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When should the MOD use Social Media?

The British Army has had its first ‘troops in combat’ TIC incident since the end of operations in Afghanistan. During patrols in Mali, British troops came under fire and retaliated, killing two people. This was the first time that British troops have used lethal force in Mali.

The incident was covered in the press, and in particular in a Twitter thread by the British CO, Lt Col Will Meddings, who used a lengthy twitter thread to talk through the actions of his team, explain what occurred and why, and provided objective and precise commentary in 280 characters, accompanied by some good imagery of the mission.

Some people have reacted with concern that a senior British Army Officer is using social media to announce the deaths of people, who were killed violently because of the actions of the men and women under his command.  Should we tweet bad news, or is social media the wrong place to talk about the reality of our business?

This is an important question to ask for three reasons – firstly, how do we understand the role of social media in operations, secondly, how do we communicate the reality of conflict, and finally, how do we communicate to our audiences?

Whether we like it or not, social media is here to stay. We live in an age of digital connectivity and are required to operate and take decisions in a world where things can be communicated instantly. The days of war correspondents sending censored dispatches back from the front days after the event are gone forever. Whether people like it or not, it isn’t possible to control the flow of information or to stop it once it has been released.

For commanders on operations this poses a challenge;  how do you control social media in a way that communicates and explains but is done in a policy compliant and timely manner? There is a familiar refrain that Defence trusts people to operate weaponry that can take human life but doesn’t trust someone to issue a tweet without it going through a complex ‘chop chain’ of approvals from ever higher HQs.

There is arguably good reason for that. 280 characters isn’t much to explain complex issues. Trying to put across messaging and meaning in a short tweet can be hard and especially so as when you tweet you are speaking as a representative of the British Government. Making sure that no one is blindsided is key – unlike years ago, a tweet can be seen by the press, and then used moments later to ask difficult questions at another press conference, making life difficult for the Minister.

There is a balance to be struck though and the longer a tweet takes to approve and clear, the more we cede control of the information battlespace to our opponents and mischief makers. At the onset of an incident, you can set the tone of the engagement online and  put your perspective across. Leave it too long and the space is filled by others who use the silence to create their own perspective.

Getting this response time right is critical, as is understanding the extent to which we trust and empower people to do it. Very few people in Defence are social media experts or are expected to understand how best to operate in the information battlespace. Perhaps this is a legacy of the days when unit press officer was a secondary role assigned to a junior officer, and few people really took much interest in it.

Today social media is one of our most important engagement tools and means of winning the information war. Arguably if we’re serious about winning on operations, should we now look to treat operational and unit social media officers as a full time role, to be filled by ‘top third’ types who want to get it right?

When tweets set the agenda, do we need to invest a lot more time and effort in training those with the delegated authority to tweet to do it well, and treat social media engagement as a core part of the HQ function on operations rather than as a distant and often forgotten part of the J9 empire?

Communicating the reality of our business is the challenge on operations, and it needs to be treated with a healthy respect. Part of the reason the twitter thread took off was in part because it brought home the reality that our soldiers are, in certain circumstances, expected to inflict violence on people to kill them.

Almost all British military tweeting delicately avoids this difficult subject. If you look at most official tweets, they can involve jargon, punchy music, maybe some warry photos and a message about how awesome life in the military can be. Its incredibly rare to reflect on the fact that all of this exists to permit our soldiers to kill or injure people.

Suddenly confronted with a series of tweets that objectively and professionally set out the circumstances which resulted in two people losing their life, it perhaps unexpectedly brings home to people that the core business of the Army isn’t very nice.

We don’t like to talk about death as a society in general, so when the reality of this is encountered on Twitter, it is perhaps genuinely unsettling to some people. There is a difference between reading a carefully crafted press release which will talk of ‘a British patrol was engaged by hostile forces and returned fire, killing two people’, and reading a more human story of how this scenario came about and the steps taken.

Reading it a second time perhaps becomes more harrowing still because we know we are reading about the actions of people who were shortly about to die at the hands of, and because of, conscious decisions taken by, the people in the thread.

There is a level of intimacy in these tweets that is brings this home in a way that a press release cannot convey – which would perhaps explain why some people felt uncomfortable about seeing it communicated by Twitter.

But perhaps it is right that this sort of difficult uncomfortable subject is talked about on Twitter, because that is where some of the audience is and they need to understand the brutal realities of what it is that the British Army exists to do. The challenge is ensuring that we know where they are and how to reach them.

The majority of people that Defence wants to reach and talk about its work probably don’t read MOD press releases and realistically probably take a sparing interest in defence reporting in the press. The target recruiting audience uses social media channels and rely on them for their information and view of the world.  How does Defence reach these people and talk about its work, both now, and in the future?

The next big challenge for Defence is going to be understanding how to engage for the long term across multiple channels. Arguably the internet is a bit like geological ages -people get set in their social media ways and use channels they feel comfortable with – hence a lot of people in their 30s use Facebook, while younger people see it as ‘for old people’.

Over time though, as social media evolves, people will struggle to keep up with the next big trend, and instead stick to their comfort zone. Todays ‘youth’ (e.g. the target recruiting audience) are likely on Tiktok and snapchat, not Twitter – but the chances are that in 10 years time, they’ll still be on the same channels, because this is the medium they’re most comfortable with, while the new youth use a different channel again.

As social media ages, we’re getting stratified into our own demographic social media channels pool, that we are unlikely to shift out of. We need to think not just about how to communicate the human side of operations on Twitter, but think about how we can continue to do this on the other channels. not just now, but for the long term. We need to plan to use Tiktok to both influence the 17yr old potential recruit today and then continue to do so as this person ages into their 20s and 30s and beyond.

The future of defence operational communications is going to be increasingly complex – it will need highly skilled media operators able to produce content that is policy compliant, supports agreed media engagement plans, and which puts across the same message, in multiple different formats and platforms, and is able to do so within the shortest possible time of an incident occurring.

At its simplest, how do you communicate the mission in Mali, or the circumstances leading up to a firefight that resulted in two people being killed on social media platforms intended for short videos or single images? Getting operational media right in the future is going to need large changes to how content is produced, and having difficult discussions about what goes into it.

If we want future generations of taxpayers to understand the human face of operations, we have to work out how to reach them both now, and for many years to come.  The prize for getting this right is significant. This is about developing an understanding of how to communicate difficult concepts well with an audience on a variety of channels that they are likely to follow in perpetuity.

In 10 years’ time, the audience we want to communicate with will be on a diverse range of social media networks – is the British Army capable of creating the permissions, empowerment, technical training and skills and understanding of its people to enable them to produce content that people want to see?

Sir Humphrey

A former MOD official and reservist Officer, ‘Sir Humphrey’ worked across a range of defence and national security issues during his time with the MOD. He has worked in the Centre, PJHQ, FLCs and deployed on Ops TELIC, HERRICK and KIPION.

He is the author of a blog on defence matters (www.thinpinstripedline.blogspot.com) which tries to provide objective analysis and coverage of defence issues in the media and beyond.

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