Are there any in the British army who know what Facebook is?

by DR ROBERT T. FOLEY

The seemingly incongruous title of this post comes from a tweet I sent at the weekend forwarding the Guardian’s report on the establishment of 77 Brigade, a unit designed to ‘control the narrative’ of current and future British operations through, amongst other things, the intelligent use of social media. My tweet started a long discussion on Twitter over the weekend involving quite a few serving British officers, as well as other interested parties. The medium of Twitter, however stimulating, has its restrictions, so I thought a longer form blog post would allow for some of the points and ideas from the debate to be aired more fully.

In my view, the response to my tweet demonstrates some important things about the use, and abuse, of social media. First, one of the great joys of a medium like Twitter is the ability to convey multiple meanings in short form. Obviously, many words have more than one meaning and so can seemingly simple phrases, like ‘are there any in the British army who know what Facebook is?’ Of course I know that many in the British army use Facebook and other social media. A glance at my Twitter page shows that many of those I follow on Twitter are either British officers or British military units. The meaning I intended with my question wasn’t ‘is there anybody out there,’ but rather ‘how well does the British army as an institution understand the subtleties of social media use’? Following from this, a further meaning is ‘is the British military the most appropriate institution to be attempting to do this type of thing’?

Fortunately, I think a fruitful discussion on this topic emerged from the subsequent Twitter discussion. I certainly learned a lot from the debate. Personally, I learned that irony and sarcasm don’t translate well into 140 characters (points to anyone that spots incidences in this post!). On the topic of social media usage, one of the important things I learned from the discussion is that the reports across the British media about 77 Brigade were ill-informed, if not misleading. (For those interested on its broader roles, see pp. 121-122 of the not-very-social-media-friendly The British Army 2014. My thanks to @ForcesReviewUK for drawing my attention to this document.)

This raises an interesting question, though. Why did the UK media report the unit in the way it did? The inability of the British armed forces to get its message across on this to a (generally) friendly media doesn’t fill me with confidence in its ability to ‘control the narrative’ against hostile media and other unsympathetic opinion formers.

This leads me back to my original question about understanding the subtleties of social media use and the armed forces as an appropriate institution to attempt to shape narratives. Undoubtedly, getting one’s own message out and countering an opponent’s message is hugely important in wartime, now as it has ever been. (We used to call this ‘propaganda,’ but ‘message’,  ‘narrative’, or ‘influence’ sounds a lot less threatening in today’s world.) Throughout history, the most effective communicators have rarely been those in the armed forces (or academics for that matter!), and I haven’t seen anything recently that would convince me that armed forces today are any better than their predecessors at communicating.

On the contrary, my personal experience with the British armed forces has demonstrated a broad, if no means complete, hostility towards and distrust of the way so much of the world communicates today. Regulations may permit members of the armed forces to use social media and to blog, but most I have encountered feel strongly that it isn’t the ‘done thing’ and that commands actively discourage individuals from using these media. Indeed, amongst many I have come across there is a palpable fear that surrounds its usage. (Vide, a recent thought-provoking post from ThinkDefence.co.uk on the curious absence of military bloggers in Britain.) Moreover, the regulations themselves appear to be far from clear. While troops may be allowed to use social media, other regulations indicate that all external communication has to be cleared with Defence press officers. Indeed, even the page leading to the regulations permitting social media use is headlined ‘Think Before You Share.’ It’s no wonder that there is a reluctance by many in the UK armed forces to take the risk of learning to make use of social media.

We might think of this as the ‘social-media problematique’: In order to become proficient at using social media, individuals need to be trusted to make use of its platforms for communication. However, using social media opens the organisation up to all manner of potential risk from individuals saying the ‘wrong’ thing or being misinterpreted. To protect itself, the organisation understandably attempts to control messages and restrict open communication, but this can have unintended consequences, particularly as communication is complex and difficult to control.

Now obviously 77 Brigade will have social media usage a part of its remit, so its troops will presumably be encouraged to use and understand modern social media. I am confident that there will be some individuals who will do this very, very well. The problem comes, in my view, from this broader organisational culture that frowns on troops who make use of social media outside 77 Brigade, as it is from the wider armed forces that 77 Brigade will draw its troops. Unlike strategy or international relations theory, social media usage cannot be taught in a couple-week course. It has to be practiced, and troops must feel ‘empowered’ — to use a term from last weekend’s debate — to share and to communicate. Moreover, there will be some that will be adept that this type of communication and others who are not. Fear of ridicule or fear that one’s career might be put in jeopardy for saying the ‘wrong’ thing do not lead to empowerment and retard a culture of using social media for institutional (and individual) good. If the much-larger US armed forces are struggling to find individuals capable of doing these tasks, can the smaller and more social-media hostile British armed forces?

So while 77 Brigade might have been formed, in part, to help Britain and its armed forces ‘control the narrative’ in its current and future operations, finding the right people to do this will, in my view, pose some serious challenges unless the British armed forces can change its own culture to embrace modern means of communication. I sincerely hope that they can do this — permitting broader discussion would benefit the armed forces in more ways than simply providing recruits for 77 Brigade. If this cannot be done, than perhaps such operations should be left to institutions that are culturally better suited to the complex task of shaping and informing public opinion.

In the meantime, anyone fancy joining the ‘#MechanizedMySpacers’ or ‘#Google+Guards’? I hear recruiting has begun!

The views expressed in this post are those of the author alone and do not represent those of King’s College London, the Defence Academy, or the Joint Services Command and Staff College.

Image courtesy of the Ministry of Defence, via defenceimagery.mod.uk through OGL.

6 thoughts on “Are there any in the British army who know what Facebook is?

  1. How have Whitehall ‘civil’ departments performed in presenting the narrative in recent years? It maybe worth checking.

    Professionals in information / media matters consider the work of RICU, part of OSCT, under the Home Office, to be lamentable – their focus being extremism and terrorism. One independent, well-placed observer noted there was NO online presence countering the activity of the jihadists. Yes the Met claim to take down thousands of extremist websites – which is different.

    Perhaps we should make Alistair Campbell the 77th’s Brigadier!

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    1. Thanks for your comments, David. I like the idea of Alistair Campbell heading 77 Brigade! This does rather make my point. I cannot speak on broader Whitehall ‘narrativing’ but when we think of those who are effective at communicating messages, it isn’t the military that springs to mind! Being proficient at communicating messages, whether via social media or more traditional forms, requires expertise and practice, not someone sent in for a short tour after a short course on the subject.

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  2. For me, one of the interesting aspects of this new unit is the choice of designation. 77 Brigade, as some of the reports have picked up on, draws comparison with the chindit brigade of the Second World War. However, given that the unit clearly has a joint slant to it, surely a new designation would have been more helpful. To me this smacks of the British Army saying, ‘this is our toy and we are going to stamp my authority over it’. I realise they are the controlling authority but by turning to history are they creating a distinctrive organisational choice that potnetially has two messages; one for the enemy and another for the other services.

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    1. You have opened a whole new can of worms, Ross! The implications of the choice of 77 Brigade for unit designation doesn’t appear to have been thought through very well. I agree with your point too about multiple messages. Designations are hugely important, and mean different things to different groups.

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