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April 24, 2014

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The Internet:

Who’s friending you next? The U.S. military

Brass takes cautious steps onto Web’s social networks

Air Force video on how to use social media

Beyond the Sun

The U.S. military, long a champion of rigid, no-nonsense communications, is stepping into the freewheeling realm of social media.

Nellis Air Force Base, for example, has started micro-blogging updates about the base on Twitter and is creating its own Facebook page.

Joining the world of online sharing and interaction is a departure for the traditionally tight-lipped Defense Department, which is better known for releasing information only when prodded. And social media sites are more casual in tone than messages that normally come from official military sources.

However, with the growing popularity of social networking Web sites and the proliferation of blogging, the communication landscape is changing and the military was at risk of being left behind.

“We’re trying to get as much information into that public debate as we can,” said Jack Holt, who leads the Defense Department’s emerging media department at the Pentagon.

Now the services are trying to find a balance between staying relevant with a voice that’s heard in the discussion and delivering a controlled and, well, uniform message.

The Air Force is reorganizing its public affairs office to make social media a priority. The service started a blog in September, joined Twitter and Facebook earlier in the year, and this month the Air Force’s Web site will relaunch, allowing for direct feedback on stories.

“It’s a big change for the Air Force,” Capt. Dave Faggard, chief of emerging technology for the service, said about the new focus on online communication. “I’m trying to get Air Force to understand what it is and how we communicate (with new media).”

A couple of incidents have shown the military just how powerful online posting can be. Last spring when an Army unit returned from Afghanistan to Fort Bragg, N.C., a soldier’s father filmed the deplorable condition of the barracks — 3 inches of sewage backed up on the floor of the bathroom is the starkest example — and posted the video on YouTube, drawing immediate attention from national media. The clamor grew so loud that the Army vice chief of staff had to make a statement about it.

The military is starting to participate in the discussions, engaging with its own voice.

“You can never control the message, but you can stay in the conversation,” Holt said.

The military has a somewhat tenuous and evolving relationship with the Internet. The Air Force, for example, has banned from its computer network any Web site with the word “blog” in its Internet address. Nellis public affairs officers are Twittering from their own iPhones and home accounts, because they can’t access Twitter — an Internet application that transmits messages of up to 140 characters — on the base network. They’re waiting for a commercial line to be put in their office.

(Its Twitter handle is @NellisAFB.)

In 2007 the Army cracked down on so-called battlefield bloggers, requiring that posts online first be vetted by the soldier’s commanding officer — a policy that is scarcely enforced but illuminating of the military’s struggle with service members voicing opinions online.

Using social networking sites is nothing new for many service members themselves, a good many of whom have had a Facebook or MySpace page longer than they’ve been in the military. About 70 percent of airmen use YouTube, 50 percent use Facebook and 75 percent use MySpace, according to guidelines for Air Force public affairs on using new media (Faggard also produced a YouTube video explaining the new frontier of public relations).

For the most part, the Air Force likes the idea of every airman being a spokesman.

Only a small percentage of America has served in the military, so much of America knows the military only in an abstract sense.

Social media can “humanize an organization that many people don’t know anything about,” said David M. Scott, a marketing consultant who specializes in new media.

According to Faggard, instead of “just the official press desk talking to people — yada yada yada official policy — it’s individual airmen telling their own story I think leadership understands the need to trust people a little bit more.”

But the online world presents challenges the Air Force and the rest of the military are still trying to get a handle on.

When an airman spouts off in a bar, only those present hear what he has to say, but when that same airman speaks his mind online it can reach a much broader audience over a much longer period.

Facebook and similar sites are about sharing personal information and opinions.

“The idea that the military has to lose control a little bit is part of the equation,” Scott said.

Airmen are, however, bound by certain restrictions. Just how those restrictions apply online are still being decided.

All four branches of service have clear guidelines about what can and cannot be said when wearing a uniform. But does posting a photo of oneself in uniform then limit what you can say online? What about just listing your job as in the Air Force? What about political affiliations?

Holt said next week he is meeting with general counsel to discuss those very issues.

Airmen and other service members are considered on duty 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and that extends to Facebook or MySpace, Faggard said.

Still, Holt wants to start an initiative to train all the troops — not just public affairs officers — how to properly use the sites.

“I’d like to convey to commanders that there is an element of coaching and teaching and mentoring in this as well,” he said.

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