Last week, top officials at the Pentagon issued a policy directive allowing US military personnel to use social media tools like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter on unclassified government computers and networks, no matter what locale they're serving. Policies regarding access to – as well as providing content for – sites like YouTube and Flickr have also been loosened up. This modification in policy has been a long time in coming, and it's a great step in the right direction.
The military previously was wary of adopting social media tools, citing the potential risks and threats to computer networks, breaches in information security in the battle-space, and concerns about exposing the military to charges of propagandizing the public. As a result, military personnel have previously encountered a crazy-quilt of conflicting policies about social media, depending on which military service they belonged to and where they were serving. The result was confusion and inconsistencies that sometimes bordered on the ridiculous. I know this from personal experience during my four years in government and my time in Iraq.
The new Pentagon social media directive outlines a clear and consistent common-sense approach for protecting “operational security” – also known as OpSec – while balancing the need for the military to adopt the latest communications tools, sustain troop morale (especially those away from their families on extended deployments), and shine a light on the astonishing array of things that the US military does, both on and off the battlefield. Used correctly and practiced wisely, social media can serve as an effective way for military personnel to highlight the important work they're doing, as well as the conditions under which they're doing it.
Not only will social media tools allow members of the armed forces to better connect with their families, friends, and audiences around the world, but it will also enable the leadership inside the Pentagon and in the combatant commands to engage with the men and women serving in uniform – at all levels.
Just as important, the military can harness social networking as a powerful communications tool during humanitarian crises and peacekeeping operations. The recent earthquake in Haiti is a great example of these tools in action. The collaborative use of social media enabled the military, NGOs, and other relief organizations to communicate and coordinate their respective activities, locate missing persons, as well as provide on-the-ground assessments of conditions all around the earthquake-ravaged nation.
This new Pentagon policy on social media is a good one, both for our armed forces and for our country's image abroad. Responsibly used, social media tools are, to use another military term, a “force multiplier” – one that will enable an Army of One to engage in a dialogue with literally millions of people around the world.
Robert Tappan, a former senior official at the US Department of State, is president of The Tappan Group, a public affairs firm based in the Washington, DC, area. His monthly column looks at issues advocacy and related public affairs topics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.