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!

0 0 vote
Article Rating
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
18 Comments
oldest
newest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Daniele Mandelli
Daniele Mandelli
7 months ago

“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.”

That could apply to UKDJ. There was one yesterday.
As for being anonymous, not applicable as so many are who post respectfully and do not troll or provoke.

Robert1
Robert1
7 months ago

Have to concur on the anonymity. No way I could comment and allude to the big grey things I’ve worked on if I didn’t use a nom de plume.

I do somewhat agree with the sentiment of the author in someways though, i.e. Half the abuse you see for celebrities etc on social media comes from people hiding behind anonymity.

Gunbuster
Gunbuster
7 months ago
Reply to  Robert1

Totally agree.
I like to stay unknown for security reasons. I still work on pussers greys so I also have to think before I type.
Its a careful balance to maintain.

ChariotRider
ChariotRider
7 months ago

Yup, when I was working with the military I inevitably worked on stuff you cannot talk about, so careful thought must go into each post. If in doubt stay, keep stumb…

Andy P
Andy P
7 months ago

While I don’t do twitter/facebook etc I obviously use forum type platforms so have a toe in the Social media pool. While in principal I have no problem with putting my name to things, it’s a bit like walking round town with your phone number on a T shirt. It can attract unwanted attention or leave you open to as not everyone might be playing by the same rules. It does seem easier to inflate your ego through this medium though “how dare they say that about ME !” stuff then of course things can be taken the wrong way… Read more »

Herodotus
7 months ago
Reply to  Andy P

Very well put! 🙂

Herodotus
7 months ago

I’m afraid that you are hiding behind anonymity in the sense that you have alluded to, but not revealed, who the suspected troll is. 🙂

ChariotRider
ChariotRider
7 months ago

I have not paid much attention to the militaries’ attempts at being down with the kids, but I could well imagine that the more senior officers being of a certain age – just like me-self – probably make a right mess of it. Every generation has its different attitudes and social media is a very quick and on occassion very brutal way to get exposed to those differences. The author raises some interesting points about recognising that critisism is NOT disrespect – you’ll soon know if you’re being disrespected, to use the modern term… I would have thought that social… Read more »

Herodotus
7 months ago
Reply to  ChariotRider

Yep…nothing worse than a stuffy establishment figure trying to look cool 🙂

Andy P
Andy P
7 months ago
Reply to  ChariotRider

CR, I found that there was a general distrust of what ‘the lads’ issues were. Being an old and articulate head in the Junior Rates mess I was often the ‘go to’ for the chats with the ‘high heidyins’, either in larger groups or in smaller numbers. In an unofficial ‘shop steward’ role I found that the things that the guys were most concerned about just didn’t resonate, we were happy enough (while moaning) to do the sea time, lots of duties etc but when (for example) the thorny issue of parking in Faslane was raised it was seen as… Read more »

ChariotRider
ChariotRider
7 months ago
Reply to  Andy P

Hi Andy P, Your experience is interesting. The military have been making much about recruiting from ‘Comprehensives’ in recent years. I also read on the Thin Pinnstriped Line that the MOD’s school sponsorship scheme that puts service personel’s children through public schools. It has had quite some success in getting service kids into officer training. I good test of how effective any of this has been would be to see if attitudes at senior level is changing any? The evidence is ‘not yet’, although the subject of the article is focused on Social Media which is obviously not the complete… Read more »

PaulSergeant
PaulSergeant
7 months ago

The latest statistics may indicate that the Army is turning things round, but very slowly. Jan 2020 is the first time since June 2010 when intake (recruitment) outstripped outflow. It’s only an increase of trade trained strength by 200 to 73,670 but the intake strength is up and outflow is roughly level.

PaulSergeant
PaulSergeant
7 months ago
Reply to  PaulSergeant

“intake strength is up” should have been: intake trend is up.

PaulSergeant
PaulSergeant
7 months ago
Reply to  PaulSergeant

Success breeds success, the saying goes. The increased intake of (presumably young) recruits should be encouraged to put their experiences on social media to interest, and maybe encourage, others. When my son was at school, nothing had happened unless it was on Facebook. Twitter was a useless waste of time but he copied things there because there was an audience. At university, at least in the first year or two, he kept in touch mainly with Snapchat. I think he still uses all these and Instagram, I don’t know what else (there is his web site). The Army, other armed… Read more »

Reaper
Reaper
7 months ago

Very good article, particularly about the officer echo chamber. Think defence regularly calls them out for the fart sniffing dress they churn out.

SM isn’t going away but what the military need to do is concentrate on quality not quantity content. We don’t need the CO of 1st bn train spotting regiment posting images of his troops doing some pointless guff drill in the rain whilst has tagging the shit out of the post. #imnotinterestedmateandireallydonthinkanyoneelseis

PaulSergeant
PaulSergeant
7 months ago
Reply to  Reaper

If you are interested, here is an example of what senior officers say.
https://www.army.mod.uk/news-and-events/news/2020/01/british-army-at-the-international-armoured-vehicles-conference-twickenham-20-23-january-2020/

He very well knows integral and differential (risk / benefit) calculus.
He is the very model of a modern(isation) Major General.

PaulSergeant
PaulSergeant
7 months ago
Reply to  PaulSergeant

For those not familiar with Gilbert & Sullivan, and for those who are, I can recommend this performance.
https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=JTSpFksJ9LQ

Reaper
Reaper
7 months ago
Reply to  PaulSergeant

Very interesting but also a fine example of pseudo modernity, faux progress b/s that we have become accustomed to. All of it is guff. The man on the ground with his finger on the trigger wants only a couple of things: kit that is lethal, dependable and superior to the enemy and a clear directive with full support and up to date int pictures. It really isn’t hard. So to deliver these things you need one thing: a voice that is heard in all aspects of the military picture. I can only conclude from being that very man on the… Read more »