Social media is gaining increasing importance as a channel of communication, gathering and exchanging information, not only in the civilian domains but also in the military sectors, especially with the continuous growth in its employment and use as a platform for the purposes of information gathering, mobilization, recruitment, entertainment and social communication, and as a strategic communication tool for opinion formation and psychological operations, but in return, it implies many risks and challenges, especially in the military domains, most notably security violations and the risks of accidental disclosure of sensitive information.
Within this framework, this study presents the challenges and opportunities posed by the use of social media in the military domain, and the most prominent practices adopted by different countries to control the use of these means in the military field, in order to maximize opportunities and reduce risks and challenges associated with their use in a world where technological developments are difficult to follow, especially in terms of communication in general and communication between people.
First: The social media revolution…indications and facts
Social media is witnessing a remarkable and continuous growth in the number of social media users, according to Hootsuite’s report issued in July 2021 on the state of the Internet around the world, the number of active users of various social media around the world rose to about 4.48 billion active users, which is equivalent to 57 approximately % of the world’s total population.
Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp and Instagram are the most used social media platforms in the world. As for China, where social media and Western applications are prohibited, it has its own social media, the most famous of which are: WeChat, QQ and Douin, as shown in the figure below.
In parallel with this continuous expansion in the number of users of social media across the world, the influence of these means is growing at the national and global levels, as these means play many roles, some of them positive, such as developing awareness, influencing public opinion, defending national issues, and facilitating communication and cultural dialogue between peoples. and societies, and some of them are negative, as they are misused in many cases in a way that threatens security and peace in countries and societies, especially since they are not subject to frameworks or laws that control the content that is published on them, but have recently turned into a tool that helps extremist organizations spread destructive ideas and incitement on violence and hatred, and in spreading rumors and creating chaos and disorder. Some countries have also begun to use them as tools to interfere and influence other countries to impose specific agendas and directions or even bring about political and security changes that serve special agendas.
Second: The use of social media in the military domain
Talking about the use of social media in the military field is divided into two levels. The first is the institutional level, meaning the military institution employs these means to serve its goals, and the second is the individual level, meaning members of the armed forces and the military institution use these means through their personal accounts. The use of social media at each of these two levels has two sides, one positive and the other negative. The military institutions are trying to establish controls to reduce its risks, which can be explained as follows:
1 At the institutional level: Military and intelligence institutions in most countries of the world today pay great attention to social media as a source of data collection and analysis; because people around the world, whether they are opponents, allies or potential opponents, use these means to exchange information, express trends and opinions, and persuade others, and this information is exploited in many cases in order to support awareness about the operational environment for the protection of forces and security and for many tasks and goals of interest to the armed forces in their quest to preserve national security.
Data collected from social media also represents an important support for information operations, which the US Department of Defense defines as “the integrated employment, during military operations, of information-related capabilities, in conjunction with other lines of operations, to influence adversary decision-making. and potential adversaries, disrupting it, corrupting or taking it over, while protecting our own decision-making.” This requires a round-the-clock analysis of the data pumped through social media. The more advanced technological capabilities that the military institution possesses in collecting and analyzing data, the more it is able to benefit from it and employ it in the service of its military and civilian goals.
In general, possessing these capabilities is no longer limited to developed countries alone, but has become available to many emerging and even under developed countries of the world, as a result of the rapid growth of communication technologies that support social media platforms, which has given many the advantage of benefiting from the low cost of entry and easy access to new technologies and its use, which has become a challenge to the various military institutions around the world.
Social media also gives another advantage to the military institutions and the armed forces, which is to link the military institution to the public, as these means represent a powerful tool that the military use to communicate on a daily basis with public opinion to tell the army’s story, enhance its awareness, influence it, and involve it in content that conveys the institution’s values and goals. It also provides a credible environment in which reliable information for members of the armed forces and their families is disseminated and linked to the military institution.
The challenges and risks here are rather limited; because the military institution’s use of social media is done officially and according to clear controls that ensure adequate protection of information and control of the type of data that is disseminated, which may differ in the case of members of the armed forces using these means.
2 On an individual level: This is the focus of this study. There is a growing scope of debate and discussion about the advantages and risks of soldiers and armed forces personnel using their social media. Defenders of the right of soldiers to interact through social media, put forward the following advantages that social media provides for them:
Social media contributes, in accordance with this trend, to maintaining and strengthening the personal relationships of soldiers and military personnel with family, friends and support groups, by communicating with them through these platforms through chatting and exchanging photos and videos, which would reduce the tension of soldiers and military and their families both.
The military and soldiers can contribute through their use of social media to communicate the values and message of the military institution to their friends and families, which contributes to building positive relations between the military and civil society.
Social media helps in strengthening the links between former and current members of the military institutions and allowing the exchange of experiences and ideas through different contact groups across these platforms, which enhances the strength of ties within the military community, and allows former and current military personnel to present ideas that help in developing systems and combat operations. Social media can also help veterans reintegrate into military society and reduce feelings of isolation.
There is a huge amount of misinformation in social media, and some of it is related to the military establishment itself, and the military can, through the use of social media, contribute to confronting and correcting this misinformation and rumours.
On the other hand, there are many concerns and risks regarding soldiers and the military’s use of social media, the most prominent of which are:
Endangering the security of the military and national security: This is one of the most serious threats that can result from the military’s use of social media, especially if they do not have sufficient experience in securing information and accounts. By publishing photos and messages and locating geographical locations, these soldiers can easily be tracked and the locations they are in in a way that may expose them to the risk of being targeted by opponents and terrorists, or collect sensitive military information that benefits the opponents.
The risk of targeting extremist and terrorist groups: these groups are active on social media and promote hate speech and extremism, and there is always a risk that the military may be targeted and influenced by the thought and discourse of these groups, which poses a threat to the military institution and national security.
Spreading division and strife among the military: the use of social media without controls may cause the military to enter the circle of political, partisan, sectarian and ethnic discussions that contribute to their sliding into the circle of dispute and controversy that affects the cohesion of the military institution in some cases.
Social media can cause anxiety and stress for military personnel and their families; The presence of the military on combat missions in a dangerous environment can cause tension and anxiety for the families and friends of the military if they communicate with them through social media during these missions. Likewise, the military can become tense and lose focus if they follow the exposure of one of their friends or families to any crisis during their normal life.
Social media consumes the time of the military, and this can negatively affect their level of concentration and their performance during combat and security missions. The following figure shows that the average number of active-duty hours military personnel in the United States spend each day on social media platforms is now greater than that of ordinary personnel.
Figure showing the average number of active -duty hours military personnel in the United States spent per day on social media platforms in February 2020
Third: The military’s use of social media…between control and prevention
The experiences of military institutions across the world varied in how to deal with the challenges and risks involved in the military’s use of social media on their personal accounts. Measures taken in this regard ranged from prohibiting to denial of the use of these means by members of the armed forces, especially those on active duty in sensitive places or combat missions, and setting controls for their use.
In Russia, the House of Representatives (Doma) adopted a bill banning military personnel from carrying smartphones and communicating with journalists. The law also prohibits all means and devices through which data, photos, videos and geolocations can be saved using the Internet. The law allows the military to use social networking sites, but in a very limited way, as they cannot, for example, use the feature of and geospatial identification.
In February 2018, the Russian newspaper “Izvestia” reported that the Russian Ministry of Defense recommended that all employees and conscripts not use social media such as “Adonoklasinki” and “Vkontakte” in addition to “Facebook” and a number of other social networking sites. The newspaper confirmed that the ministry prevented its recruits from publishing any information or pictures about their places of service or determining the geographical location of their whereabouts.
In India, in June 2020, the army imposed a ban on the use of 89 smartphone applications, including 59 Chinese applications, and the ban also included popular applications such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.
In the United States, the Department of Defense allows the military to use social media, but it sets controls to regulate the matter, including prohibiting the military from using the Pentagon’s Internet to access their private pages, preventing them from publishing military information on their private pages, and penalize anyone who publishes any information or pictures or videos that offend political and military leaders, harm the reputation of the military institution, or endanger the public order of the armed forces. The British army adopts similar procedures to its American counterpart, and the military institutions in the United States and Britain have published a “guideline” explaining the controls for the use of social networking sites on their official websites.
In Israel, the army has enacted a number of regulating laws that specify a complete ban on intelligence personnel and air force pilots from using social media. The German army has also begun to activate a number of laws related to information security on social media since May 2012, after a long and difficult debate with the newspapers, where it called for preserving the secrets of the army in a way that prevents the military from publishing military information and photos, considering that the army’s issues should be far from communication Web-sites.
In general, the positions of military institutions around the world vary regarding how to deal with the issue of the military’s use of social media, but there is general agreement on the need to establish clear controls for the use of these platforms, especially by military personnel who are on duty or in sensitive locations, to reduce the risks and threats that could consequently be imposed the military institution in particular, and on national security in general. Among the most important of these controls, upon which most military institutions and military experts agree, are the following:
1 Preventing and criminalizing the publication of any information, photos or videos of the military or military installations that could be exploited by opponents to penetrate information systems or disclose sensitive information that harms national security, especially the operation of the geolocation feature that facilitates the process of tracking and disclosure of field plans.
2 Preventing and criminalizing the use of social media by the military in carrying out any practices that harm the reputation of the military institution, provoke controversy and strife among the military, or offend political and military leaders.
3 Banning the use of personal social media during service, especially in sensitive locations or during combat missions.
4 It is important in all cases to have a guideline for the use of social media platforms developed by the military, while working to educate the military in general, whether in active duty or outside service (retired) of the controls included in this guide and the risks that may accompany their use of these platforms.
By: Dr. Fattouh Heikal