Strengthening the intellectual foundation for our profession of arms.
January 13th, 2015 by Clare O'Neill
Military personnel will soon lend their ears (or at least their time) to beginning-of-year mandatory briefs. These briefs will be filled with reminders of ‘what not to do’ from alcohol to safety. The social media brief will deliver a shopping list of what you can’t do exemplified by real cases. The examples will at least raise eyebrows if not laughter at the absurdity of ill thought-out Facebook and Instagram posts. The after-chatter following these briefs usually consists of complaints about PowerPoint or the lack of panache in the dreary delivery style. Welcome to the new year.
I’m up with the best of them for PowerPoint wisecracks but I actually don’t mind the content of these briefs (unless someone adds a cat meme and then you’ve lost me as a willing listener). Reminders are both needed and useful with content ranging from security considerations, public comment and privacy to general rules to be respectful online – your character reflects on your service no matter whether you are in uniform or posting Facebook comments in your PJs at home. The problem lies when we treat this mandatory brief as the full stop on the subject for the year.
Inevitably someone will pipe up that you don’t have to use social media therefore if you stop using it there will be no problems. I don’t agree. Social media is the way my generation and younger generations communicate. It is not just another way we communicate. Don’t mistake this for me saying it is the only way we communicate but you can’t mute this form of communication. We may as well harness this communication reality and put junior leader’s uber-user tendencies to professional use. Seizing the opportunity to create a professional environment online therefore needs guidance for both ‘how not to’ nuanced with ‘how to use’ social media. It also needs role-models to guide the way.
What can you do?
What can you do on social media as a military leader while remaining within the guidelines for security, public comment, privacy and respect? Quite a bit. Digital media will already be playing a role in your life as a socialising function (I imagine if you are reading this you are not one of the very few junior leaders without a Facebook account). To expand your horizon, you could add the functions of learning, researching, innovating, sharing and networking. My mind is not creative enough to list of all the opportunities but if you are interested in social media as a military professional then here are two tips:
Combat Function – Know: “To know is to possess the capacity to predict, detect, recognise and understand the strengths, vulnerabilities and opportunities available within the battlespace. When information is analysed, interpreted and understood, it becomes knowledge. Understanding is a cognitive process that is enhanced by professional mastery.” 
Your reason to use social media will be different from mine hence unlike the list of ‘can’t do’, I can’t give a clearly defined list for the ‘can do’. Just like a Tactical Exercise Without Troops (TEWT), the answer lies in your thinking rather than a hand-out. Knowing ‘why’ means you will be able to see if the ‘way’ of social media matches your intent. Let me explain through example questions:
Social media is for you in these above five examples.
Some reasons ‘why’ will clearly fall into the ‘can’t do’ list and skirting on the edge of public comment or security regulations is not where you want to be. It may also be that your specialisation or current role in the military makes all forms of social media activity off-limits. A pseudonym won’t protect you if you break security rules and nor should it – you remain a military leader 24/7. Security and force protection is always your business. You can also be lulled into a false sense of anonymity of opinion online and when you start following professional think-tanks you may think that their professional rules are the same as yours. Questioning the Chief of Army’s latest decision may be a role for a civilian think-tank but questioning the Chief of Army’s latest order publicly on social media is not your role as a serving military member.
By now you will either be vehemently disagreeing with me (how do you innovate the military without questioning norms and sharing these ideas??) or screaming at your computer screen to ‘just give me a list for what I can do’. There is a thin grey line that discerns professionalism and innovation from cowboy actions and complaint. Said here by Angry Staff Officer in his post:
“But at what point are we all taking what used to be a private bitchfest in the dayroom with some beers and putting it out into the public, for all to see? Are we really making that change that we believe we are, or are we gradually convincing each other that the system that we work in is broken?”
You have to navigate this grey line as a serving military member. Think of this line also like a tide. The tideline is always there but it moves occasionally. If a new defence policy has just been released then check where the tideline for public comment and respect for a chain-of-command decision just adjusted to.
To explain the difficulties think about the following topic: women in combat. The debate is relatively finished in Australia but this same issue is still quite politically charged in the United States – yet we share an online military community. You could be lulled into liking many emotionally-charged comments from US military commentators but where does this cross the line of disrespect for a now well-established order given by our own chain-of-command in Australia? Where is the line for you to write about real-time positive/neutral/negative examples about women in combat? There is no denying that this thin grey line is tricky to navigate but just take the time to think about it instead of blindly posting a comment that you later regret.
Let me get personal – for those of you who know my Corps you may find it bizarre to go through my Twitter feed and find limited comment on women in combat. I thought about it but decided that Twitter was not my ‘way’ for this topic and it was also not my reason for being on social media. My ‘way’ for this topic is instead through my service. I use social media as I believe our junior commanders are worth investing in and that’s worth my personal time. Getting heavily involved in this one issue did not match why I use social media, even though I personally care about this issue. I save my chats on this issue to professional discussions in person where there is less chance of misunderstood statements from 140 character Tweets. Overall, I recommend matching your ‘why’ with the ‘way’ of social media and don’t turn off your thinking about why you’re online.
Know Your Environment
To understand the thin grey line you also have to know your environment. Treat social media like any new military environment. Doctrine guides you – observe, analyse, learn and then make decisions (sounding like IMAP or MDMP?). Think about all those lessons on OODA Loop’s ‘Observe’ or Adaptive Action’s ‘Sense’. Apply this thought-process to the social media environment. The beauty of social media, unlike many real-time tactical environments, is that you actually have the time to learn about this environment before you directly engage in it.
Here are some points to learn about the social media environment if you have no idea where to start:
To end with a list, here are some rules I live by on social media (I recommend you set your own rules based on your ‘why’ but these can be your start point):
To conclude, take the mandatory brief as the starting point for a conversation with your subordinates, peers and chain-of-command about social media. You will be armed early with the ‘do nots’. Exploring the ‘can dos’ and therefore the opportunities for you and your team is your responsibility following the click of that last PowerPoint slide. Good luck, social media is a great tool for your profession.
[Image via Wall Street Journal]