Twitter Will Not Steward the Profession
The Army is busy determining how it can graduate from the industrial age to the information age. But it is worth asking whether, in every instance, the Army should make that shift. In particular, senior officers across the service have migrated the professional dialogue about the Army and how to reform it onto Twitter. The resultant online conversation is funny. It is fast. It is thrillingly flat, in the military’s otherwise martial and hierarchical world. It is also a mistake.
Moving the Army’s dialogue onto Twitter invites a fickle, transient, and undiscerning online gallery to partake in shaping the Army’s culture. It conditions servicemembers to attend more to that online gallery than to institutional feedback, leading to a fractured military ethos and alienated servicemembers.
This migration is also a mistake because Twitter invites the service into the American political scrum. The Army cannot afford to accept this invitation, but owing to the platform’s design, servicemembers often cannot resist doing so. The result is an Army that appears available for political capture, at a time when it is one of the nation’s last institutions to have evaded that fate and crucially so.
The Army cannot and should not retreat from Twitter and other social media platforms wholesale. They have uses that the Army cannot neglect, including family outreach, recruiting, and strategic messaging. But intra-Army professional dialogue is not one of them. If a service wants to discuss reform, leaders should foster a culture of long-form writing — not tweeting. Whereas Twitter’s design stunts ideas, reducing them to punchlines stripped of context, long-form writing develops those ideas into the substantive arguments that drive meaningful change. Whereas Twitter orients servicemembers toward virality and seeking approval, long-form writing orients them inward, toward the institution they hope to reform.
The Rise of #MilTwitter
The Army has endorsed social media with good reason. Most recruiters now have an Instagram page to reach potential enlistees and units run Facebook groups to engage soldiers and their families. But of late, Army leaders have urged servicemembers to join social media, and particularly Twitter, to partake in an informal dialogue about the military as part of a program of self-development.
Supporters of this move address their exhortations to all ranks. Some have called for leaders “from top to bottom” to “embrace and advocate” for Twitter’s use. Peter W. Singer, who specializes in social media’s impact on national security, advised leaders, “If you want to communicate, social media is the place you now have to be. Its whole appeal and value is that it is a space for both one-on-one interaction and mass broadcast.”
Many have accepted these invitations to “get on the bus and enjoy the ride.” Use of the #MilTwitter hashtag has ballooned as a result. The dialogue is informal and it occurs publicly between personal and official accounts in clipped conversations, replete with “hot takes” of various issues. The informality is not an accident but an alleged strength: Engaged in a “war for talent,” the Army fears appearing to be an analog dinosaur.
Twitter Erodes Intra-Military Norms
The Army is not the first institution to discover social media’s limits in pursuit of reform. In The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, Martin Gurri repurposed Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky’s terms “border” and “center” to describe two types of organizations. “Center organizations” operate using an industrial-era model and are hierarchical, while “border organizations” are flat, networked, and moralizing. As Gurri argues, social media has become the border’s preferred weapon, because it affords all users a voice irrespective of rank. Border movements, such as the 2011 Spanish indignados and Tahrir Square protests in Egypt, undermine regimes by ending the near-monopoly on narratives those regimes once enjoyed.
While border organizations can negate the center, they struggle to fill its place. Social media platforms are good for criticizing, but are ill suited for building institutions. As Gurri explains, even though the indignados delegitimized the sitting Spanish government, the center-right Popular Party succeeded it. Although Tahrir Square protestors toppled President Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood and then the Egyptian military replaced him.
The military is a quintessential center organization. To illustrate how it suffers on Twitter — a border area — I consider some hypothetical examples. I refrain from referring to actual Twitter conversations whenever possible because doing so would unnecessarily personalize this analysis when the issue is systemic.
Imagine a young officer has a run-in with his or her commander and feels wronged. Twitter beckons as a way for that officer to recount the event in pursuit of validation. An online audience, equipped only with the tweeted account of the incident, affirms the officer’s sense of injustice with 40 likes, retweets, and replies. To that young officer, this is exoneration. How could the chain of command be right, if 40 people, many of whom are self-identified leaders of equal or greater rank to that commander, say otherwise? The feedback triggers a loop: The officer is less likely to listen to the now-delegitimized commander and, because affirmation feels good, is all the more likely to take future disagreements to “Twitter court.”
It may be that the young officer is right and the commander is wrong. But the reality of the incident has zero bearing on social media’s judgment. That’s by design. Twitter’s purpose is to retain users’ attention and sell it. It does so by systemically affirming their ire, not by telling them hard truths. It is an escape hatch from the lonely reflection that makes a leader.
As this process iterates, Twitter nudges servicemembers to value the wrong audience. Servicemembers oblige not because they are particularly weak, but because they are human. Twitter quickly and regularly delivers feedback via an interface designed exquisitely to exploit psychological vulnerability. The lumbering Army feedback systems, delivering affirmation months if not years after performance, cannot compete. Affirmation soon becomes the purpose of online exchange rather than its byproduct. The unit’s mission, which will never produce an attention-grabbing notification, becomes an afterthought. Like Catch-22’s Col. Cathcart, concerned more with getting into the Saturday Evening Post than winning the war, leaders risk one day spending more time tracking the performance of tweets than crafting the message they hope to send. We become the tool, and Twitter wields us.
In performing for their online audience, servicemembers grant it a role in policing the Army even though that audience lacks the wisdom to do so. It relishes public betrayal for its drama and will amplify a servicemember’s diss of the Army more than it will some innocuous observation. Anger goes viral more reliably than banal acquiescence, and punishing norm-violators delivers a better dopamine hit than withholding judgment until all the facts emerge.
Granting an online audience a role in policing the Army’s ethos is also a mistake because that audience has little stake in the outcome. If the audience errs by preemptively judging a situation or spreading a falsehood, it suffers none. It can log off at any time, washing its hands of its own acidic discourse. But a servicemember cannot log out of the Army and should accordingly attend to the institution. The institution is at stake and will still be there tomorrow.
Twitter’s advocates may claim that to orient toward Twitter is to attend to one’s formation, to “be where your soldiers are.” But there is little evidence that lower-ranking soldiers have joined #MilTwitter en masse. Anecdote and demographic data suggest they’re more likely following unit-specific, meme-dispensing “morale” pages on Instagram. Research suggests Twitter is “a highly insular echo chamber of elites speaking to elites” and #MilTwitter is no different.
Proponents of moving the Army’s professional dialogue to Twitter also laud its ability to solve problems by circumventing a creaking hierarchy and allowing servicemembers of all ranks to speak directly to power. Over time, however, this circumvention is a bug, not a feature. Massive bureaucracies like the Army depend on impersonal processes, which in the aggregate are slow and frustrating, but are also the best possible option. These processes depend on predictable and well-known regulations, rather than on leaders’ varying personalities and Twitter’s unauditable algorithms. Twitter tunnels under those processes until the institution falters.
Twitter, as a tool of the “border,” erodes the Army, a “center” organization. Border movements cannot rebuild what they weaken. Twitter can fracture an old narrative, but it cannot sustain a new one. Even if users could justify every tweeted grievance and the Army did deserve to be burned down, Twitter could not muster an Army to replace it. The platform’s mode of dissent is the mob, not the position paper, and mobs do not march well.
A Threat to Civil-Military Relations
The Army’s use of Twitter for professional dialogue also threatens civil-military relations because Twitter is a major forum for political debate. When both conversations occur in the same charged room, the risk that they will mix rises. In a republic, the military cannot afford even the appearance of political loyalty. Political militaries end republics, and so the concern is existential.
Servicemembers enjoy a right to private expression within limits, but #MilTwitter encourages servicemembers to build public profiles that derive their authority from service. Servicemembers may include “opinions my own” in their bio in pursuit of legal absolution — I know I did — but the public, looking to consume the military’s authenticity, will make no distinction. That much of #MilTwitter is semi-anonymous also means nothing: Society cares that the opinions come from the uniform, not the name sewn on it.
The risks generated by merging the military’s professional dialogue with society’s political debate were evident in two recent spats on Twitter. #MilTwitter partook in both of them. One followed Tucker Carlson’s comments that maternity uniforms are a stand-in for the allegedly fatal feminization of the military. A second followed Rep. Dan Crenshaw’s promise to tweet complaints from servicemembers about “woke ideology.”
In early March, Carlson declared uniforms that fit pregnant servicemembers “a mockery of the U.S. military and its core mission, which is winning wars.” The Department of Defense condemned the comments, as did individual services. Servicemembers rebuked Carlson on Twitter, many of them ahead of the release of any official statements. Many also demanded that other Army leaders denunciate Carlson by tweet, claiming that to be silent about the issue on Twitter was to endorse Carlson’s comments and leave women in uniform without support.
Three months later, Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL and lieutenant commander, tweeted a solicitation for whistleblowers to report “woke ideology” in the military so that he might “publish egregious complaints on social media.” It is hard to imagine a more direct invitation for servicemembers to perform, via Twitter, in political theater with their uniform as costume.
Carlson’s comments and the threat of “woke ideology” are not the same. Carlson’s misogynistic statements were wrong. The secretary of defense has compellingly rebutted the charges of ideological compromise levelled at the department. But my purpose here is not to adjudicate these questions. It is to point out how both episodes illustrate the way Twitter wears down barriers between the Army’s inner dialogue and that of the broader country. In both cases, Twitter’s incentive structure, which rewards participation with attention, beckoned servicemembers into the fray. This cycle, if left unchecked, will render the military just another formerly apolitical institution newly up for grabs.
Tweeting servicemembers will insist that the circumstances were exempt from norms separating the military from politics. In the Carlson case, those who condemned him argue that his misogyny, and the fact that it was aimed squarely at military women, required a response. Those answering Crenshaw’s call will likely claim that they have an obligation to do so because “woke ideology” poses an existential threat to the military.
Both views are wrong. The military is categorically apolitical, even when political figures say vile things with which servicemembers disagree. Following Carlson’s comments, many chose to simply affirm the indelible service of women in uniform. This is less dangerous because it appears, and therefore is, less political. But on Twitter, to explicitly invoke Carlson’s name, a trending topic, is to increase one’s audience and to feel a part of the conversation, and so many did.
Some argue that this conflation of the Army’s inner dialogue and that of broader society is a benefit of #MilTwitter. Senior leaders have argued that the military’s informal use of social media increases “transparency and auditability,” which are “core responsibilities of military organisations in our democratic systems.” Those are indeed core responsibilities of the U.S. military, but they are also responsibilities that are too serious to delegate to self-selecting servicemembers on Twitter. The mechanisms for the military’s auditability in America’s democratic system bear names like the House Armed Services Committee, not a captain’s Twitter handle. In the same article, the authors acknowledged some risk in social media’s use but parried that all military operations carry some risk. The Army mitigates risk through training and certification and has entire military occupational specialties devoted to public affairs. No evidence has surfaced to suggest that certification is too strenuous. The Army should empower public affairs officers on social media. It should not inadvertently replace them.
Writing Will Steward the Profession
To turn away from Twitter’s egalitarian, unfettered dialogue seems regressive. But, to protect a liberal system, the American military must be vexingly illiberal. This paradox is neither new nor has its necessity expired. The Army’s ethic will not, in every instance, mirror society’s. It is what Samuel Huntington meant when he melodramatically cast West Point, a stand-in for the military ethic, as “a bit of Sparta in the midst of Babylon.”
Without listening to ideas from across its ranks, the Army cannot hope to reform successfully before the next war. Those budding ideas will not mature into action if servicemembers dump them into a fatally distracting algorithmic feed, 280 characters at a time. Servicemembers should instead write for publication.
The Army has the infrastructure to usher in a writing culture, rather than a tweeting one. The Army University Press under the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center constitutes an outstanding platform. Writing competitions and prizes, the expansion of existing professional journals, conferences for the presentation of ideas, and grants for research all promise to deliver better-developed insights than Twitter. This is because long-form writing threatens intra-military and civil-military norms less than social media platforms do. When military writing does make the news, cross-contaminating the Army’s and society’s dialogues, it does so by exception. Tweets do so by design. Publishing can erode military values if done without an eye for recommendation or dignity, but because it occurs apart from addictive feedback mechanisms that reward dissent, it does so less often.
Advocates of social media will remind you that Twitter will never “go away.” That is exactly right. That’s why Army leadership should stop pitching Twitter — something that needs no selling and corrodes discourse — as a forum for professional dialogue. Writing, on the other hand, and the critical thought it engenders, needs every sales pitch it can get. The Army might start by telling its leaders that the next time they want to tweet a thought, they ought to write it out in long form instead.
Theo Lipsky is an active-duty U.S. Army captain. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the U.S. Military Academy. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.
Image: U.S. Marine Corps (Photo by Cpl. Michael Jefferson Estillomo)