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Social Media’s Impact on Civil-Military Relations: Balancing the Good with the Bad

Wild Blue Yonder --

 Introduction

            The internet has connected society and exposed information for public consumption at an unprecedented rate and volume. As part of society, military members are not immune to the ability to consume and share ideas, data, and opinions almost instantaneously. Despite some advantages, social media in particular presents risks to the state of civil-military relations in America today, blurring the lines between the media as an institution and general information sharing. It also presents a challenge to good order and discipline by threatening the military’s non-partisan position. Going forward, the military must confront how its members are using social media, or it risks losing public trust that took decades to build. This paper will begin by defining and describing social media, specifically its benefits as well as how it relates to the media’s role in the United States. Next, it will analyze social media’s effects on military good order and discipline and the implication for military commanders before concluding with recommendations for regulating social media usage in the future. One cannot understand social media’s impact on the military without first looking at its prevalence and appeal among servicemembers.

Social Media Usage and Benefits

            The US military has embraced social media for its efficiency at reaching large audiences across the globe. Nearly every military installation, command, and senior leader have a public Facebook page, Instagram, or Twitter account that its members, families, and community partners can access. Additionally, numerous subsets of groups in the military form private Facebook groups to share information among select users who are granted access. It is easy to understand why social media has become a common method for reaching military members. As of 2016, 71 percent of military officers reported having multiple social media accounts, and 87 percent reported having a Facebook account.1 In 2012, at the beginning of social media’s popularity boom, West Point and the National Defense University (NDU) identified five key benefits to social media platforms: interactive experiences and the ability to report and respond to events as they unfold; information integration and the ability to synthesize information across issues; widespread audiences and the ability to exchange with multiple groups at once; data immediacy and having access to information in real time; and logical, simple computer interfaces that enable usability.2 With so many military members using the platforms on a daily basis and military operations’ global and fast-changing pace, social media offers military officers a way to collaborate, share best practices, learn from each other’s experiences, and stay updated on topics relevant to their units in real time. As an institution, the Department of Defense (DOD) understandably embraced social media as way to help ensure servicemembers shared accurate information rather than falling victim to gossip and rumors. Additionally, it is the method of communication that young Americans not only prefer but expect.

            In addition to internal communication, social media benefits the DOD by effectively recruiting Generation Z (Gen Z) Americans. To sustain an all-volunteer force (AVF), the military needs to effectively advertise to a large audience. Born between the mid-1990s and approximately 2010, Gen Z are reaching military age eligibility and get their information almost exclusively through social media platforms, having abandoned print media and traditional television ads.3 As such, they may also be much more likely than previous generations to shop on the internet, which would make it less likely for them to encounter recruiting offices. Furthermore, public exposure to the military is decreasing. Only 15.6 percent of Americans have served or had an immediate relative serve in the military since the September 11th, 2001 attacks. Alternatively, more than 75 percent of Americans over sixty have had a member of their immediate family serve.4 Therefore, if young Americans are unaware of military life both in their personal lives as well as through how they consume information, recruiting through social media becomes the most effective, if not only, way to reach them. Social media benefits civil-military relations by helping to replenish the AVF and bridges the gap between civilian and military communities. However, the nature and volume of social media information increases the chance for misperception and false information as well.

Media-Military Relations

Social media is embedded into the American way of life, and it has consequently altered the relationship between the media and the military. The military has historically been skeptical of the media due to the classified nature of most military operations. For example, military spokespersons have notoriously dodged media questions regarding topics ranging from drone usage in the Middle East to how its forces are organizationally aligned with the fear that adversaries may discover tactics, techniques, and procedures or strategic plans.5 However, the media plays an integral role in America’s checks and balances structure. Commonly referred to as the “fourth estate,” the media is not a formal part of the government, but it plays an important role in reporting on the processes and outcomes of the government.6 Military matters are reflected in the public’s perception of two branches of government—the executive branch through military strategy and execution and the legislative branch through policy and spending.7 As such, through its goal to hold the government accountable, the media must scrutinize military activities. This service plays a vital role in a democracy to ensure that the public can hold elected leaders accountable. However, the internet era has begun to redefine what constitutes “the media,” which consequently changes the complexity of media-military relations and, ultimately, civil-military relations.

            Social media has made traditional media less prevalent in the general public’s lives, which opens the aperture for where and how they consume news. As such, potentially unvetted and unreliable reporting on military matters have the potential to reach large audiences. Additionally, machine learning algorithms make it likely that the news stories users see on social media or the internet in general are tailored specifically to their interests and preferences.8 Furthermore, the media almost exclusively relies on profit to stay in business, making even the most well-intentioned journalists biased in order to cover appealing stories for their audiences.9 All of this, coupled with the previous administration’s attack on the media as the “enemy of the people,” has led to reduced trust of the media, as reflected in a recent Gallup poll indicating that 27 percent of Americans have “not very much” trust in the media and 33 percent have “none at all.”10 This is a troublesome trend because the media plays a vital role in a democracy. Since social media has allowed more space for generating news content, verified sources are forced to compete with increasing amounts of unverified information. More and quicker access to information is a good thing in theory, but it is detrimental in a civil-military relations context because it has arguably not produced a more informed public, but instead a more cynical one that distrusts the government.

When the media’s role in a democracy is to hold the government accountable, the notable risk is that accountability will become an illusion. In her book How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, Rosa Brooks explores how the government uses the military as its go-to instrument of power.11 Taken together, distrust in the media and increased government reliance on the military lay the foundation for a potentially dangerous civil-military relations scenario. If the media cannot hold the government accountable, and the government becomes increasingly reliant on the military, the public will be unable to judiciously oversee military activities. Therefore, social media’s prevalence threatens civil-military relations by way of its capacity to diminish public trust in the government and the military. Separately, it is also detrimental to maintaining the military’s non-partisan position by complicating the rules surrounding good order and discipline for military members.

Good Order & Discipline

Social media usage within the military risks the military losing its non-partisan position and is harmful to the American belief in civilian control of the military. As stated above, almost all military members use social media with most engaging in multiple platforms. Military members are increasingly engaged in political behavior on social media sites. The West Point and NDU survey mentioned above also revealed that 83 percent of military members and cadets have witnessed military friends either post links to political stories, “like” or promote political issues that others have posted, or follow political figures on social media.12 Notably, the NDU respondents are Field Grade Officers (FGOs) in the ranks of Majors, Lieutenant Colonels, and Colonels—the ranks which the military entrusts to command its organizations and have increased power and influence within the military.

There are two notable civil-military relations implications to this finding. First, military members (especially younger officers and lower-ranking enlisted members) may interpret FGO partisan behavior as acceptable military conduct and treat it as informal permission to do the same. Second, non-military social media friends who view these posts may interpret political and particularly partisan posts and behavior as a reflection of the DOD’s official position. This could lead to the public perception of (at best) or an actual (at worst) shift in the military’s loyalty from the Constitution to a particular party or leader. To understand the gravity of this outcome, it is important to understand the theories underpinning civil-military relations.

In his 1956 book The Soldier and the State, Samuel Huntington wrote that political activity within the military is detrimental to military security because it harms professionalism.13 Critics have argued that the military is inherently political and that military professionals’ expertise is paramount to civilian leadership constructing coherent military strategy.14 The key distinction is that military officers should, in fact, engage in the political process, but they must remain non-partisan while doing so. There are multiple consequences of a partisan military, but most notably is its potential deference to certain political leaders on military policy and strategy issues.15 The American people entrust the military with providing security to the nation, so it must stay focused on that sole task rather than become subsumed with extraneous partisan political issues. Failure to do so may result in failed military strategy which will potentially threaten national security. It is what Huntington called “objective military control,” which maximizes military professionalism and makes the military a “tool of the state.”16 He argued that it is more effective than “subjective” control of the military, which is to civilianize the military by maximizing civilian power relative to military power.17 Since Huntington published his work, though, subjective control benefits have been continuously revisited beginning with Morris Janowitz in 1960.

In The Professional Soldier, Janowitz advocated for the “citizen-soldier,” where the military is integrated into civilian society because of shared democratic values.18 Additionally, in a more updated analysis of Huntington, James Burk in 2002 emphasized that “objective civilian control” is impractical—especially in modern warfare—because of the blurriness between military and political spheres.19 Both of these ideas were rebuttals to Huntington’s argument for objective military control in that the military can never really be outside the political process, especially in a democracy. Rather, the military institution should be subjected to direct and continuous involvement by the civilians who manage it. More important, however, the distinction between objective and subjective control is not in how they are different but what they have in common. Both types of civilian control of the military reinforce the danger of partisan militaries. Regardless of how much military officers are involved in political deliberations, if politicians view the military as loyal to one party, it could degrade the trust between the military and civilian elites within the other party.20 This is not a new concept for military officers. Numerous regulations, memorandums, and guidance documents have emphasized the need for military members to remain non-partisan and avoid public statements for, or contributions to, political parties. For example, DOD Directive (DODD) 1344.10 outlines specific guidance for all US military members regarding what is acceptable and prohibited when engaging in political behavior. Social media, however, has given military officers a false sense of anonymity. DODD 1344.10 explicitly states that some political behaviors are acceptable when not in uniform, such as joining partisan clubs and making monetary contributions to political organizations.21 However, servicemembers can engage in these activities without revealing his or her status as a military member. Alternatively, social media integrates all aspects of one’s life, and most military members post pictures or other declarations regarding his or her service making the military affiliation known.

While the DOD and each individual service have released additional guidance regarding social media usage, but it is subjective and not always clear what consequences will come from violating social media guidelines. For instance, Air Force Instruction (AFI) 1-1 simply states that Airmen must “avoid” expressing personal opinions on social media sites and that “inappropriate personal online activity” makes them subject to disciplinary action.22 However, the regulation provides no specific examples regarding partisan comments on social media. More importantly, these regulations have clearly failed to prevent military officers from engaging in political activity online considering the West Point and NDU findings mentioned above. The civil-military relations implications for this are vast. If the military has, in fact, failed to maintain good order and discipline in the social media age, trust from the public and civilian leadership will certainly decline. As explored previously, trust is fundamental to maintaining healthy civilian control of the military. America, however, has “crossed the social media Rubicon” and the military will have to manage rather than eliminate its usage within the ranks.

The Future of Military Social Media Use

 Going forward, military leadership must do more to affect how its officers are engaging on social media. First, there must be deliberate action against officers who express partisan opinions on social media while balancing retention issues should members feel they are losing their freedoms. If the military wants to hold its members accountable and maintain good order and discipline, it should invest in a form of social media monitoring to conduct routine checks on servicemember social media accounts. It is not feasible to deny servicemembers the ability to have social media accounts because of their extensiveness in everyday life, and there are significant benefits to the platforms. However, more tangible action is needed for accountability, to include appropriate levels of punishment depending on the violation.

Second, social media accounts should be included as a part of security clearance investigations. Notably, this is already being considered by the Pentagon in light of the January 6th, 2021 US Capitol attack.23 It must, however, be expanded beyond looking only for extremism and include taking a holistic view of a servicemembers’ social media activity. This should be done when members first join and be included on re-investigations. Furthermore, the military must have a clear definition of what constitutes “political social media activity” to both avoid the perception of partisanship in the process itself as well as potentially hurting retention and recruiting efforts.

Finally, because social media is integral to everyday life and it is unrealistic to forbid its usage, more training and education is needed amongst the officer corps regarding the gravity of partisan rhetoric on the various platforms. This should include mandatory annual training in addition to more emphasis within and throughout an officer’s professional military education. Until military officers refrain from political discourse, the credibility for them to maintain good order and discipline among enlisted and lower ranks is impossible. As military partisanship becomes more transparent on social media, the public and civilian leadership may begin to lose trust in its military.

Conclusion

The military has rightfully embraced social media’s communication and recruiting benefits, but it has failed to confront how the civilian sector views military activity on various platforms. A decrease in public trust of institutions coupled with social media’s ability to spread unsubstantiated and unreliable information has led to a cascading effect that threatens trust in the government writ-large and potentially the military’s ability to remain non-partisan. This is a severe risk to civil-military relations for two reasons. First, it weakens America’s principle of civilian control of the military. Second, it threatens the military’s ability to maintain good order and discipline within the department. Social media has effectively normalized political behavior within the military and so the DOD must take more comprehensive and thoughtful actions to reverse servicemember partisan political activity. Doing so will help ensure that civil-military relations remain healthy and strong.

Major Holly Giroux
"Major Holly Giroux is an Air Force intelligence officer who recently graduated from the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell AFB, AL and is transitioning to an assignment at the 603 AOC at Ramstein AB, Germany. She was a Squadron Director of Operations and has served on the Deputy Action Group for the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (HAF/A2). She has completed three combat deployments in her 14-year career.
The author would like to thank Dr. Ronald Dains (Dean of Educational Support at the Air Command and Staff College) for his instruction on Civil-Military Relations, which greatly shaped her interest in the subject, and for his support and feedback while conducting the research for this paper.

Notes


1 Heidi Urben, “Like, Comment, Retweet: The State of the Military’s Nonpartisan Ethic in the World of Social Media,” Case Study (Washington D.C.: National Defense University, May 2017), 17.
 
2 Kathryn Coronges, et. al., “Generation 2.0: Social Media and the Future of the Army,” Phalanx 45, no. 1 (March 2012), 1.
 
3 A. Trevor Thrall, Erik Goepner, and Cato Institute, Millennials and U.S. Foreign Policy: The Next Generation’s Attitudes Toward Foreign Policy and War (and Why They Matter), 2015, 5, http://object.cato.org/.
 
4 Kori N. Schake and James N. Mattis, eds., Warriors & Citizens: American Views of Our Military, Hoover Institution Press Publication, no. 667 (Stanford, California: Hoover Institution Press/Stanford University, 2016), 23.
 
5 Rosa Brooks, How Everything Became War and The Military Became Everything: Tales From The Pentagon, First Simon & Schuster hardcover edition (New York London Toronto Sydney New Delhi: Simon & Schuster, 2016), 119, 152.
 
6 Christopher Paul and James J. Kim, Reporters on the Battlefield: The Embedded Press System in Historical Context, Rand Corporation Monograph Series (Santa Monica, Calif.: Rand, 2004), 9.
 
7 Morris Janowitz, The Professional Soldier: A Social and Political Portrait (The Free Press, 1960), 347–48.
 
8 Michael Bossetta, “The Weaponization of Social Media: Spear Phishing and Cyberattacks on Democracy,” Journal of International Affairs 71, no. 1.5 (2018): 102.
 
9 Paul and Kim, Reporters on the Battlefield, 17.
 
10 Megan Brenan, “Americans Remain Distrustful of Mass Media,” Gallup News, September 30, 2020, https://news.gallup.com/.
 
11 Brooks, How Everything Became War and The Military Became Everything, 13–14.
 
12 Urben, “Like, Comment, Retweet: The State of the Military’s Nonpartisan Ethic in the World of Social Media,” 27.
 
13 Samuel Huntington, The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations, 1957, 96–97.
 
14 Suzanne C. Nielsen and Don M. Snider, eds., American Civil-Military Relations: The Soldier and the State in a New Era (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), 215–16.
 
15 Nielsen and Snider, American Civil-Military Relations: The Soldier and the State in a New Era, 235.
 
16 Huntington, The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations, 83.
 
17  Huntington, The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations, 80.
 
18 Morris Janowitz, The Professional Soldier, 435–40.
 
19 James Burk, “Theories of Democratic Civil-Military Relations,” Armed Forces & Society 29, no. 1 (Fall 2002): 13.
 
20 Schake and Mattis, Warriors & Citizens, 133–34.
 
21 Department of Defense, “Department of Defense Directive 1344.10 Political Activities by Members of the Armed Forces on Active Duty” (Department of Defense, February 19, 2008), 2–3.
 
22 Air Force Instruction (AFI) 1-1, Air Force Culture, 2012, 21.
 
23 Stephen Losey, “Pentagon Eyes Plan to Intensify Social Media Screening in Military Background Investigations,” Military News, Military.Com (blog), March 3, 2021, https://www.military.com/.
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