Twitter and the Military Professional

The risks are real but the rewards are spectacular.

Perhaps of interest to few OTB readers but my latest for War on the Rocks, “Twitter Doesn’t Have to be the End of the Conversation,” has posted. It’s a response to an earlier essay in the same publication from a smart young Army officer warning of the perils of social media for the military profession, both in terms of good order and discipline and civil-military relations.

My premise:

Social media has the potential to make anyone famous, but rarely in a good way. Tweets, TikToks, Instagram stories, Facebook posts, and the like can go viral, and thoughtless acts by otherwise obscure people can turn them into instant celebrities. This is equally true in the armed forces, as more than one young officer has learned the hard way.

These cautionary tales should be heeded by military leaders hoping to contribute to the conversation about the future of their profession. They should absolutely remember that they have sworn an oath to the Constitution and that their subordinates and the American public will see them as representatives of the institution, regardless of any disclaimers posted in their bios.

The duty to conduct themselves as professionals, however, should not deter them from the many benefits to be gained by interactions on social media. There is a vast network of national security professionals, uniformed and civilian, eager to engage. The ability to glean their insights and bounce ideas off them in real time is invaluable and was unimaginable even a quarter century ago.

The conclusion:

Military professionals should indeed be wary of the risks of social media, but we should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Like it or not, the democratization and flattening of the conversation brought about by social media is here to stay. Like blogs before it, Twitter brings challenges that leaders will have to learn to manage. While Lipsky is correct that Twitter alone will not steward the military profession, the expansion of the proverbial “water cooler” to a global network brings enormous advantages. Not only will it enrich professional discussions and demystify the profession by making them public. It may also force leaders to ensure their actions — and the justification for them — can withstand public scrutiny. And, when those actions fall short, social media also has a role to play in promoting accountability and transparency in addressing deficiencies.

There’s a lot in between, much of it drawn from a Saturday-morning Twitter conversation with my own network.

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, Military Affairs, Published Elsewhere, Social Media
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    You’re a little self-deprecating about this subject, James. It’s quite important. The last three sentences of your post underline that point.

    Trump, for all his utter ghastliness, at least taught us the power of social media.

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  2. Michael Reynolds says:

    Counterpoint: social media sucks and everyone – certainly everyone in any sort of hierarchical organization – should avoid it. And we should all profoundly wish for it to die. It’s been a curse on the human race, ramping up incoherent rage, spreading lies, and doing nothing to improve people’s lives, quite the contrary.

    I deleted my Facebook account something like two years ago. Have not missed it in the least. Wish I’d done it earlier.

    I’ve been off Twitter for the last few weeks and can honestly say I don’t think I missed anything. It’s mostly fan service for me. I don’t find Twitter at all useful for exchanging views, it’s a room full of people screaming at each other, and not even screaming across the aisle but screaming at the like-minded about how hateful the other guys are.

    If I could push a button and magically end Facebook, Twitter, Instagram et al, I’d do so without hesitation. Happiness would increase, anger decrease, lies would lose their deadly acceleration, and productivity would rise. It’s done no end of harm to society and there is no counterbalancing upside.

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  3. CSK says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    I understand perfectly what you’re saying, but I think Twitter, FB, et al. are here to stay.

    Does OTB count as social media? I’d miss this place. I don’t comment anywhere else.

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  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    @CSK:
    OTB is an outlier, and no, I don’t put blogs in the same category as social media.

    I accept that social it’s here to stay, but I accept it in much the same way that I accept that we’ll have covid around for quite a while, an apt analogy since a great many of the people who’ve died from covid were killed by social media. Social media has made the population overall dumber and nastier. It has lowered the ambient IQ of the the United States by a good 10%. If American democracy dies it will have been murdered by social media.

    As for its effect on culture I think it’s been just awful.

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  5. CSK says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    The worst thing social media has done is permit crackpots and their idiotic conspiracy theories and malignant misinformation to reach an audience of hundreds of millions. It used to be that those people were limited to screaming on street corners and cranking out a few dozen copies of badly typed and mimeographed “newsletters” that they then had to lug to the post office and mail.

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  6. Andy says:

    It should come as no surprise that I’m solidly on #TeamMichael on this one. Social Media generally, and Twitter specifically, are mind cancer for most people. At the very least, anyone who uses these platforms should be forced to watch “The Social Dilemma.” They are specifically designed to exploit cognitive flaws in the way our species thinks.

    As I recall, James uses Twitter in a non-traditional way that at least partly short-circuits the engagement algorithm. He is also an experienced hand in terms of communicating with the self-discipline to not rise to the bait – which is something I’ve always admired about him and have personally failed to emulate at his standard. In short, he’s exceptional. But the Twitter algorithm and his curated list of people he follows are still creating a cognitive and informational bubble, even if it’s not as all-encompassing as it is for less educated and sophisticated users.

    That said, Twitter can be a fantastic resource if you operate it in receive-only mode. I used Twitter extensively as an intelligence analyst to get warnings and information for impending or breaking events and, at least at that time (5+ years ago) it was the only game in town, particularly for the less-paved parts of the world. Social media generally is a great tool for open-source intelligence and information gathering, but like any tool it can be used for good or evil. Bellingcat, for instance, used it to help prove that the Russians shot down MH-17 over Ukraine and also helped prove that Russian troops were actively fighting Ukrainian troops in the Donbas while disguised as rebels.

    On the other side of that coin, we have a cottage industry that seeks to use social media research to destroy political opponents or people they just don’t like. The examples of this are too many to list.

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  7. CSK says:

    @Michael Reynolds: @Andy:

    Social media are like Trump: They appeal to as well as provide an outlet for people’s absolute worst instincts.

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  8. EddieInCA says:

    @Michael Reynolds: @CSK:

    I never joined Facebook. Never joined Instagram. I have a Twitter account and probably 40 followers, but I tweet about twice a year. Usually congratulating someone about something.

    I’ve seen friends of mine having great days wrecked by a simple post on Facebook. I’ve seen otherwise smart people degrade themselves in Twitter and Facebook battles about nothing important. The time suck is amazing.

    Ans as Michael notes above, it gives free reign to crackpots and sociopaths to ply their insanity in public with a veneer of respectability.

    I know it’s here to stay. But many many people would be happier and more productive if they dumped all social media and went back to focusing on family, friends and neighbors rather than trying to impress or argue with randos on Social Media

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  9. EddieInCA says:

    Why the heck is my comment in moderation hell?

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  10. Andy says:

    @CSK:

    Social media are like Trump: They appeal to as well as provide an outlet for people’s absolute worst instincts.

    It reminds me of a scene in the Howard Stern movie “Private Parts” where an audience researcher and “Pig Vomit” are discussing audience engagement and listenership of his show:

    Researcher: The average radio listener listens for eighteen minutes a day. The average Howard Stern fan listens for – are you ready for this? – an hour and twenty minutes.
    Kenny (Pig Vomit): How could this be?
    Researcher: Answer most commonly given: “I want to see what he’ll say next.”
    Kenny (Pig Vomit): All right, fine. But what about the people who hate Stern?
    Researcher: Good point. The average Stern hater listens for two and a half hours a day.
    Kenny (Pig Vomit): But… if they hate him, why do they listen?
    Researcher: Most common answer: “I want to see what he’ll say next.”

    I think it’s basically the same with Trump. In terms of engagement, he was very good at getting liberals engaged and spreading his message. And I’d guess the same is true for partisan “news” and opinion.

    Social media takes this natural tendency and turns it into a science-based, well-oiled, engagement machine.

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  11. Dutchgirl says:

    I am part of several niche groups on Facebook, and yes, it has made my life better (I can ask the average number of sets on an Elizabethan ruff and get answers with documentation in minutes). I live on a small island in the middle of the Pacific and I have friends all over the world. I can keep in touch with them in a way not possible before social media. Its new and we’re still learning. There was panic about mass printing, radio, and TV too. Social media, carefully curated, is a good thing.

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