7 rules for how military leaders should use social media

Commandant Gen. Neller Talks Social Media Misconduct

Editor's Note: The following is an op-ed. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Task & Purpose.

Fifty years ago this month, a small Pentagon project designed to allow scientists to share time on the early versions of computers changed the world. The first links of what originally called "ARPANET" moved us all into the Internet Age, changing everything from business, dating, to daily reads.

Along the way, though, the Internet also became a new kind of battlefield. Nations, organizations, and even individuals are now hacking not just the networks themselves (a.k.a. "cyberwar," where the object is to breach a network), but also increasingly the people on them (what can be thought of as "likewar," where the object is to drive something viral through a mix of likes, shares, and sometimes lies).

Some in the old guard argue social media is irrelevant to the real world and should be avoided completely by military members, especially given operational security concerns. Others argue the opposite and treat it like free-fire zone with the accompanying risks. There is a middle ground, however.

Like any other good Internet meme that builds off a pre-existing concept, below are the seven suggested "Pillars" of personal use of social media by the military.

1) Social Media Still Matters, Even If You Aren't There

Don't take all the problems, risks, and sometimes silliness of social media as a reason not to be there. What happens on social matters, shaping everything from individual behavior to the outcomes of battles (the 2014 Battle of Mosul as the first example) and even the health of nations, both literally (the return of childhood diseases is linked to anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories) and figuratively (over 30 democratic nations have seen their elections attacked by foreign government disinformation campaigns).

Like any vacuum, social media abhors a vacuum. If you are not there, someone else will fill the void. Indeed, they might even fill it with a fake account in your name, as has happened to pretty much every senior military leader.

2) The Network Is Where What You Need Is

Even if you never post something on social media, a world of open-source intelligence lies at your fingertips. We are in a world where there are not just literally billions of sensors gathering information, but each person online can share that information in real-time.

The online world is now a, if not the, essential place to gather info on your operating environment. Whether it is learning the concerns of those you lead to gaining insight into what is going on in a region that you might deploy into, social media is now a crucial repository of real-time information.

3) Your Profession Is Changing Online

Social media is the new war college seminar room, military journal, and officers' club barroom rolled into one. Mixed in with jokes and snark, some of the most important issues of the military profession are being hashed out online, often under the hashtag #miltwitter.

Whether the issue is doctrine, personnel policy, or ethics, the online networks are where much of the latest news and commentary are being shared and debated.

4) Leaders Don't Lurk

If you want to communicate, social media is the place you now have to be. Its whole appeal and value is that it is a space for both one-on-one interaction and mass broadcast. And this is even more so for the generations that have grown up in a world shaped by it. Earlier this year, I was at a military conference where a general gave out his Twitter and Instagram handles to the audience of young officers.

It was not an act of self-promotion, but leadership.

Social media is where those you lead, their families, partners in industry, other agencies, and allied militaries, as well as the wider public, are now. Indeed, it may be even more influential than other forms of media, as more than 90% of professional journalists, be they newspaper, radio, or TV reporters, use what's happening on social media to determine what stories to cover, who to interview, and even whether to double down and cover the same story again.

5) Fire and Forget Fails

Social media is not a space you can just have your staff push out an official announcement every few months and expect success. A savvy online world sees though that, making it almost worse than not being there in the first place. In social media, authenticity is the coin of the realm, supported by scale.

Engaging and interacting consistently will help you understand the issues, debates, and thought leaders, as well as filter what is valuable or not. It also builds up a network and credibility that you might need at some point.

6) Don't Post Stupid Shit (a.k.a. The Obama Rule)

Being there doesn't mean being stupid about it. There are formal rules and laws that members of the military have to follow as part of a taxpayer-paid, unique profession that is responsible for national security. Carry yourself with all the trust and responsibility that comes with that role. There are also rules of behavior in the online world that may not be written in the Constitution or UCMJ, but they are just as important.

This is not just about giving away obvious matters of operational security or personal information that you use in your passwords. It is also how you act. Social media already has enough fools and trolls, it doesn't need the military reinforcing their numbers.

7) The Internet Never Forgets

Your every post leaves a trail behind you that is full of far more information than most people realize. Online posts reveal not just what you are doing or saying, but also your psychological profile and influence points. Be aware that adversaries will be constantly mining your posts and those around you for insight into you.

We should expect looming big data versions of the infamous scene from the movie Patton, just now with the line changed to "Rommel you magnificent bastard, I read your Tweet!" An enemy might be able to project likely actions based on everything from psychological tendencies to which historic leaders they are apt to mimic, drawn from their own book reading lists. Limit the nuance of what you share, and follow the Russian strategy of mixing in a few false steers. Yet perhaps more pernicious to the future of the U.S. military is how this trail will shape future careers and broader civil military relations.

Far too many officers openly display their partisanship and even disrespect for the government they serve online.

In a survey, over a third of U.S. military officers self-reported sharing "insulting, rude, or disdainful comments on social media directed against elected leaders, including the president." They well may deserve it, perhaps now more than ever, but this behavior bodes dangerous trends for the future of both internal culture and civil-military relations, with a West Point professor describing it as "toxic to the officer corps."

It may not feel right nor fair, but such information is going to be mined for use in future evaluations and even promotions. Just as photos from a holiday party can torpedo an otherwise distinguished career, it is easy to see how a White House official, congressional staffer, or even fellow officer is going to hold up an advancement one day based on an old post that shows the officer is "…not on our team." Keep your partisanship to the voting booth. The term "duty of silence" has been controversially argued in how it applies to those that are retired, but there is no controversy that it clearly applies to those on active duty.

In the end, how military officers should handle social media is like any other realm: by understanding its rewards, rules, and risks.

You can avoid this space, but you will be missing out on opportunities to understand and engage in a way that aids your career and those you serve. Yet, entering it comes with obligations and perils, which, like everything online, are magnified if you don't operate with good sense. To be a professional means to be part of a career that follows a code. Act online like the smart professional that you are, and you'll be fine.

P.W. Singer is a Strategist at New America and the co-author of LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, out in paperback this month.

Nothing says joint force battle management like a ride-sharing app. (Task & Purpose photo illustration)

The Air Force's top general says one of the designers of the ride-sharing app Uber is helping the branch build a new data-sharing network that the Air Force hopes will help service branches work together to detect and destroy targets.

The network, which the Air Force is calling the advanced battle management system (ABMS), would function a bit like the artificial intelligence construct Cortana from Halo, who identifies enemy ships and the nearest assets to destroy them at machine speed, so all the fleshy humans need to do is give a nod of approval before resuming their pipe-smoking.

Read More
The newly painted F-15 Eagle flagship, dubbed the Heritage Jet, was painted to honor 1st Lt. David Kingsley, the namesake for Kingsley Field, and his ultimate sacrifice. (U.S. Air National Guard/Senior Master Sgt. Jennifer Shirar)

An F-15C Eagle is sporting a badass World War II-era paint job in honor of a fallen bomber pilot who gave everything to ensure his men survived a deadly battle.

Read More
The wreckage of a U.S. Air Force E-11A Battlefield Airborne Communications Node aircraft is seen after a crash in Deh Yak district of Ghazni province, Afghanistan on January 27, 2020 (Reuters photo)

A U.S. E-11A Battlefield Airborne Communications Node aircraft crashed on Monday on Afghanistan, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein has confirmed.

Read More
In this June 7, 2009 file photo Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (24) points to a player behind him after making a basket in the closing seconds against the Orlando Magic in Game 2 of the NBA basketball finals in Los Angeles. Bryant, the 18-time NBA All-Star who won five championships and became one of the greatest basketball players of his generation during a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, died in a helicopter crash Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. He was 41. (Associated Press/Mark J. Terrill)

Beloved basketball legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven other people were killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California on Sunday. Two days earlier, Army Spc. Antonio I. Moore was killed during a vehicle rollover accident while conducting route clearing operations in Syria.

Which one more deserves your grief and mourning? According to Maj. Gen. John R. Evans, commander of the U.S. Army Cadet Command, you only have enough energy for one.

Read More
Jessica Purcell of St. Petersburg, a captain in the Army Reserve, was pregnant with son Jameson when she was told at a MacDill Air Force Base clinic not to worry about lumps under her arm. She now is diagnosed stage 4 cancer. Jameson is 10 months old. (Tampa Bay Times/Scott Keeler via Tribune News Service)

Jessica Purcell, a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve, was pregnant with her first child when she noticed a swollen lymph node in her left underarm.

Health-care providers at a MacDill Air Force Base clinic told her it was likely an infection or something related to pregnancy hormones. The following year they determined the issue had resolved itself.

It hadn't. A doctor off base found a large mass in her underarm and gave her a shocking diagnosis: stage 2 breast cancer.

Purcell was pregnant again. Her daughter had just turned 1. She was 35. And she had no right to sue for malpractice.

A 1950 Supreme Court ruling known as the Feres doctrine prohibits military members like Purcell from filing a lawsuit against the federal government for any injuries suffered while on active duty. That includes injury in combat, but also rape and medical malpractice, such as missing a cancer diagnosis.

Thanks in part to Tampa lawyer Natalie Khawam, a provision in this year's national defense budget allows those in active duty to file medical malpractice claims against the government for the first time since the Feres case.

With the Department of Defense overseeing the new claims process, the question now is how fairly and timely complaints will be judged. And whether, in the long run, this new move will help growing efforts to overturn the ruling and allow active duty members to sue like everyone else.

Read More