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Social Media as a Force Multiplier

Introduction: The Changed Face of War

This report examines how the Australian Army’s engagement with and use of social media compares to that of a selection of its allied and comparator militaries. It finds that, despite the welcome establishment of the Information Warfare Division (IWD) in July 2017, Army continues to trail its allies and is a long way behind best practice in its adoption of, adaptation to and use of social media as a capability in the contest for information advantage against its conventional competitors and non-state actors. It finds that Army’s cultural norms and organisational structures are ill-fitted to the architectures of participation that social media and the digital landscape rest on. Unless Army is willing and able to adapt its organisation, operations and practices to the flatter, networked systems of the digital environment, it will continue to underperform in the information domain.

A preliminary report that I submitted to the Australian Army Research Centre in March 2017 identified a number of larger questions that my analysis had raised, which I would like to return to and briefly address again.3 In War 2.0, Rid and Hecker proposed that insurgent groups have been advantaged by the emergence of Web 2.0 and the social media platforms it supports, ‘that Web 2.0 … initially benefits insurgents more than counterinsurgents’. Democratising the means of producing and distributing information has enabled fringe groups, terrorists and other non-state actors to broadcast their views, their violence and their vindications of them to a potentially global audience, garnering international attention, funds and followers. These views were echoed by Harvard’s Yascha Mounk, who proposed that social media:

weakens the power of insiders and strengthens the power of outsiders. As a result it favours change over stability - and constitutes a big, new threat to political systems that have long seemed immutable.

It is now axiomatic that social media operates, in all contexts, as a disruptive force on established forms of organisation, communication, expression, and more.6 But is this actually the case? What have been its effects on war? How do its disruptive forces play out in the context of a hierarchical, socially conservative organisation like the military with a cautious approach to innovation, especially in the sphere of communications technology? What happens when the irresistible forces of cultural and technological change run into the immovable object of established military systems?

Summarising the ‘new wars’ debate in the work of Van Creveld, Münkler and Kaldor, among others, Thomas Elkjer Nissen notes that over the last three decades the character of war has changed irrevocably:

War is no longer about states against states (in the conventional sense), but about identity and identity claims, and about cosmopolitanism (inclusion) versus particularism (exclusion/nationalism). Contemporary wars are therefore more about control of the population and the political decision-making process than about control over territory. Contemporary wars are therefore not to be understood as an empirical category but rather as a logical framework in which to make sense of contemporary conflicts and their characteristics.

More significantly, as social media has instigated and accelerated a number of these key changes so it has become an increasingly central actor in its conduct:

[A]s most conflicts and wars for western liberal democracies today are what is called ‘wars of choice’, requiring a high degree of legitimacy, and multiple non-state actors are struggling to mobilize support and find new ways of fighting asymmetrically, social network media seems to have become the weapon of choice. This is the case both because it is easy for nearly every actor to access and use, due to the democratisation of technology that the Information and Communication Technology revolution is facilitating, and because you can create effects that are disproportionate in relation to the investment. Effects that support the goals and objectives of the multiple actors ‘fighting’ in the social network media sphere, including influencing perceptions of what is going on, can, in turn, inform decision-making and behaviours of relevant actors. 

Due to the global connectivity that social network media provides, the actors are no longer just direct participants to conflict. They can be whoever, civilians and activists included desires to create effects. This is also why terms such as ‘remote warfare’ and ‘social warfare’ play an increasing role in contemporary conflicts, where social network media is now used for military activities … The increasing strategic use of social network media and the effects achievable in and through the use of them, empower a multitude of actors and have a re-distributive effect on international power relations. This also affects the character of contemporary conflicts.

Given the changed nature of war, its differing goals, diffuse actors, shifted battlefields and expanded weapons systems, and given the centrality of social media as a weapon, combat zone and centre of gravity in the struggle for this new, disputed terrain, it is clear that for militaries: ‘The question is no longer whether to be on social media, but how to be there.’ Where their organisational systems and cultural norms are ill‑disposed or hostile to the accommodation or optimal use of social media, militaries have to adapt or change these systems and cultures. Those who do not risk exclusion from or impotence in the information environment.

This study examines how militaries in the United States, Britain, Israel and Australia have met, or have yet to meet, the challenges posed by the changed nature of conflict and the increasingly central role that social media plays in it. It considers how well adapted they are to make the necessary changes, how their doctrinal and policy settings, their organisational systems and their cultures are positioned to accommodate the radical adjustments required by the new battles, new battlefields and new weapons of 21st century conflict. It finds that a number of core factors affect a military’s capacity to adapt to change. If necessity is the mother of invention, then credible threat to one’s survival is the midwife to rapid adaptation, as such a busy operational tempo provides recurring opportunities to trail, test, adopt or reject innovations. Militaries that empower their junior officers to take risks and do not censure them when they fail, that are positioned and prepared to embrace bottom-up experimentation and innovation, in which bureaucratic levels are thinner, where innovations from civil society are rapidly taken up and absorbed, where resources have been deployed to enable effective action on the information battlefield and where all combatants, military and civilian, are empowered by a deep understanding of what it is that they are fighting for and why—these militaries are better placed to adapt to the challenges of the information domain and to take up and best use the new capabilities it provides. Where fear of failure and the sanction it will bring overpowers the instinct to experimentation, where top‑down control and rigid hierarchies hold firm, where junior officers and other ranks are subject to intrusive oversight in the performance of their missions, where civil society innovations are mistrusted and resisted, where actors are unsure about what is at stake on the battlefield and unmotivated by the struggle—these militaries will labour to adapt themselves to, if not actively resist, the innovations brought by social media. As a result, they will not only misapprehend the capacity of the weapons it makes available; they will struggle to locate or navigate the information battlefield. As information becomes a critical dimension in all contemporary battlefields, militaries without a solid social media capability will find themselves strategically disempowered.

What follows is divided into two parts. In the first I offer an analysis of the development of military–media–public communication from the First Gulf War to Afghanistan. This considers the evolution of information from target to weapon to platform, in the words of Rid and Hecker, and how the US and British militaries in particular recognised and responded to this. It charts the official recognition of information as the fifth dimension of war, and the organisational and policy responses to that. It considers how and why conventional militaries moved more slowly into the information space and the painful lessons they learned in Iraq, Somalia and Kosovo about the power and efficacy of effective messaging. The Second Gulf War provided the US and Britain with an opportunity to showcase the full-spectrum dominance they had been perfecting. However, it became clear in Iraq and in Afghanistan that what conventional militaries took to be the final stage in their gradual journey towards information supremacy was the first step into a new, decentred, networked battlefield where the principal impediment to success was their own structures, systems and cultures. Part II examines, respectively, US, British, Israeli and Australian military endeavours to respond to the challenges of social media, to adapt their structures, systems and cultures to social media so that they might accommodate and weaponise it. It considers the history of their engagement with social media; the policy, organisational, recruiting and training reforms they have undertaken or will need to undertake; the outcomes of their efforts to date; and how these compare with the advances made by non-state actors and other competitors.

Cover of Social Media as a Force Multiplier

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Publication Identifiers

ISSN (Online) 2653-0406
ISSN (Print) 2653-0414

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