A fight could be brewing between the office of U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and U.S. Strategic Command, over the military’s use of “social-networking” Websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Myspace and Youtube. Just a few weeks ago, Gates hired a new Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, tasked with bringing the Department of Defense “into the 21st-century of communication,” according to a spokesperson. Price Floyd’s (pictured) first act as the new social-media czar, was to launch an official Pentagon Twitter account, for instantly communication short text messages to subscribers.
But Floyd’s mission could run counter to recommendations last week by Strategic Command, which is broadly responsible for so-called “cyber-defense” — that is, defending military computer networks from hackers. According to Noah Shachtman atDanger Room, Strategic Command is quietly calling for a total ban on accessing social networking sites from military networks. “They make it way too easy for people with bad intentions to push malicious code to unsuspecting users,” a Stratcom source said of networking sites.
“What we can’t do is let security concerns trump doing business,” Floyd said on Wednesday. I spoke to Floyd to understand his vision for military social-networking:
Lt. Gen. William Caldwell IV at DefenseLink (relayed via Small Wars Journal)
It was “probably one of the toughest times in Iraq,” Caldwell recalled of his time as Multinational Force Iraq’s deputy chief of staff for strategic effects. Mounting U.S. casualties and sectarian violence dominated the news headlines.
Caldwell, who commanded the 82nd Airborne Division before arriving in Baghdad, knew the coverage wasn’t telling the whole story.
“Men and women were doing incredibly great things every day, and not just heroic things,” he told American Forces Press Service. “They were building schools, helping establish government systems, empowering the Iraqi police forces to take on more responsibility, training Iraqi army forces.
“We were doing a lot of incredibly great things,” he continued, “and the stories weren’t getting out because they were overshadowed by the kinetic things going on and the loss of American life and the fact that casualty rates were up.”
So at the urging of his younger staff, Caldwell took the monumental step of launching Multinational Force Iraq into the world of social networking.
“A ‘You who?’” Caldwell recalls asking when his staffers first recommended a YouTube site. “I had absolutely no idea what it was.”
But the staff talked him through the process, sat him down with a commercial server and showed him how YouTube worked. “I immediately understood the incredible power that would exist if we could leverage that,” he said.
The problem was that access to the YouTube site had been blocked within the U.S. Central Command theater. So Caldwell took the issue up with Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., Multinational Force Iraq commander at the time, and got approval to establish an official YouTube site.
The site went live in early March 2007 and amazed even Caldwell with the following it attracted. “Within the next six months, it was in the top 10 of all YouTube sites visited in the world,” he said. “Viewership was phenomenal.”
Officials put word out to the theater, urging troops to send videos that helped to explain the work they were doing. “We were looking for a variety of things -- we wanted kinetic and nonkinetic [activities], and we wanted personal stories,” Caldwell said. “Nobody was out collecting. We just asked people, ‘Feed us what you’ve got.’”
And feed they did -- clips showing troops engaged in everything from firefights to the destruction of bomb-making factories to delivering medical care to wounded Iraqis.
Officials reviewed the videos to ensure they didn’t violate operational security considerations, use profanity or show sexual, overly graphic, disturbing or offensive material, then posted the clips as quickly as possible.
“The entire rest of the time I was there, it was an enormous hit,” Caldwell said. “The number of people going to it and looking at it on a daily basis was phenomenal.”
YouTube was just the start of the command’s effort to deliver a more complete story of what was happening in Iraq to a broader audience. And as Caldwell discovered, social networking offered a whole new range of outlets for sharing that story, without the traditional media filters.
“It eliminated the gatekeeper,” he said. “We now had the ability to help inform and present information that people might want to hear about or see in a way that was never there before.”
Command officials urged people to come forward with ideas about how to leverage social media as part of a broader communications outreach. Meanwhile, Caldwell ratcheted up his media engagements with a growing array of outlets. His team, taking the lead from the enemy they were working to defeat, redesigned the command’s Web site to make it more interactive, visually stimulating and user-friendly.
David Axe at the Washington Independent, "How the Army is Winning the Military's Internet Civil War"
This winter, the Air Force, as the Pentagon’s point agency for Internet operations –“cyberwarfare,” in military jargon – banned access from official networks to many blogs, declaring that they weren’t “established, reputable media.” The Air Force didn’t seem concerned that America’s greatest enemies, international jihadists, had long ago latched onto websites as cheap, effective tools for sharing ideas.
Indeed, the Air Force’s ban was part of a widening military crackdown on so-called “Web 2.0” Internet sites, including blogs, YouTube, MySpace and Facebook, all often grouped together as “social media,” because of their potential for easy, global communication. Mostly, Website-banning Pentagon officials were worried that U.S. troops, in using these popular Web 2.0 sites, might inadvertently release secret information on the Internet.
To many in the military, the need for secrecy outweighed the Internet’s value for rapidly and widely sharing ideas. While jihadists built entire intelligence and recruiting machines online, huge swaths of the U.S. military were walling themselves off from the Internet.
But not entirely.
The Army cleverly dodged the bans, setting up its own versions of popular Web 2.0 sites, but hiding them behind password-protected portals. In that way, the Army appears to have found a middle ground between Internet proponents and skeptics. On this toehold, the land combat branch is steadily building new Internet tools that might help the United States catch up to Internet-savvy jihadists. In late April, the land-warfare branch even launched an official blogging service for officers. The blogs combine the best of the civilian Web 2.0 with old-fashioned military-grade security.