Social Media (SM) is a global phenomenon that brings happiness and benefit to many millions of people, its rise has been well documented and few, in the UK at least will be unfamiliar with at least one or more of its platforms. There have been some serious, and valid, questions asked when, if and how we should legislatively police and control the use of social media, the Economist leading the field of the serious research, such as this piece last year, asking questions such as why we should censor SM and then complain when dictatorships do the same then on the counter position pointing out that SM can be used to cause (or at least organise) quite serious social unrest, and to bring, in some cases misery, abuse and bullying but can it pose far graver dangers, and indeed, the ultimate danger, what if it could literally kill, so the question has to be…. is it a tweet to die for?
I started to wonder when this would be an issue for certain sectors of society in terms of where and when reasonable censorship/constraints could be justifiably placed upon social media and when the pros would outweigh cons, in terms of censorship and if and where the ultimate danger may lie. What about if you could lose your life or endanger the lives of your best friends, people that trust you without question and, without hesitation, place their lives in your hands by a careless tweet, 140 characters, 140 characters that could kill?
The example that I decided to focus upon would, inevitably, be the Ministry of Defence (MOD) / Armed Forces (AF). With Circa 308,000 personnel (combined) and the consideration of having thousands of troops both in active service and in peace keeping roles and the fourth largest defence budget in the world, the use of SM must be one on the lips (or finger tips?) of those that pace Whitehall.
Some online research proved immediately that SM was indeed permitted to be used by service personnel, there is just too much of it in the public domain for it to be otherwise, which was a mild surprise in itself, an example of this could be Sergeant Ford, who is a technician in the Royal Air Force, usually based at RAF Benson near Oxford, a base that I have visited many times but not since 2006. In March 2011, he deployed to Afghanistan and began to use his social media including, but not limited to, his blog and his twitter account.
His blog attracts huge numbers of visitors and seems to be well received by the public as well as the MOD. He has tweeted of his quite genuine fears whilst in theatre and his personal feelings and experiences. He states publicly that all of the ideas on the blog and the views, etc. are his own and his own alone. Interestingly though, when I dug further it became apparent that he also (separately, and to be fair to him clearly and openly) states that, and I quote, that he is “doing it (the SM) in line with the MOD’s Online Engagement Guidelines” and when we dig further into this well-read (and I mean tens of thousands of visits) blog it is in fact officially sponsored by the MOD and promoted on its social media pages.
This therefore begs a question as to what they (Online Engagement Guidelines) are. The first thing that I noticed is that the policy hasn’t seemingly been updated since 2009 which is genuinely shocking considering that since then…
- Numerous social media platforms have emerged including, but not limited to, Google+, Pinterest, Instagram and, potentially worryingly for military, Snapchat, a service that can send images to another user that automatically delete after a period of 1 – 10 seconds defined by the sender. The images leave no trace upon the recipient’s device. In early May 2013, Forbes reported that the images are effectively still there somewhere but to be fair most data is still there somewhere but services like this can make it quickly disappear from view and thus hard to have the first step that would legally justify due cause for further investigation.
- Twitter alone accounts for (in 2013) nearly 350 million tweets a day.
- The numbers of smartphone users in operation in the UK nearly (according to eMarketer) runs to 48.4 percent of the population. One can only imagine that those in the forces would represent an equal if not higher percentage due to being away from home either on base, in transit or in the field.
Online Engagement Guidelines
The below image perhaps gives us an indication of the ability, or intention, of organisations such as the MOD to provide accurate information and data, this is (below) an official URL (http://www.blogs.mod.uk/homepage.html) and is clearly extremely poor and of very low quality. Taken Jan 2014.
The social media hub above, which purports to be an amalgamation of approved social media activity does have a useful link to a document that outlines the policy of the MOD (2020 update – this page has now been removed by the MOD), this includes listing the glaringly obvious such as the fact that one should not mention their Establishment/Unit Location, Work telephone Number, Rank/Staff/Service Number, etc. but one has to wonder that, with significant amounts of social media being linked to one’s personal life what the results would be if, for example, a captured soldier was to be questioned using knowledge of his family and their pictures etc. This did in fact happen in Afghanistan but I’m not going to name the man concerned out of respect, as he lost his life before his social media was hacked or used against him, although the US army did try (officially and documented) to take his SM offline.
Locations seem to be a particular issue, such as in 2007 a fleet of helicopters arrived in Iraq, images appeared upon https://www.facebook.com/TheFlightline.TV, and from the images the enemy were able to assess the location and destroy four Apache helicopters. I have read that some images have been analysed and the star formations (night sky) interpreted and the location reversed engineered as it were – not something probably considered by the person taking the images.
The issue then comes down to the fact that it is, one would assume, impossible to only research online such a phenomenon and thus it would seem that the only way to get an accurate view of what’s happening and/or should be happening at the coal face would be to ask people both serving and retired for their views. I have placed some information and direct quotes below following my interviews / conversations with them.
As the army are on more active deployment than many others presently I started there and spoke to a good friend of mine who served nearly ten years in the parachute regiment and did tours of Northern Ireland and Bosnia, the latter as part of the peace keeping force, an experienced soldier who now owns and runs an affiliate marketing company and who is Google PPC qualified and experienced at SM and search engine optimisation (SEO). His view was both immediate (he’s known to mix his words) and categorical…
- Q: “I’d like your view on the use of social media in the army – particularly on ops such as Bosnia, etc. – banned or not banned? What are your thoughts on the use of social media?”
“Personally I don’t think any serving member of the armed forces should be allowed to use social media when deployed on active service. Could cause security issues and with all the issues that have arisen (referring to recent charges faced by soldiers as a result out of context videos placed on social media) that has gone on lately with courts it just adds to the complications”
- Q: “A blanket ban then?”
“Yes, complete blanket ban, if we bring YouTube to the equation then there is loads of live fire action on there; I don’t agree with it personally, at all.”
The distinction drawn was clearly “when on active service” which seems pragmatic given the above observations in this article. He also mentioned that, interestingly, soldiers should be more aware of the fact that superior officers and “bureaucrats” may monitor their social media for reasons other than a suspected breach of policy, effectively snooping on their private lives.
I emailed a friend, Doug Wylie, who was a long serving and highly respected member of the Royal Navy, and who was the official Royal Navy Media Officer at London 2012. During the Olympic & Paralympic Games he was responsible to Commander Operations in Northwood HQ for all aspects of media provision for the Naval Security assets during London 2012. Ensuring that media planning, provision, shielding, monitoring and escorting were effectively delivered in conjunction with the overall media plan for the Armed Forces during London 2012.
- Q: “What is your opinion upon the use of Social Media (SM) such as Facebook and Twitter in the military?”
“The use of SM in the Armed Forces is actively encouraged by higher authority, down the chain of command. It is seen as a good vehicle in getting out any messages regarding the AF. This will in turn hopefully improve the understanding between the tax payer and service personnel. SM is also very useful as a recruiting tool. In order to reach many people of varying backgrounds and ages, SM helps. It can provide short snippets of information, straight to the point and with some excellent photographs. Each service has a communication and media division, whereby they have people who monitor any FB pages and Twitter feeds. They can also raise the profile of each service and advertise key events, placing the AF into the public eye.
I believe, it is a fantastic tool, if used correctly and not abused with any silly and adverse comments etc.”
- Q: “does this opinion alter when personnel are on active deployment?”
“Most service personnel de-activate their FB & Twitter accounts, whilst deployed, especially in Afghan etc. It is felt that their family’s and own security could be compromised, in terms of advertising their involvement in unpopular wars abroad.”
- Q: “When at sea how do/can personnel get access to social media to contact family’s etc. and does the RN provide facilities (Wi-Fi, etc.) to do so?”
“With the exception of submarines, all ships will have access to the internet, email & SM. A pretty comprehensive communications suite is fitted to most warships, such as Inmarsat, to communicate around the globe.”
- Q: “What benefits and potential dangers do you see in the use of SM by active personnel?”
“Personal security being compromised. Other people, whose beliefs that you don’t know, may find out that you are a serving person, serving at sea or abroad for the British Armed Forces and being targeted.”
- Q: “Do you feel that the MOD is keeping up to date with technological advancements and that any policy could ever be enforced effectively?”
“As far as I’ve seen the AF are keen to utilise SM for advertising, recruitment and getting any good news stories out into the public domain. In my experience, the MoD is keeping up with SM technology. IT suites in shore based barracks and ships are provided and the relevant training is available to enable personnel to use effectively SM and understand the pitfalls, the rules and policies of using of SM.”
The above responses clearly do allude to a side of SM that needs controlling, words like “monitoring”, “shielding”, etc. but also to the very positive contribution that it can make. It is interesting that (I have been told this by 5 separate, well informed people now) Doug states that most on active service voluntarily deactivate their accounts; it seems the grass roots are aware of the dangers and are responding.
There is, naturally, no suggestion that the above conversations constitute a point of mathematical significance and that is, indeed, not the aim but rather to get an insight into the inner workings and asking questions hitherto unasked.
My conclusions, drawn from the above conversations and the available information would lead me to observe that there is no censorship or official ban upon the use of social media, quite the opposite, in the MOD & AF and quite rightly, as it can be a force for good both in terms of internally, externally and in keeping in contact with ones friends and families whilst away. What has surprised me is that there is no ban or censorship for personnel on active deployment. If we did want to control the medium this would seem the place to start, and I would say that the vast majority of personnel would adhere to the policy if the penalty were onerous enough, after all the results could, it seems, be a tweet to die for.
What are YOUR thoughts? We’re always keen on feedback so please feel free to comment below – or via our social media – and tell us if there’s anything you’d like us to discuss.