17 January 2011

Why Social Media Matters

This exchange between an Army spouse (Identified as "Q") and President George W. Bush during a town hall meeting in West Virginia in March of 2006 will always stick in my mind.  Let's see if you can catch the one subtle sticking point.

Q This is my husband, who has returned from a 13-month tour in Tikrit.
THE PRESIDENT: Oh, yes. Thank you. Welcome back. (Applause.)
Q His job while serving was as a broadcast journalist. And he has brought back several DVDs full of wonderful footage of reconstruction, of medical things going on. And I ask you this from the bottom of my heart, for a solution to this, because it seems that our major media networks don't want to portray the good. They just want to focus -- (applause) --
THE PRESIDENT: Okay, hold on a second.
Q They just want to focus on another car bomb, or they just want to focus on some more bloodshed, or they just want to focus on how they don't agree with you and what you're doing, when they don't even probably know how you're doing what you're doing anyway. But what can we do to get that footage on CNN, on FOX, to get it on headline news, to get it on the local news? Because you can send it to the news people -- and I'm sorry, I'm rambling -- like I have --
THE PRESIDENT: So was I, though, for an hour. (Laughter.)
Q -- can you use this, and it will just end up in a drawer, because it's good, it portrays the good. And if people could see that, if the American people could see it, there would never be another negative word about this conflict.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I appreciate that. (Applause.) No, it -- that's why I come out and speak. I spoke in Cleveland, gave a press conference yesterday -- spoke in Cleveland Monday, press conference, here today. I'm going to continue doing what I'm doing to try to make sure people can hear there's -- why I make decisions, and as best as I can, explain why I'm optimistic we can succeed.
One of the things that we've got to value is the fact that we do have a media, free media, that's able to do what they want to do. And I'm not going to -- you're asking me to say something in front of all the cameras here. (Laughter.) Help over there, will you? (Laughter.)
I just got to keep talking. And one of the -- there's word of mouth, there's blogs, there's Internet, there's all kinds of ways to communicate which is literally changing the way people are getting their information. And so if you're concerned, I would suggest that you reach out to some of the groups that are supporting the troops, that have got Internet sites, and just keep the word -- keep the word moving. And that's one way to deal with an issue without suppressing a free press.

Good words, for certain, but President Bush missed the mark on one subtle point.  He was indeed correct to note that, while Iraq wracked by horrific violence in 2006, countless US troops were working to bring some decency to the people of Iraq, despite the abhorrent conditions.  He was also correct in mentioning that a free press is a paramount value in our society.  Moreover, the President should also be credited for mentioning the value of blogs.

Yet, it's in the mention of blogs and the Internet that Mr. Bush missed a beat.  Undoubtedly, there were hundreds, if not thousands, of service members with such pictures and videos.  Unfortunately, even a broadcast journalist, depicted in the town hall meeting above, was unable to disseminate videos of reconstruction efforts to an larger audience.  Why?  Because the DoD had essentially shot itself in the foot, as the DoD's draconian anti-blogging policies virtually ensured that these images would never see the light of day.  Milbloggers such as Captain Matthew Gallagher, author of "Kaboom:  A Soldier's War Journal", were ordered to shut down their blogs, resulting in twenty-five Congressional inquiries.  (Shameless plug:  buy Matt's book, based on his blog)

Lt. General William Caldwell, then one of the military's top spokesmen in Iraq, was introduced to social media sites, such as Facebook and Youtube, by his younger staffers.  Circumventing the Defense Department's IT bureaucracy, Lt. Gen. Caldwell and his staff created one of the most popular Youtube channels in the world at the time, showcasing successful missions, and highlighting development and reconstruction projects.

It took bold, senior-level pioneers to make the medium work, helping to dispel the belief that "weak leaders" might use the DoD's anti-blogging policy to crush dissent.  Admiral James Stavridis was one of the first senior military officers to provide periodic dispatches during his travels about South and Central America, while serving as the Commander of US Southern Command.  General Martin Dempsey, tapped to be the next Army Chief of Staff, has also posted at Small Wars Journal extensively, soliciting ideas and advice from from SWJ's brilliant, albeit somewhat eclectic audience.  

Today, the military relies heavily on social media to tell its story.  Its pervasive presence on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Youtube conveys the candor, bravery, and dedication of the US military and its allies to audiences all over the world.  And we owe it to the efforts of these senior-level officers, as well as the dozens of "boots-on-ground" milbloggers who defied the DoD's policies and turned this medium into a mainstream occurance.  Sure, there's going to be some guffaws, and maybe some Gaga, but it's a small price to pay for ensuring that our side of the story makes it to the public domain.

Addendum:  As one of the godfathers of military blogging, Greyhawk, is fond of saying, "When Milblogs are outlawed, only outlaws will have Milblogs".  Thank God for outlaws.      

No comments: