war on the rocks

Harnessing Social Media for Military Power

August 20, 2015

In 2008, Scott Beale wanted to attend the Google party at South by Southwest Interactive (a 5-day conference featuring presentations and panels from rising stars and big names in the technology and entertainment fields); however, the line was way too long for his taste. Instead of wasting the night away standing outside, Scott and his group decided to throw their own party. The friends took to Twitter announcing they were hosting an “Alta Vista” party at a nearby bar. Within minutes, a crowd started gathering, and soon Scott and his buddies had their own line forming out the door. As Seth Godin points out in his book, Tribes: What You Need to Lead Us,

Twitter merely enabled the event; it didn’t cause it to occur. Unless Scott had earned the respect and permission of the tribe that follows him, he would have been all alone at the bar. The party didn’t take four minutes to organize; it took four years.

Scott’s party isn’t some social media anomaly; it’s one of the realities of being active on mediums such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Reddit, and LinkedIn.

Social media enables individuals to connect into networks of people who can be mobilized for learning, parties, projects, movements, fundraising, or even just to raise awareness. Because of the power that can be harnessed from these mediums, military professionals should take the time to learn them, be active on social media sites, and find innovative ways to use them within their organizations. These platforms present an opportunity for military professionals to extend their span of influence beyond the chain of command, cut through multiple layers of bureaucracy, and potentially develop a personal form of “soft power.”

Like Scott, military leaders have also experienced the benefits of social media by finding creative ways to use it within their organizations. As a brigade commander, Colonel Ross Coffman was able to extend his impact on the profession beyond his own organization by developing networks on Facebook, Twitter, and even YouTube. He started his own YouTube Channel a year ago when he realized that assembling all the leaders in his brigade in one place at one time on a weekly basis for professional development sessions was unrealistic. Instead of accepting his fate, he jumped in front of the camera to film short segments on topics ranging from company leadership to maintenance programs. He accessed the leaders within his command and military leaders at U.S. Army installations throughout the world. As a result, Coffman affected large elements of the Army as a whole, and even served as a critical role model for younger leaders in developing their own strategies for leveraging social media.

This story is not as unique as it seems or even limited to U.S. military experiences. Brigadier Mick Ryan of the Australian Defence Force also leverages social media to connect in conversation with leaders from both his own armed forces and the U.S. military. He uses his Twitter account to share articles of interest with the profession of arms and highlight articles written by leaders. Both Coffman and Ryan are individuals who have leveraged their online investments to spread their influence well beyond their immediate chains of command.

Though some may assume that the bureaucratic nature of the Department of Defense would be inherently opposed or unaffected by social media engagement, current evidence suggests that this is wrong. For example, those gathering around the banner of organizations like the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum (DEF) would suggest that social forums such as these help the Department of Defense to think in new and creative ways about the future. In 2012, this group began as an energetic group of military officers in the various services gathered (largely over social media) to build a community of like-minded individuals who wanted to foster a culture of innovation in the Department of Defense. Flash forward three years later, and the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum has hosted several conferences, built a large following throughout the national security community, and helped launch several initiatives. Key among these have been two regional events in Washington, D.C. — one focused on generating conversation about talent management and implementing organizational change, the other a small action group to support the Office of the Secretary of Defense develop initiatives for personnel and talent management changes under the rubric of the Force of the Future. The founders of DEF couldn’t have accomplished what they did without first developing relationships and strengthening their networks on social media.

Forums such as these prove that online social networks are valuable for mobilizing parties, developing leaders, or working around government bureaucracies, but they may give military leaders a competitive advantage in war as well. Social media networks built in peacetime might be mobilized during war to help gain situational awareness, advance messaging, and aid in collaboration with our partners and allies. As an active participant on Twitter, I watch military officers and NCOs from the United Kingdom, Australia, France, Canada, Brazil, and the United States interacting on a regular basis. Could these connections one day pay dividends during a war?

I recently spent some time working at U.S. Army Europe Headquarters in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve. Unfortunately, my knowledge of affairs in Eastern Europe was somewhat limited. In addition to the standard practice of reading books, articles, and white papers to gain a better understanding of the area, I leveraged my online networks for assistance. I reached out to one of my followers who was very active in Eastern European social networks, and within the hour, I was following 25 separate Twitter accounts of reporters, bloggers, and activists in Russia, Poland, Estonia, and Ukraine. These new connections gave me additional and unfiltered insights into the dynamics of the problems facing this region of the world. By the combination of self-study, on-the-job experiences, and taking advantage of my online networks, I was quickly able to gain a better understanding of current affairs.

In developing a presence on social media and nurturing online connections, military professionals have the opportunity to develop a reach well beyond their traditional spheres of influence. Like Colonel Coffman and Brigadier Ryan, they may gain the power to positively impact a greater portion of the military profession. Like the founders of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, they may be able to cut through miles of red tape to accelerate change. Like myself, they might be able to open a door to an aspect of the world with which they were unfamiliar. And finally, when they hit a roadblock in war, they might be able to be like Scott Beale and mobilize their followers to achieve a breakthrough elsewhere.

 

Joe Byerly is an armor officer in the U.S. Army and Social Media Director for Defense Entrepreneurs Forum. He frequently writes about leadership and leader development on his blog, From the Green Notebook. Follow him on Twitter @JByerly81. This article represents his own opinions, which are not necessarily those of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the federal government.

 

Photo credit: Jason Howie