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Military warns soldiers not to post info on Facebook


This just came in on my CBC news feed 30 minutes ago:

The Defence Department is advising Canadian soldiers not to post personal photos and information on social networking websites like Facebook, citing security concerns. The advisory was circulated in a memo obtained by CBC News. It warns soldiers not to appear in uniform in online photos and not to disclose their military connections. “Al Qaeda operatives are monitoring Facebook and other social networking sites,” the memo says. “This may seem overdramatic … [but] the information can be used to target members for further exploitation. It also opens the door for your families and friends to become potential targets as well.” –Read the full story here.

The first thing that came to my mind was “are you kidding me??!!!” Not only are members of the military apart from their families and friends enough as is, we’re now going to isolate them even more by banning their virtual networks. I then read on and felt some legitimate concern for the safety of our troops and their families. This was quickly followed by a feeling that this whole ordeal is nothing more than an attempt by the federal government to control the already scattered message its trying to convey to the public (in terms of the combat vs. peacekeeping role of our military) at this very sensitive time in Ottawa politics. So what’s the real reason? I have no idea, and quite likely, neither do you. What I do know is that banning Facebook will not solve anything (just look at the government of Ontario).

There are literally hundreds of other online social networks available out there for anyone to use. What good will banning a single one of them do? Does this mean the government is also going to ban any kind of content generation by soldiers? (i.e. uploading YouTube videos, writing a blog on WordPress, submitting a story to “Digg“, putting up photos on Flickr, Podcasting a niche radio show, etc…).

Many of these social media sites require setting up personal profiles that contain private information. If a modern “Al Qaeda” member really wanted to go through the effort of going after a particular soldier’s family (as implied in the article), they would likely start with Google (providing they don’t already have detailed military files on the individual they are after). Due to the ever increasing power of search engines, every bit of digital information (text, photo, sound or video) created by any given soldier over their lifetime would have to deleted from the internet to ensure his/her true safety. The only problem is, that’s impossible to do.

I personally think the government should put less focus on banning the online engagement of military personnel and instead think of ways to foster and encourage it! After all, unlike a lot of people (especially politicians around here), they might actually have something interesting to say! One can argue that opening up the channels of communication between the military and the Canadian public would actually improve the safety of our troops, since Canadians would understand the true nature of the role we are serving in Afghanistan (which would quite possibly help the troops attain more support, more equipment, improved morale and heightened faith in their military leaders).

My point here is that I simply do not see any point in widening the gap between military personnel and the Canadian public even further when there is already so much misunderstanding as to our role (i.e. over 70% of Canadians do not know that we are engaged in combat in Afghanistan–>they think it’s peacekeeping) .

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure that military personnel already go through thorough training as to what they are allowed and not allowed to communicate to the public. The issue in this case comes back to the democratization of the web (web 2.0), and the shocking realization by “old guard” military high-ups that suddenly low-ranking officers have the power to not only influence public opinion, but control the messaging coming out of the top ranks!…This obviously threatens to turn the entire military institution as we know it upside down. It will be interesting to see how all of this evolves. Increasingly, the private sector is adopting the use of social media and the concept of “giving up control”. Mind you, it has a long way to go, hence why so many social media consultants are popping up everywhere I look, but nonetheless, they are reacting. Will the military follow suite, or will it go back to reading “The Art of War”?

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  1. Jeff Anderson

    Great entry as usual.
    I’ve been involved with a couple of conversations with public sector around Web 2.0 and it can be a challenge to convince everyone of the value.

    The people at the top are constantly scared of losing control, as in your example above. I’ve always thought that Web 2.0 technology can enable greater control, as it allows leadership to get instant visibility on people’s thoughts and activities, promoting greater accountability. You should also get instant access to what thoughts are on the ground.

  2. Thanks Jeff, I have strong faith that in my lifetime the whole institution of public service will be to a large extent run by engaged citizens; true democracy. There will be tremendous cost efficiencies, improved service delivery and more support for the government as an institution due to the participatory role of everyone involved. Though it’s only a dream for now, baby steps…

  3. Hi Mike, I am siding with the Army on this one. Assuming Al Queda can get access to all information, and therefore all information should be left easily accessible to them seems irresponsible. Should I leave my daughters Christmas presents out in the open because I know she will search the house and find them anyways? Probably not.

    It seems to me there could be other reasons for the Army to restrict these sites. What about the image the army wants to uphold? And the potential for any Soldier to disgrace himself and cause the army problems such as: Solder shown drinking with underage kids, doing drugs, crime, racist comments etc. The same crap that happens with regular posters on all those sites can and will happen with Soldiers. I think the army knows how much of a problem their own people will cause them and they are saving headaches. Would we really want extra army dollars spent to monitor the behaviors of soldiers online? For the government to just peg this a security issue is just the easy way out. This is only my opinion. Great Blog Mike.

  4. Hey Shayne. I agree with what you’re saying, however my point is that it’s impossible to control what soldiers are doing online. Banning or restricting the use of one social media application will not solve anything. As long as they have access to the Internet, the content that they create is and will be available online forever. That being said, i am a strong advocate of teaching and informing soldiers (and the Canadian Population for that matter) how to protect themselves and use the Internet responsibly. Very few people (especially the “net generation” which is less skeptical) are aware of the permanent nature of digital content.

  5. You are right Mike, it would be impossible to control what soldiers do online, but shouldn’t they at least try? As an advocate attempting to help protect people from the dangers online, don’t you think that pure rules from an authority(the Army) would teach/inform/convert users more often then you can? Rules generally work even if it takes time. 5+ years ago I would have never believed people would start buying cds again, and obviously not everyone still is, but there has been change. There will be Soldiers who are too afraid to sign up for myspace or hi5 or WAYN now that facebook has been banned.

  6. I think it would work only for those people that are used to listening and learning from authority and believe in a strong power-distance (Google “Hofstede’s cultural dimensions”). This is not the case with the majority of the current “self-focused” generation in the workforce or the upcoming net generation for that matter. I am currently deeply immersed in a recruitment marketing strategy for DND, for which I have been looking at detailed psychographic and social value multi-variate statistics of the Canadian population to determine the types of people that tend to join the military (or are interested in joining). Perhaps in some cases what you are saying would work, however we should be careful not to generalize. While your point that”rules tend to work over time” is fully valid, be careful not to confuse “tactics” (in this case restricting Facebook) with “social marketing” which would be the “strategic” behaviour change element (safe and smart use of online social media sites)that the military should be thinking about instead. Banning Facebook alone will change nothing in 5 years time. DND could instead leverage social media and inform soldiers on safe internet use via RSS feeds from DND’s own private social networking site (which it can easily create). As for the CD example you gave, this is yet another illustration of the “long-tail” theory at work (Google Chris Anderson – long tail). Great discussion!

  7. Amazing blog! Do you have any suggestions for aspiring writers? I’m planning to start my own site soon but I’m a little lost on everything. Would you suggest starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many choices out there that I’m completely overwhelmed .. Any recommendations? Many thanks!

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