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Thomas D. Mayfield III
A Commander's Strategy for Social Media

We must hold our minds alert and receptive to the application of unglimpsed methods and weapons. The next war will be won in the future, not the past. We must go on, or we will go under.

—General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, 1931

In 1931, General MacArthur could not have imagined many of the forms of warfare that would be used just a few years later during World War II. He understood, however, that changes in methods and weapons could alter the nature of conflict. Just as machineguns, tanks, and aircraft changed the nature of conflicts, so did the telegraph, radio, television, and eventually the Internet. The advances today in the information world, specifically with the advent of social media and new media, may prove as profound as any of these inventions. We must therefore observe and adjust our information strategies in order not to "go under."

Coastguardsman uses social media monitoring system to assist in rescues and medical evacuationsOne of the challenges that commanders now face is to develop strategies that recognize the shifts in the nature of warfare resulting from social media. There are already examples of militaries that have ignored the realities and have suffered. The effective use of social media may have the potential to help the Armed Forces better understand the environment in which it operates. Social media may allow more agile use of information in support of operations. Moreover, they may be harnessed to help achieve unity of effort with partners in conflict. Finding clever and innovative ways to help achieve the desired ends may be the key to success in a continuously evolving social media environment.

Social media are changing the way that information is passed across societies and around the world. The rapid spread of blogs, social networking sites, and media-sharing technology (such as YouTube), aided by the proliferation of mobile technology, is also changing the conditions in which the United States conducts military operations. The speed and transparency of information have increased dramatically. Events that only a few years ago could have remained state secrets indefinitely are being reported around the world in minutes. The traditional roles of the media are changing with the ubiquitous nature of data transmitting technology. Citizens with cell phone cameras can transmit damning images to the world, unfiltered, in the time it takes to make a phone call. People can use social networking to mobilize groups in support of a cause without having to expose themselves to the risks and costs formerly associated with activism. In response, governments and institutions can do little to effectively stop it. The aftermath of the June 2009 elections in Iran provides an example of how social media may be changing the nature of political discourse and conflict in the world.

Tehran, June 20, 2009

Neda Agha-Soltan was sitting in her Peugeot 206 in traffic on Kargar Avenue. She was accompanied by her music teacher and close friend, Hamid Panahi, and two others. The four were on their way to participate in the protests against the outcome of the 2009 Iranian presidential election. The car's air conditioner was not working well, so Neda stopped her car some distance from the main protests and got out on foot to escape the heat. She was standing and observing the sporadic protests in the area when she was shot in the chest (reportedly by a member of the Basij, the pro-government Iranian militia). As captured on amateur video, she collapsed to the ground and was tended to by a doctor and others from the crowd. Someone in the crowd shouted, "She has been shot! Someone, come and take her!" The video spread across the Internet virally, quickly gaining the attention of international media and viewers. Discussions about the incident on Twitter became one of the most viewed topics worldwide by the end of the day.1

Frame from amateur video on YouTube purporting to show Iranian opposition supporters demonstrating outside Ghoba Mosque in TehranWhat happened next reveals the potential power of social media. Within hours, several versions of the video were posted on YouTube and linked to various other Web sites. Millions saw the gruesome photos of Neda's death when they were posted. The images highlighted the harsh response from the Iranian government and added fuel to the next 10 days of violent protests in Tehran. Many people around the world began posting editorials about the protests and the Iranian government's oppressive reactions. Twitter reported millions of tweets, most condemning the Iranian government and its supporters. Iranian students began using Twitter and Facebook, as well as Flickr, the social site that allows users to post and share photos, to communicate to the Iranian audience information about when and where the next protest would take place, and which streets to avoid because of police or militia checkpoints.2

The case of Neda demonstrates that social media are not easily contained. Even with all the measures taken by the Iranian government, the images of the protests and reports of the government's abuses continued to make it to the Internet. The protestors quickly devised ways to get around the government efforts to impose blocks on their networking. The Iranian government eventually managed to control much of the online traffic, but it was too late to stop the effects of the social media. Tehran received massive diplomatic pressure from other governments and condemnation from media around the world to put an end to the post-election violence.

Around the world, social media are becoming commonplace tools for political and social activism. If military leaders do not fully understand these tools, they may miss their significant impact on the nature of future conflicts. America's potential enemies are using these technologies now to enhance their efforts. The U.S. military can either engage in the social media environment seriously or cede this ground to the enemy.3 The development of strategies to account for the impact of social media will be one of the keys to success in future operations.

The germane question to ask is: How can an effective social media strategy have an impact on the outcomes of military operations? A recent Military Review article described the use of new media tools in the second Lebanon War involving Israeli forces and Hizballah in 2006.4 The article contrasted that with Operation Cast Lead, when Israeli forces attacked the Gaza Strip in December 2008 and January 2009. The differing approaches taken by Israeli forces in the two operations highlight how an effective new media strategy can impact the strategic outcomes.

In the summer of 2006, Hizballah effectively integrated information operations, including social media, into their tactical operations to fight the Israelis. Hizballah embedded photos and videos into blogs and YouTube to promote a positive self-image and to highlight negative perceptions of Israeli operations. Hizballah used information effectively to limit Israel's strategic options. After 33 days of fighting, a ceasefire was declared and Hizballah claimed victory. The organization was able to create a "perception of failure" for Israel, which ignored the realities of the new media and relied instead on traditional information policies. It was less agile than Hizballah and was unable to match the group in the information war. In contrast, in Operation Cast Lead, Israeli forces devised a more effective strategy for the use of social and new media. They developed a proactive information strategy, incorporating social media tools, along with enlisting the support of the Israeli online communities, to set the agenda in the media and control perceptions of the fighting. The result was that the Israelis used information effectively to preserve strategic options enabling them to achieve their objectives.5

The Ends

The strategic framework used by the U.S. Army War College defines a strategy as the relationship among ends, ways, and means. To develop a strategy, we must first have objectives or ends in mind. The ends are goals sought by the commander devising the strategy.6 With respect to social media, what are some of the ends a commander might have in mind?

Perhaps the first end that commanders should have in mind when determining their strategy is a better understanding of the environment, or better situational awareness through an effective use of social media. By systematically observing the online community in the area of responsibility (AOR), commanders may be able to develop an ongoing understanding of the society in question, as well as its concerns and interests, and the commanders may be able to identify emerging trends and patterns. Blogs and social networking sites could provide insight to any society where there is a significant online community, particularly in societies with a relatively young population. The Department of State has effectively used social networking sites to gauge the sentiments within societies. U.S. Embassies in many nations are effectively using Facebook and other social media tools in places such as Podgorica, Damascus, Phnom Penh, and Panama to maintain relationships with the local cultures, particularly with the youth who are more likely to engage using social media.7

Maintaining a social media presence in deployed locations also allows commanders to understand potential threats and emerging trends within their AORs. The online community can provide a good indicator of prevailing moods and emerging issues. Many of the vocal opposition groups will likely use social media to air grievances publicly. In the fall of 2008, General David Petraeus wrote an article for Military Review entitled "Multi-National Force–Iraq Commander's Counterinsurgency Guidance" in which he lists key tasks for his commanders in Iraq.8 While the tasks listed are intended for fighting the insurgency in Iraq, many of them are universally applicable. For example, he asserts that it is important for commanders to "[u]nderstand the neighborhood" and "[l]ive among the people." An online social media presence can be an integral part of understanding the issues and attitudes in a neighborhood or community. An online presence can play a major role in living among the people in a society that has a significant online community. Social media would certainly not be the only tool used by commanders; however, they could enable the commanders to understand environments and allow them to have better situational awareness of these environments.

A second desired end for social media in a theater of operations may be to assist the command in providing better, more agile, and more credible public information in the AOR (both strategic communications and local/tactical information). As demonstrated in the example above of the Israel Defense Forces, aggressive engagement in the social media environment can aid a commander in winning the information fight. General Petraeus's guidance emphasizes the importance of several related tasks. He directs us to "fight the information war relentlessly" and to "be first with the truth."9 Clearly, a social media program can play a key role in accomplishing these tasks. Understanding that social media have altered the way and the speed with which news is reported, commanders will be best served if they are actively engaged and immersed in this new environment. With an aggressive online presence, commanders can be better prepared to counter false and negative reporting as events occur. They can better interdict and react to bad news if they are already engaged and understand the way reporting in the AOR is likely to proceed as events occur. Finally, by being proactive, commanders can avoid letting enemy elements set the agenda by being there first with the truth. As demonstrated in Operation Cast Lead, commanders can use social media to help set the agenda in a strategically beneficial way.

The third and final end for commanders using social media in an AOR is enhanced unity of effort. General Petraeus in his guidance argues that commanders should strive for unity of effort with the U.S. Embassy, interagency partners, local governmental leaders, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to make sure all are working to achieve a common purpose.10 The characteristics discussed earlier relating to the ability of social media to aid in organizing can be used to enhance unity of effort with partner organizations in the theater of operations. The Israel Defense Force used new media methods to enlist the support of the Israeli "blogosphere" to help achieve a common purpose during Operation Cast Lead. A proactive and innovative social media strategy using social networking, blogs, and Twitter-like capabilities can aid commanders in ensuring all concerned entities in the theater of operations are sharing the necessary information to work toward a common goal.

The Ways

The second element in developing a strategy is to identify the ways, or how one organizes and applies the resources.11 What are the organizational schemes and methods required to achieve the ends that the commander has stated?

ISAF-NATO Facebook PagesThe first way is that social media use must be in the form of a Commander's Social Media Program. That is to say, social media should have the support and interest of the commander and key members of his staff and should be formalized into a program with responsibilities assigned to members of the commander's staff. The commander should view social media as an asset rather than a threat. Social media planning should be incorporated across the spectrum of conflict. The commander should state his intent for information effects, explicitly noting the role social media should play. That allows his staff to generate options much the same way as is done for other combat multipliers. A proactive engagement with social media incorporated into the commander's operational planning would likely provide the best results.

There will certainly be skeptics about the need for a command social media program. In an article linked to the Department of State's Social Media Hub, entitled "Eight Ways to Ruin Your Social Media Strategy," mistake number one is to "Pretend you can do without it."12 As seen in the case of the Israel Defense Forces' experience, ignoring new media is done at our own peril.

A second way to take advantage of social media is to organize the social media program for success. The U.S. military has experimented with ways of organizing for success in strategic communication (SC) for the last few years. The experience gained in organizing for strategic communication may provide some insight into organizing for social media success as well. The Joint Warfighting Center Commander's Handbook for Strategic Communication lays out five models that have been used for organizing SC. The options include:

  • increasing command emphasis (least costly)
  • tasking an existing staff leader/section
  • integrating a direct planning team
  • centralizing control of all SC-related activities under a separate directorate (most costly)
  • having an SC director with a small coordinating staff and supporting working group.

The final option has gained the most traction in the field, with several combatant commands adopting a similar structure.13 That option provides the ability to incorporate the best attributes of the other options and maintain an appropriate level of command emphasis on the SC program. While commanders may choose to employ a similar methodology for social media, integration of social media planning into an existing SC structure may also be an effective way to ensure success. Commanders will have to weigh the costs with the potential benefits in their particular situation.

The natural reaction of many commanders may be to assign one staff section as the proponent for social media, leaving the responsibility for integration to them. While that approach may be easier to implement than some of the other options, the risk is the social media program will become viewed as a niche program and will not get the attention it might deserve. Furthermore, the social media program would assume the natural biases of the assigned staff element, decreasing its broad effectiveness. For example, if J6 (Command, Control, Communications, and Computer Systems staff section) were the proponent, it might input a technical bias, and likewise the Public Affairs (PA) section might tend to approach social media as an outreach tool only. Thus, broad integration may provide the best opportunity to achieve the results desired.

The third way to benefit from social media is to create a social media monitoring team to act as the eyes and ears of the strategy team. Team members may be viewed as "social media scouts," observing, monitoring, and collecting information on the state of the online community in the AOR. The monitoring team represents a systematic way to take advantage of the content and trends in the social media. Without a systematic approach, there may be little chance of making accurate observations and drawing the correct conclusions from the online traffic in the AOR. If every staff section were to independently monitor Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or the local language versions of social networks and blogs, without lateral coordination within the staff, there will likely be significant gaps in the monitoring of the social media environment.

The monitoring team should contain broad staff representation to be effective. The team will require members with local language skills, cultural understanding, and a high degree of familiarity with the social media tools and protocols. To be effective, they will need to conduct field research in the AOR. They will also need to observe the Internet cafes and local habits in the AOR and become familiar with the social media platforms popular in the culture.

The fourth way to ensure success in a social media strategy is to find a balance between security and sharing. The information security concerns over experimentation of social software on Department of Defense (DOD) computers are not trivial. Security officers will be inclined to say no to extensive use of social media on networks that are used for official purposes.14 There is considerable discussion within DOD on this issue. The Services have significant disagreement on the right level of access to allow, balanced against the need for security. The DOD policy released on February 25, 2010, directs that "the NIPRNET [unclassified networks] shall be configured to provide access to Internet-based capabilities across all DoD Components."15 The policy goes on to give the components significant latitude to limit access to defend against malicious activity when needed. There may be ways of using firewalls or separated networks to ensure security of information while still benefiting from the use of social media. Each command will have to weigh this balance and make the decision based on its needs.

Since speed and agility are key elements of successful social media strategy, the fifth way to enhance success in a strategy is to enact policies to allow the social media campaign to be agile. Restrictive and cumbersome approval chains may inhibit the ability of the operators to achieve results. Perhaps the best approach is to allow for centralized planning and decentralized execution.16 The enemy will not be constrained from posting information to the Internet by a cumbersome approval process and thus has the ability to act very quickly. Operation Valhalla in Iraq in 2006 provides an illustrative example.

During a successful firefight against the Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM) forces, U.S. Special Forces and Iraqi forces killed a number of enemy fighters, rescued a hostage, and destroyed a weapons cache—by all measures, a very successful operation. By the time U.S. and Iraqi forces returned to their base, someone had repositioned the bodies and removed the weapons of the JAM fighters so it looked like they were murdered while at prayer. They photographed the bodies in these new poses and uploaded the images onto the Internet, along with a press release explaining that American Soldiers killed the men while they were in a mosque. All this took the enemy less than an hour. The public reaction was predictably negative. The U.S. forces had a combat camera crew with them during the operation, and some of the Soldiers wore helmet cameras. U.S. forces were in possession of the evidence to disprove the claims, but a cumbersome and highly centralized process for releasing information prevented the correct story from reaching the media for nearly 3 days. By the time U.S. forces released the correct version of Operation Valhalla, the strategic damage was done.17 The inability to react immediately to the enemy claims in the previous example was largely for policy reasons. To promote agility, the U.S. military's policies must allow for decentralized execution of operations involving new media.

Decentralization of execution, however, may force commanders to accept levels of risk with which they may not be comfortable. The commander will essentially delegate the control of information releasing authority to low levels. Clear rules of engagement distributed to all the potential social media operators may be able to mitigate the risks. The need for agility will often conflict with the need to carefully control the strategic message.18

One of the key elements for commanders to enhance agility in their social media program is to allow and encourage social media operations to be executed even at the lowest unit level. Many of the closest relationships established in an AOR are formed at battalion level and below. Local government leaders, tribal leaders, police, and militias are all developing relationships at the very lowest levels. The leaders at these units will know how best to interface with the population. Web sites, blogs, and links to Facebook pages can be used for nearby activities. In Africa, there are examples of local groups reporting tactical information such as roadblocks and ambushes to Web sites set up by State Department teams. The site then consolidates them onto a map for locals to check when they are traveling.19 Commanders may be able to enhance local relationships with the positive use of social media at the unit level.

The sixth and final way in which a commander can take advantage of social media is to set up social networking sites as an outreach tool to enhance unity of effort. As General Petraeus mentioned in his guidance, there are a number of key partners in theater with whom units must cooperate. Seemingly simple efforts such as establishing a Facebook page could allow partner organizations a better understanding of the commander's intent. Joint Task Force–Haiti, supporting relief operations in the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake, has effectively used social media as a tool for outreach to other organizations engaged in the effort.

There are numerous key relationships in the AOR relative to social media strategy. The obvious ones are local governments, press, civic organizations, and the populace in general, as well as NGOs operating in the area. Commanders should also consider outreach to the blogger community (if there is one), businesses, Internet service providers, and cellular network providers. These relationships would better enable the social media program to be effective and adaptable to changes.

The Means

The final component in the development of a strategy is the identification of the means. The means are the resources available to pursue the objectives. Fortunately, in the U.S. military today, the means to conduct an effective social media strategy are readily available. To employ the strategy listed above, there may be a requirement to reorganize and reprioritize resources within deployed headquarters as described in the discussion of the ways, but there will be no wholly new skills or equipment required.

Some of the key means are the individual talents and skills of Servicemembers. Skilled information operators, PA specialists, and intelligence collectors and analysts are already conducting operations at all levels and in all Services. Language and cultural skills will continue to be a critical factor in our ability to conduct operations around the world. When engaging with social media, operators trained to function effectively in the cultures in which we are operating will be vital assets. The "digital natives" will be critical to success in the social media environment as well. The authors of a report from the "New Media and the Warfighter" workshop held at the U.S. Army War College define digital natives as "those young service members who are savvy in the use of new media devices, platforms, networks, and possibilities—and are underexploited assets in the information-led wars against new adversaries."20 Employing these younger and more tech-savvy operators in roles that will have strategic impact requires some change to the traditional hierarchical mindset. The bright and talented personnel will continue to be the foundation for success.

These digital natives, however, may lack the strategic insight and understanding of more senior strategists and planners, who will have to provide clear guidance and oversight to ensure the actions of the digital natives match the strategic intent of the commander. For the relationship between the leaders and the operators to work, senior leaders must have an understanding of the capabilities and limitations of social media. Social media may be one case where the senior leaders must be trained to have an understanding of what the soldiers and junior officers already know. Inclusion of an introduction to social media into commanders' courses may be an appropriate initiative.

Finally, the military's ties with academia and industry will be more important than ever. These relationships have already been established. DOD has some effective ties with the blogger community and with many companies engaged throughout the social media community. The relationships DOD enjoys today will have to continue to grow in order to ensure the success of any social media strategy.

Social media and new media are changing the ways information moves around the world. Speed and transparency of information have increased, the roles of traditional and new media are changing, and social networking tools allow collaboration as never seen before. There will no doubt be changes to the nature of conflicts as a result. A key to successfully adapting to the changes will be commanders' ability to develop strategies that take advantage of the changes and deny the enemy exclusive rights to the same. The U.S. military has the tools available to perform the tasks inherent in a strategy that will allow it to capitalize on the emerging trends in information. An innovative strategy that incorporates the lessons already learned in the social media environment will allow the Armed Forces to improve their ability to understand the environment, communicate more effectively, and generate unity of effort throughout the battlefield. JFQ



1 "‘Neda' Becomes Rallying Cry for Iranian Protests," CNN.com/World, June 22, 2009.

2 "16 Azar Green Routes," UnitedForIran, December 6, 2009, available at <www.flickr.com/photos/united4iran/4165827330/>. This site provides an example of social media tools used to share information among the Iranian protestors.

3 Huda al Saleh, "Al-Qaeda Continues Using Modern Technology to Recruit Youth," January 5, 2010, accessed at <http://aawsat.com/english>.

4 William B. Caldwell, Denis M. Murphy, and Anton Menning, "Learning to Leverage New Media: The Israeli Defense Forces in Recent Conflicts," Military Review (May–June 2009), 2–10.

5 Ibid.

6 Robert H. Dorff, "A Primer in Strategy Development," in U.S. Army War College Guide to Strategy, ed. Joseph R. Cerami and James F. Holcomb (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2001), 11–18.

7 The Social Media Hub, Department of State Office of Innovative Engagement, available at <https://www.intelink.gov/communities/state/smp/>.

8 David H. Petraeus, "Multi-National Force Commander's Counterinsurgency Guidance," Military Review (September–October 2008), 210–212.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Dorff, 11.

12 Catharine P. Taylor, "Eight Ways to Ruin Your Social-Media Strategy," available at <www.bnet.com/2403-13237_23-366324. html?tag=content;btmTier>.

13 Commander's Handbook for Strategic Communication (Norfolk, VA: U.S. Joint Forces Command, Joint Warfighting Center, 2008), III–4.

14 Mark Drapeau and Linton Wells II, Social Software and National Security: An Initial Net Assessment, Defense and Technology Paper 61 (Washington, DC: Center for Technology and National Security Policy, 2009).

15 Department of Defense, "Directive-Type Memorandum (DTM) 09–026—Responsible and Effective Use of Internet-based Capabilities," Washington, DC, Februrary 25, 2010.

16 Rafal Rohozinski and Dierdre Collings, Bullets and Blogs: The New Media and the Warfighter (Carlisle, PA: Center for Strategic Leadership, U.S. Army War College, 2008).

17 Cori E. Dauber, "The Truth is Out There: Responding to Insurgent Disinformation and Deception Operations," Military Review (January– February 2009), 13–24.

18 Rohozinski and Collings.

19 Kimberly Harrington, Department of State, Office of Innovative Engagement, interview by author, Washington, DC, November 19, 2009.

20 Rohozinski and Collings.

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