24 May 2010

Don't be too quick to blame Facebook

Noah Shachtman posted an article at Wired.com's Danger Room implying that word of an 82nd Airborne Division paratrooper's death was leaked via Facebook.
[I]n the military community, there’s an interesting twist on the Facebook-as-privacy-sieve debate. Turns out the names of soldiers dying in Afghanistan are sometimes appearing on Facebook before they’re officially released.

This is not a small deal in military circles. U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan go into what’s called “River City” — with access to the outside Internet shut down — when one of their troops is killed in action. The idea is to give time to notify next-of-kin before word of the death leaks out.

Last Wednesday, however, King’s College of London PhD student Daniel Bennett was able to penetrate that veil of silence. With a few clicks of the social media search engine Kurrently, Bennett found Facebook chatter about the death of 20 year-old [redacted] in Afghanistan’s Badghis province. The Pentagon didn’t announce that [redacted] had been killed until two days later, on Friday the 21st.
However, a careful reading of the article and a little knowledge of the casualty notification process might indicate differently.

The military's casualty notification process emphasizes informing families of death or serious injuries through formal channels. A casualty notification officer and a chaplain are on constant standby at bases throughout the United States, ready to respond to such tragedies.

In combat situations, all Internet communications are typically cut (known as a "NIPR Blackout"), so as to prevent word of such events from reaching families through unofficial channels. Not only does this lend a degree of dignity to the casualty notification process, but it also ensures that family members are not alone when they receive such news--helping prevent family members from harming themselves in the wake of the tragedy.

Military officials have long feared troops might leak word of a fellow soldier's death through Facebook or Twitter. Recent events, unfortunately, lend credence to this belief. Nevertheless, most troops seem to understand the value in keeping the information "close-hold". In the rare instances that Internet services have not been completely severed, troops generally censor themselves; they understand the reasoning behind the casualty notification process.

Based on Noah Shachtman's research, it seems that the family likely received word of the paratrooper's death through official channels. However, it was a friend of the family who posted the news of the young trooper's death in her Facebook status, broadcasting it for the entire world a full two days before the official press release. At this point, however, it's no longer an issue of "leaking" the information--the family is fully aware of the tragedy.

This raises a few interesting questions.

First, how much time elapsed between the next-of-kin notification and the official press release, and is this a typical delay? Secondly, how did the military find out that this news had been "leaked", and what is their response? Lastly, if there was a large delay, and if this is indeed typical, does the military not expect Web 2.0 sources to beat them to the punch, so to speak?

No comments: