The rise of social media

Given the pressing issues the Defense Department faces these days, it might seem hard to justify spending time to think about the rise of social media.

Of course, many military leaders know better. Just look at the transformational way warfighters and their families rely on social-media tools on Army Knowledge Online. Or, of course, at how enemy forces are using social-networking technologies — with lethal effects.

A new report, however, suggests that DOD needs to adopt a comprehensive strategy for using social media to improve national security. 

That conclusion comes from Linton Wells II and Mark Drapeau. Wells is a distinguished research professor at National Defense University. But he is perhaps better known for his work at DOD as principal deputy assistant secretary of Defense for networks and information integration and, before that, as acting assistant secretary and DOD chief information officer.

He and NDU associate research fellow Drapeau examined how software applications that allow groups of people to connect and communicate online affect government security.

They distilled four primary ways in which DOD and other agencies might use social media in their operations to support national security, defense and diplomacy:

  • Inward sharing: Sharing information within the agency or department.
  • Outward sharing: Sharing information with other agencies and external groups, including law enforcement, the private sector and nongovernmental organizations.
  • Inbound sharing: Obtaining information and input from the public and outside organizations.
  • Outbound sharing: Sharing information with people outside the government, including the public and other nations, that support disaster situations, stabilization and reconstruction, or diplomacy efforts.

However, the authors also correctly concluded that before these technologies can be effectively harnessed, DOD needs to develop an overall strategy, identify specific social-media applications for use at DOD, and foster organizational and cultural changes that would enable information to flow more freely.

A growing number of military leaders are already demonstrating their grasp of the power of blogs, microblogs and social-networking sites. Many are motivated to keep up with the growing ranks of digital natives who are coming into the armed forces and can’t imagine working without them.

However, a vast number of DOD employees face conflicting policies, banned applications and, in many cases, open opposition to social media.

The problem is twofold. Allies and potential enemies are already using social-media tools in ways that directly affect national security matters. And DOD's workforce could fall behind if it remains unfamiliar with those technologies.

Incorporating social-media tools into daily work practices would not only decrease the probability of being surprised or outmaneuvered but also accelerate the ability for teams to self-organize, collaborate on the run and improve decision-making. But it starts with a strategy.

About the Author

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of Defense Systems from January 2009 to August 2010. He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.

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