The Ukrainian Army Is Leveraging Online Influencers. Can the U.S. Military?
On May 11, 2022, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense Twitter account highlighted the results of a deadly artillery assault on a failed Russian pontoon crossing of the Siverskyi Donets river. The tweet generated over 14,000 likes and nearly 2,000 retweets. Another tweet, posted by a Ukrainian soldier that same day, on the same assault, read simply, “What I did to destroy Russian pantonne bridge over Siverskyi Donets — a thread.” In this tweet, a self-described Explosive Ordnance Disposal specialist told the story of his personal role in the Ukrainian attack. He wrote how he scouted the location, instructed observers to listen for “the sound of [Russian] motorboats,” and set the artillery’s sights on the river crossing. The tweet reverberated quickly, generating over 45,000 likes, over 12,000 retweets and serving as the central source of information for Newsweek, France24, and various other news blogs.
Much has been said about Ukraine’s astounding success in the information battlefield. Russia — the preeminent force in propaganda and its subvariety, disinformation — has been brought to its knees by a country that few thought could prevail.
The reasons underlying this success are many. President Volodymyr Zelensky, the actor turned statesman, has out-messaged Putin at every turn. Ukraine also benefits from its status as an underdog and as a sovereign country invaded by a foreign power. Russia’s aggression and war crimes were so bald-faced as to enable most any Ukrainian communication to succeed.
But the lessons of Ukraine go even further and speak to the enormous power of a distributed message campaign that relies on everyday Ukrainian citizens and soldiers to post pro-Ukrainian content directly to their social media feeds. This tactic is not new, as commercial companies have long seized on the strategy to credibly promote their brands. And it is one that the U.S. military could emulate to not only help win wars, but perhaps to address its flagging campaign to recruit new members.
The U.S. military should not only encourage but empower soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines to tell their stories of service on social media. This model of storytelling has not only worked for Ukraine but also numerous Fortune 500 businesses, which have demonstrated success and established guidelines for what are called employee advocate programs. This approach has some risk for the U.S. military. Yet, the rewards are potentially great and may generate highly personal and compelling narratives about the military at a time in which such stories are sorely needed. To do this, the Department of Defense should consider developing its own employee advocate program by recruiting social media–savvy personnel, training them in established policies, and rewarding successful content creators. It should also develop a template as to how these influencers can best support future military operations.
The Rise of Ukrainian Influencers
For most any person following the war on social media, it is apparent that government-sanctioned accounts represent only a small fraction of war-related content. Ukrainian civilians, which number some 43 million people, surely make up the bulk of this content. Consider Margo Gontar, a Ukrainian journalist who live-tweets the air raid siren alerts that dominate life in Kyiv. She has over 30,000 followers.
But the Ukrainian military has its own cadre of online influencers. Kriegsforscher is a Ukrainian marine with 68,900 followers on Twitter. He posts videos of drone attacks against Russian forces and offers a slice of life from the front lines. Viking is a Ukrainian Army pilot who shares an Instagram feed from the cockpit of his attack helicopter to over 9,000 followers. Meanwhile, @kirilkoo,_a self-described Ukrainian soldier, shares TikTok videos of successful attacks against Russian forces to some 26,000 followers.
It is unclear the degree to which the Ukraine Ministry of Defense coordinates or incentivizes such activities although it seems reasonable that the military puts some limits to prevent, say, a soldier’s account giving away its geolocation or showcasing sensitive facilities.
It seems obvious, though, that the ministry permits some service personnel to use social media and it has reaped the benefits. These accounts serve as a force multiplier for Ukraine, expanding the volume of content that any official account could create and cumulatively reaching a far greater audience. The people and personalities behind the accounts also establish a human connection with their followers. This helps personalize the content and personalize the war in ways that a slick propaganda video can never match. The result is that many Americans and Europeans are reminded of the war, its costs, and Ukraine’s tactical victories every time they scroll through Twitter or TikTok.
The Rise of Word of Mouth and Employee Advocacy
These lessons are not unique to Ukraine. In fact, the business community has been working for more than a decade to take advantage of online voices. They do this through a variety of different programs from supporting influencers — super-connected and highly popular YouTube stars —, to helping promote “word of mouth” from everyday social media users as well as employee advocate programs that encourage employees to talk up the products and experiences they create. Many top corporations are seeking to leverage authentic and credible online voices.
The movement draws on a fundamental characteristic of the modern social media age. Social media and its static forerunner, blogs, broke down the barriers erected by traditional media. Anybody can create a blog or YouTube video or really any social media post, and potentially have it go viral and gain a following. This much is well known. However, the change has revolutionized the locus of trust in communications. Why trust a brand touting its own virtues when you can rely on the experiences of a friend on Facebook who has no proverbial axe to grind? Surveys bear this out. The annual worldwide Edelman Trust barometer shows that since 2012, the entity that is more trusted than CEOs, government officials or journalists is a “person like yourself.” Another survey shows that social media users are more likely to trust the recommendations from “everyday social media users” than subject matter experts, celebrities, or online stars.
It is here that employee advocate programs can pay big dividends. Like the soldiers who carry the weight of Ukraine’s messaging campaign, a firm’s employee base represents a natural reservoir to tap for social influence. Their lives and livelihoods revolve around the company, providing ample experiences to draw on for social content. Many are loyal to their employers, which creates a natural incentive to post positive content. And through a number of policies, employers can help shape the content that gets produced. Employers develop social media training programs that improve the quality and impact of employee posts, they set and enforce rules that help employees avoid sharing content that is harmful to the company and they create incentives that motivate social behavior. Numerous businesses including Starbucks, Dell, and Reebok have developed employee advocate programs.
One of the most heralded employee advocate programs belongs to Adobe, the firm that makes Photoshop, Lightroom, PDF software, and more. Adobe has had a formal employee advocate program in place for over eight years. In articulating the rationale, Adobe’s head of employee advocacy, Rani Manis, told one interviewer, “People do business with people and not brands, so it makes good business sense to shine a light on our people.”
Adobe has developed a special program to encourage its employees to talk about the brand on social media. It formally inducts employees into the program, educates them on its goals and objectives, and encourages them to post original content showcasing their stories as employees, their use of Adobe products, and their participation in Adobe’s social impact campaigns. It offers in-person and online trainings that seek to help advocates master online influence and the company curates its own social media content that advocates can use to post directly to their own feeds. Finally, the firm incentivizes social media posting though what it calls “fun rewards.” These rewards are meant to serve as “small nudges” and can include an extra day off, a pizza party, or recognition in a companywide newsletter.
Programs like Adobe’s significantly expand the social reach and influence of a firm. It has been estimated that over seven years, approximately 200 employee advocate programs generated over 13 million clicks on social media. Forbes estimates that such clicks would have cost more than $57 million in online ads. Other studies estimate that employees can generate 561 percent more reach than a firm’s branded channels alone. And the programs are also seen as instrumental in helping firms recruit new talent.
Can the U.S. Military Adopt This Strategy?
Adobe is not the U.S. military. However, there are some basic parallels in that both organizations hope to recruit top talent hence getting their message out to prospective employees could be a critical endeavor. Both organizations also seek to build a trusted reputation among key constituents. For Adobe, that translates into sales and market investment. For the U.S. military it may translate into improved relationships with the American public or improved communications during contingency operations. And most basically, aside from any similarity in communication goals, the employee advocate programs run by Adobe and other corporations provide a model that the military can learn from for how a large organization can effectively leverage the social media activity of its workforce.
For a variety of reasons, the U.S. military could benefit from such a program. First, in peacetime, the capability could serve as a recruiting tool. Nearly 70 percent of military personnel report satisfaction with their jobs. Many also have amazing stories to tell, from the trials and successes at bootcamp to training exercises, deployments and travel abroad. The military already inducts young people adept at social media and properly harnessing this capability could significantly expand the number of young Americans with positive military related content in their feeds. Such content could have a significant impact on America’s youth who are considering their next career move.
Second, the capability could be crucial during contingency operations and deployments. Images and stories of humanitarian operations can tell the story of U.S. assistance and generosity, photos captured at the frontlines can convincingly give the lie to adversary disinformation operations and — like in Ukraine — under conditions of grinding warfare, soldier social media posts can help maintain support from the international community, document adversary war-crimes and demonstrate success on the battlefield.
The military does not yet see the opportunity. A Defense One article, “Army Special Ops Is Changing Psyops Training to Reflect Ukrainian War,” observed how psychological operation exercises now incorporate “synthetic internet and real time sentiment analysis to educate students on the speed of information.” But it makes no mention of soldiers using social media themselves. And at least once when the military did use social media, it did not go so well. Meta recently removed three dozen Facebook accounts and two dozen Instagram accounts that appeared associated with the military and were used to promote U.S. interests abroad. The fake accounts were ineffective and gained little traction or influence.
The military also does not actively encourage social media use on the part of its personnel. The recent Army social media policy for example has put in place restrictions on the use of new and emerging platforms that official Army accounts can use and has generated confusion over whether personnel can mention their Army affiliation in their account profiles.
The Army offers courses in social media, but descriptions of these efforts make social media appear more a danger than opportunity. Trainings address the “left and right boundaries” of social media use, the need to educate TikTok influencers on the things that can “get you in trouble very quickly,” and “avoiding scams.” These are important lessons. Social media is dangerous. I think about the dangers every time I post. But it also offers the opportunity to communicate more robustly and credibly to wide swaths of the American public, to include prospective recruits.
It may be important for the military think about encouraging the type and volume of content that can achieve these ends and to do so in a way that could also meet important objectives of warfare. To this end, the military could look to adopt the lessons of Ukraine and the established practices in marketing.
What might this look like in practice? First, there are obvious limitations. It would not be wise to issue every soldier, sailor, airman, or marine an iPhone and encourage them to live-tweet their day job or some sensitive military operation. There could be dangers and risks to social media use in the military. Soldiers must not give away their positions on the battlefield either through improperly geotagging their position or, as what may have happened to Russian troops, giving off large electronic signatures from an encampment. The heat of battle also may not be the best time to be snapping photos or checking the number of likes on a recent post. And you probably wouldn’t want a disgruntled airman to be casting aspersion on their commands or on the service as a whole.
Effective programs can mitigate these risks by careful selection of advocates and the development, training and enforcement of “rules of engagement” that dictate when and how content can be posted. Broad guidelines, that give ample room for authentic and spontaneous social media posts can also identify the types of content that personnel should not post. The military could actively monitor the social media activity of ambassadors to ensure rules are followed. To do so they could leverage software already developed to help businesses monitor and assess impact of employee advocate social media posting.
Starting small, the military could onboard an initial cadre of carefully selected personnel active on social media. The military could train them in established policies and newly developed rules that dictate the types of content that can be shared and of course the types of content that cannot be shared. They could develop both in-person and online trainings to help personnel make the most of their social media presence. And like Adobe, they could identify ways to celebrate and reward those personnel who take up the mantle and actively tell their stories online. The Department of Defense and the individual services could also measure the impact of such efforts and of course identify any attendant risks.
The military might also think about what a social media presence looks like during military contingencies. Working with public affairs, the Department of Defense and individual services could identify the types of content that will support different types of operations, recognize the attendant risks of tactical posting and identify rules and restrictions that can guide a new breed of influencers. Doctrine in hand, the military could then train as it intends to fight. In training activities and exercises, the military could identify personnel who are authorized to post content and then integrate simulated social media activity into the exercise. After-actions could determine whether content supported the public affairs objectives of the exercise.
There are risks that a soldier, for example, has a bad day at the office or in the field and says as much to online followers. This remains a risk even without a formal advocacy program. But the advocacy program is set up to help manage the risks in part by shaping the dissemination of more positive content. But the name of the game is authenticity and you can’t have authenticity for the positive content if personnel cannot post their critiques or occasional gripes. So there is an expectation that if someone has a bad day they may well post that and doing so only adds credibility to other more positive content.
I can only imagine that these recommendations will horrify the typical public affairs officer. The military is accustomed to strictly controlling its message and a program like this relinquishes some of that control. However, this new age may require more than just a small flow of finely calibrated public affairs posts and developing authenticity of content and trusted voices could be a good place to start. Ukraine learned this lesson quickly and, at least for them, the result has been a heralded success.
Todd C. Helmus is a senior behavioral scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. He has written extensively about using influencers to support the Iraq war, to counter the Islamic State, and to support pro-Ukrainian influencers.