in support of military planning and decision making. Fusion with other intelligence sources can present friendly commanders with a near real-time understanding of atmospherics and critical warnings and indicators for adversarial force actions and intent. Information that would have previously taken traditional intelligence sources days or weeks to confirm can now be collated and analysed almost immediately.

Additionally, social media can be used for our own influence, psychological operations, and deception purposes. Russian sympathisers utilised such capabilities to good effect in Ukraine, and the Australian Army could develop similar tactics for use against our adversaries. It is also clear that social media has military application in sentiment analysis, influence operations and locating persons of interest.

Army must educate soldiers and officers regarding the threats and vulnerabilities of posting information on social media, and the importance of essential elements of friendly information. It is not clear how many Army unit commanders produce essential elements of friendly information and then advise their soldiers and officers so that they can know what information they can and cannot post on social media. The observations from Exercise Hamel 16 highlight the lack of security planning and awareness that comes from the absence of command prioritisation and formal articulation of what information is to be protected.

Conclusion

Unsurprisingly, social media can be both the cause of and the solution to your organisational crisis.  It’s an ally and an enemy at the same time. 

Nicole Matejic

The employment of social media by our people and institutions has a compelling logic. It is simple to use, allows the easy sharing of information and enhances transparency of national institutions such as the Army. But the use of social media is not risk free. As this paper has described, unconstrained and uninformed use of social media poses a threat to personnel and sensitive information in the Australian Defence Force.

There is neither a rationale nor capacity to prevent the use of social media by Australian Defence Force personnel for security reasons. But as an institution that seeks to successfully prosecute operations and keep its people safe, the Australian Defence Force has a responsibility to provide education and guidance to its people on safe social media use. That has been the primary aim of this paper; to highlight the benefits and risks of social media and then provide a reasonable middle path.


About the authors 

Brigadier Mick Ryan, AM is the Australian Army’s Director General Training and Doctrine and recently authored A study of Army’s education, training and doctrine needs for the future.

Brigadier Marcus Thompson, AM is Australian Army’s Commander 6th Combat Suport Brigade and has a PhD in cyber security from the University of New South Wales.


References

  1. Czuperski, M., Herbst, J., Higgins, E., Polyakova, A. and Wilson, D., 2015. Hiding in plain sight: Putin’s war in Ukraine. Atlantic Council. Accessed July 26, 2016. http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/news/in-the-news/czuperski-on-hiding-in-plain-sight
  2. Matejic, N., Social Media Rules of Engagement, John Wiley and Sons, Melbourne, 2015.
  3. UK Government guidance: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/think-before-you-share
  4. US DoD training and education: http://dodcio.defense.gov/Social-Media/Social-Media-Education-and-Training/
  5. http://www.forthoodpresscenter.com/external/content/document/3439/1416891/1/ENCLOSURE%203%20SM%20OPSEC%20BRIEF.pdf
  6. UK Military Social Media Guide: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/34247/social_media_info_card.pdf

End Notes

[i] David Dowling, Social Media Statistics Australia – June 2016, http://www.socialmedianews.com.au/social-media-statistics-australia-june-2016/, accessed 26 July 2016.

[ii] Australian Government, Attorney Generals Department,  Identity Crime and Misuse in Australia, 2013-14, 2015. Source: https://www.ag.gov.au/RightsAndProtections/IdentitySecurity/Documents/Identity-Crime-and-Misuse-in-Australia-2013-14.pdf

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6 Comments on "Social Media in the Military: Opportunities, Perils and a Safe Middle Path"

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Darren Bentley
An interesting article. I think, however, Army needs to take a more proactive approach towards social media. The “Why the Military Should Use Social Media” paragraph raises opportunities for Army but these opportunities are all inwardly focussed. I also heartily disagree with para 2: “Generation Xers cannot fully appreciate how to best lead the Generation Y service personnel without understanding social media”. I remain concerned when we seek to lead people based solely on when they were born. This is no better than leading by astrology. I would implore senior leaders in Army to remove any reference to “Gen Y”… Read more »

Thanks for your thoughts. Identification of a problem is recommended to come with a proposed solution – GC is happy to share your thoughts on ‘what we should be doing on social media’ if you write a post. I saw this problem too – here are my thoughts in an effort to help navigate this space – the post is albeit a little dated now – https://groundedcuriosity.com/using-social-media-as-a-junior-military-officer/

Hi Darren, I think you’ll find Defence in general and the Army in particular has begun to embrace social media more and more. We are seeing an increase level of engagement on Twitter, we have over 50 official unit Facebook pages and an approval system that allows our Brigades to manage their presence largely without assistance from AHQ. We have live streamed events from Exercise Hamel and regularly provide updates on Army modernisation via social media. We have also embraced new media such as podcasts this year. I am keen to learn more about your frustrations. I am the social… Read more »
Darren Bentley

G’day Mick,
On second reading of my comments, perhaps they read a bit harsher than intended. I’m not not frustrated with Army’s social media presence, indeed I agree with your points above and have noticed a marked increase in positive social media presence at formation and unit level over the the last 1-2 years. My question is more how do we leverage social media to achieve tactical or operational outcomes when deployed.
I’ve accepted Claire’s challenge and will write a blog submission with some thoughts (new baby and masters degree permitting!)

Sean Childs
Useful Hamel 2016 OPSEC measurement. No doubt education/disciplined use will go a long way here. My only concern with the essay is its reference to the Privacy Act. I suggest reference to the Act in our setting here has no place. It conflates the collection of personal information and an individual’s perceived right to privacy (noting there is no Australian statute that affords the automatic right to privacy). This is an important point. At present there is a view that the Privacy Act limits our use of social media in the Australian military. I proffer this is erroneous. Such a… Read more »
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