Intellect and innovation for warfighting capability.

Using Social Media as a Junior Military Leader

January 3rd, 2018 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:

  1. Know why
  2. Know your environment

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.”

Know Why

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:

  1. Do you want to learn about the military profession beyond your current posting? Professional development sessions and career courses not enough to satisfy your curiosity for knowledge but you’re struggling for time to start your Masters?
  2. Started your Masters and need the most up-to-date information for research assignments?
  3. Developed a penchant for ‘insert topic’ (strategy, urban warfare, amphibious operations, nuclear war, 3D printing, COIN, a particular geographic area) and want to connect with others and engage with experts?
  4. Bursting with ideas and want to test them out? Enter it with professionalism and experts will develop you with the goodness of their precious time. See #CCLKOWThe Strategy Bridge, ARCIC, The Military Leader, and Company Command to name just a few.
  5. Think sharing best practices among a larger audience is important? Like this author (a Lieutenant) opines, junior leaders shouldn’t just ‘hurry up and colour’. Your thoughts from the action end of the mission and your insight from the tactical level looking up at the strategy is important.

Social media is for you in these above five examples.

  1. Do you have a cross to bear on a particular issue and you’re not happy with a new decision/order about your unit, corps, service or defence in general? Want to share your thoughts on the tactical futility of your own upcoming deployment? Want to discuss the latest technology your unit just acquired and slam the defence procurement process? Have a political opinion on the new Defence White Paper or submarines? If yes to these types of questions then social media is not the outlet you are looking for. You don’t want to end up as a negative example on the beginning-of-year mandatory brief. I recommend saving your opinion for the mess.

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:

  • Twitter. Twitter is your gateway to your online professional development. Australia is a bit behind in coming to the Twitter party compared to the United States. You will be very sceptical about Twitter to begin with but I encourage you to stick with it. The 140 character restrictions will initially seem bizarre and will also infinity frustrate you. It took me about two months to actually ‘get’ Twitter, then I ‘got’ it, then I became obsessed and a few years later I like to think I have reached a happy medium. Twitter is not like Facebook, your ‘coolness’ is not measured by the amount of followers you have so don’t be upset if you have no followers for a while. Find online role models and follow them. Here are some great ones. Click on their links, read their articles, observe what they do and do not comment on. Once you have the general gist of this environment, start retweeting. Once you have the hang of retweeting, start making comments and finding articles to post.
  • Facebook. If you are really not amenable to Twitter (and please don’t be a Twitter hater just because you associate it with the likes of Kim Kardashian) then use Facebook as your gateway to learning the social media environment. Here are some accounts to follow. You know more about Facebook than me so I’m not going to tell you how to use it from here.
  • Blogging. Once you are comfortable with your ‘why’ and knowing the social media environment then you will probably start thinking about writing and joining the military blogosphere. See here for a good summary of considerations for junior leaders writing in the online environment. By this stage you won’t actually need many tips about what platforms to use and what to write as your own thinking would have kicked in.  A couple of points on why it’s not wise to skip straight to the writing phase. If you start engaging in social media by writing your manifesto to the Minister of Defence about how you would run the Defence Force, the military community will see it and they will not be kind. As outlined here posting first and thinking later is not ideal. The mandatory briefs aren’t kidding when they state you are vulnerable when using social media. See the comments section here for an example of a junior officer entering the social media fold. Here is another junior officer who got it right.

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):

  1. Apply Army’s value of ‘respect’ – always.
  2. Assume everyone is higher ranked than you when commenting on social media – this ensures your professional courtesy is foremost and helps with rule number 1.
  3. Assume a General and a news agency are reading your comments and posts – they usually aren’t reading your posts/comments, but you know as soon as you get it wrong – they will read it therefore this is a good check before you hit reply/approve/publish.
  4. Never reply to trolls. Ever. Delete and block. Once you reply – their comments are like Medusa and usually come back ten-fold. Save yourself the heartbreak and take the well-known children’s advice to ‘let it go’. How do you know they are a troll? Check out their feed and it will be pretty clear. Sometimes the trolls will find you on another social media site and ask you why you blocked them – I don’t reply but just block them on that social media site too (otherwise … hello Medusa).
  5. Never complain. It will be taken the wrong way. Give critical feedback but back it up with an evidenced solution. You don’t want to be known as a whinger on social media. Your reputation on social media – is part of your reputation in the military – as it is ‘still you’. You can’t separate ‘you’ as a military professional and ‘you’ on social media if you live by the ethos of service and professionalism 24/7. If you use a pseudonym on social media then this still does not give you a license to ignore rule number 1 – as your pseudonym is ‘still you’. Know the difference between complaint and critical feedback, and when you give critical feedback – assume rule number 2.

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]

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