Even the staunchest supporters of Britain’s armed forces – me included – will acknowledge, albeit sometimes grudgingly, that our military tends to lag behind the society from which it recruits by about 20 years or so in social attitudes and trends.
This article was submitted by Stuart Crawford, a regular officer in the Royal Tank Regiment for twenty years, retiring in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1999. Crawford now works as a political, media, and defence and security consultant in Edinburgh and is a regular commentator and contributor on military and defence topics in online and other media, including the UK Defence Journal.
Think racism, women in combat units and the acceptance of cohabitation to name but three. Thankfully, in all of these examples to services have more or less caught up with civilian norms, in attitude if not in practice quite yet.
However, the military is really struggling to adapt to the comparatively recent proliferation of social media. Two recent examples will illustrate: the first in which a Vice Admiral in our very own Royal Navy tweeted a chart which bore all the hallmarks of “right-on” current civilian management practice but meant very little, if anything, at all. He obviously thought this was a clever and smart thing to thus illustrate the workings of a two day workshop, but the chart was undecipherable to normal folk and brought widespread derision on various social media platforms from ranks much junior to his own. It also made him look like a complete chump.
The second was when a Colonel from the Army’s own communications department – oh, the irony – bemoaned both the state of his arm’s internal communications and current military use of open access social media and online forums. He was quickly put back in his box by some of the very soldiers whose communications he is apparently meant to be directing.
The main, and some would say only, reason that many senior military officers regard social media as anathema is because it provides an easily accessed communications channel alternative to the chain of command. Junior soldiers, airmen, and matelots can criticise, and sometimes ridicule, their commanders from the safety of anonymised accounts. And commanders, particularly senior ones, used to being insulated from overt criticism by their juniors, don’t like it one little bit.
Such commanders from all three services much prefer, I would suggest, their communications to be one way only, from them to their subordinates, permanently on send and not receive. This antiquated approach permeates their tentative steps into the new medium. Bombastic and patronising may be seen by some as too strong a criticism, but take for example the British Army’s regular Thursday tweet in which its states (and I paraphrase here) that its people are its greatest asset (probably true) and that they are the finest the nation can provide (demonstrably untrue).
If only the operator(s) of that particular account – @BritishArmy – would insert, as I have suggested oftentimes, “some of the” before “finest” it would be much less condescending and much more truthful. But this particular social media account appears to be for sending only and not amenable to responses. Accordingly, it continues to pump out this fatuous nonsense week after week ad nauseam.
I also understand that attempts are being made to control access to social media by servicemen and women by the introduction of something called Defence Connect. I have no knowledge of this platform, although possibly it’s an idea perhaps that veterans should have access to it too? Be that as it may, it appears that our military personnel are being encouraged to use it rather than “civvy” outlets. This, I suspect, is a forlorn hope born out of wishful thinking. Social media cannot be uninvented nor can military personnel be prevented from using it.
The armed forces, therefore, have to adapt. Commanders at all levels will either have to get used to being criticised by their troops for all to see or give up using social media altogether. In other words leave the battlefield for others to contest, which goes against the grain. Far better I believe the grasp the nettle and engage, if only because criticism from below does not necessarily mean disrespect.
This is hardly a problem for military leadership alone. Civilian management had to confront the pluses and minuses of widespread social media proliferation many moons ago, and there are some useful rules that can be applied.
First of all, constructive criticism and debate needs to be encouraged. As previously stated, disagreement should not be confused with disrespect. I got some brilliant feedback from my blokes way back before social media was invented, with some of the best ideas coming from the most junior troopers. The same can apply today.
Next, trolls should be blocked without mercy. You can spot them straight away, single issue fanatics and bored individuals nothing better to do than criticise everything to compensate for their own personal failings and unhappiness. Likewise, there should be no engagement with those who hide behind noms de plume; if they’re too scared to put their names to it they’re not worth the time of day.
Most importantly, of course, is the need for commanders to get used to it. Social media is the context in which most of us engage these days. My personal favourite is Twitter (see @509298, my old army number!) and I have learned masses from being on it. In many ways it is now my primary research tool and I would thoroughly recommend it.
Above all else, the military institution needs to use social media better. To quote from Scorsese’s The Irishman, “it is what it is” and it isn’t going away. The armed forces need to use it to send and receive and grasp the opportunities it presents.
And if you’re big and bold enough to tweet, for example, as @CGS, then you’d better be big and bold enough to handle the criticism and engage in the debate!