Why social media use is such a risk among military personnel

Professor Sarah Maltby’s research on the behaviours and risks of military personnel engaging in digital media has led to the development of new policy guidelines in the British Army.

Sarah Maltby

From Facebook to WhatsApp, Tinder to SnapChat, the multiple ways we communicate with each other through social and digital media is now an integral part of everyone’s daily lives.  But what are the implications when these platforms are used by British Army personnel and their families?

Sarah Maltby, Professor of Media and Communications at the University of Sussex, has carried out in-depth interviews with focus groups and military personnel and reviewed the types of social media content they were creating.

Her research has highlighted serious reputational risks for the army, particularly in the use of misogynistic and racist language online, and in young soldiers using their military status to obtain sexual encounters.

The project, Defence, Uncertainty, Now Media (DUN) has now led to new Ministry of Defence guidelines regarding the use of social media by military personnel. It has also created opportunities for other major organisations to review their own guidelines.

Maltby says: “I have long been interested in the way the military have used the media as a weapon of war to influence and change the battlespace and wider public opinion. This has been especially significant since the 1980s.

“But as social media has grown and developed, the ability to control content for strategic purposes has become much more difficult.”

Sharing sensitive information

The aim of the DUN Project was to examine the ways in which social media is understood and managed within the British defence community, and to assess the risks social media has for military work and their personnel.

Maltby says: “When I began looking into the type of content being created, Armed Forces members were using social media in exactly the way that you would expect anyone to use it, but especially by young people.

“For example, one of the first things that young soldiers were doing when on exercise was finding a mobile phone signal so that they could arrange sexual encounters in the area, predominantly on apps such as Tinder, and sometimes specifically using their military status to secure them.”

Other practices included geolocating themselves, posting pictures of themselves in uniform or tagging others in uniform, or circulating nude or indecent images. Some involved more politically sensitive behaviours, such as commenting on army policy or routine, or discussing political affiliations.

“Whilst these behaviours may not in themselves constitute inappropriate behaviours among social media users per se, for military personnel who were using an institutional identity they were problematic for wider defence work.”

She found that personnel were also having public discussions on Facebook and other forums about what it was like to be in the military, sometimes using misogynistic or racist language.

Trying to control social media use

She says: “Young people who are looking to go into the military will turn to these forums to get an informal overview of what the recruitment process was like. At the same time, they were coming across posts that were endorsing the sexual exploitation of, and violence against women.”

When she presented her findings to senior managers in the Ministry of Defence and Armed Forces, she discovered their social media policy guidelines were mainly focused on trying to discourage and control involvement in social media.

“There was a huge assumption amongst the senior people that young people didn't know what they were doing,” she says. “They were wrongly assuming a lack of knowledge, expertise and risk management.

“But young people did understand the risks as social media consumers. They understood that when they go to the pub and they tag themselves, that Apple is tracing them, that Google is tracing them. And they were not going to ‘not use’ their smartphones and social media. So, cracking down on social media use was more likely to encourage clandestine and inappropriate behaviour.”

Mapping knowledge to training

What young military personnel were not doing was mapping this knowledge to the military training that they received, she points out. The training was so focused on operational and personal security as a member of the Armed Forces it didn’t really speak to their everyday use of social media.

Maltby says: “For instance, many of the young soldiers stated they would never post a picture of themselves in uniform on Facebook because it identified them as a soldier and thus compromised their personal security. Yet, these same soldiers were posting pictures of themselves in uniform on Tinder to increase their chances of getting a ‘date’ for the night.”

Instead of trying to control social media use, she suggested changing the policy guidelines to better explain how the platforms could be used for positive purposes, such as addressing sexual harassment and bullying, and enhancing recruitment and retention through better reputation management.

She advised that involving younger military members in the design of social media training would be especially beneficial as it could draw directly on their expertise, but also draw their attention to inappropriate practices.

This would also aid peer learning and peer support – especially between senior and junior members. Including family members in the training would also ensure that everyone was on the same page.

“The important aspect was to encourage them to think about the publicness of their communications as ‘people’  and not just military personnel to see how the two conflate,” she says.

“All of this requires that the Ministry of Defence and British Armed Forces must acknowledge and endorse the everyday use of social media to encourage responsible social media use – rather than attempt to control and reduce its usage, which is impossible.”

Maltby’s research has been used in the development of several projects undertaken by the Defence Science and Technology Lab (DSTL), which is an executive agency of the government dedicated to research and development of science and technology in the field of defence and security.

Her work has also changed perceptions of social media at the Ministry of Defence at a senior level. “Sarah’s research gave me a better understanding of how we in the MOD need to manage the culture of risk aversion,” says Claire Parker, Head of Insight and Evaluation at MOD. 

Maltby says: “While it was tough for senior military personnel to be confronted with some of my research evidence, particularly the use of sexual language and images, the fact that policy guidelines are now being changed is testament to the important nature of the findings.”

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