The Current and Future Use of Social Media Technologies (SMT) on Military Personnel and their Families

Lead Research Organisation: Royal Holloway, University of London
Department Name: Centre for Criminology and Sociology

Abstract

The use of social media technologies (SMT) is one of the most important issues confronting the UK military in terms of maintaining operational security and managing morale amongst serving personnel and their families and friends. In the last decade, the UK military have been involved in a number of overseas campaigns (Afghanistan and Iraq) alongside more routine operations (e.g. Falklands and Cyprus) with implications for service personnel and their families in terms of coping with deployment rotation. The security implications regarding SMT range from the accidental to the calculating.

With the advent of SMT, real-time geo-coded tweets from theatre are now a day to day reality facing military commanders as are regular Facebook postings by service families. So while MOD protocols and guidance exists including recognised and approved social media platforms (e.g. http://www.blogs.mod.uk/social-media-guidelines.html) senior military officers responsible for maintaining military welfare (e.g. Colonel Duncan Dewar of the Royal Marines and a member of our project advisory board) informed us that monitoring and possible intervention represents a major managerial challenge. Moreover, officially sanctioned online sites such as RN Com (https://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/) co-exist with more public online platforms such as Facebook. Anticipating not only current usage but also like technological and behavioural innovation is a source of considerable anxiety for senior officers in the MOD (Colonel Dewar, per com, November 2012).

This project draws together unique expertise in the fields of informatics, mathematical biology, human geography, geopolitics, sociology in order to address the quantity and actual content of this interactive process Previous research indicates that frequent electronic contact can have positive and negative consequences. Social media contact can increase the stress that soldiers are under having a negative impact on morale and group cohesion. Staying in touch can have purportedly 'stabilising' effects on military personnel, boosting morale.

This research project adopts a three phase research model for researching and visualising social media communications, their online manifestations and their impact and influence on online and offline communities related to the UK military.

After a thorough review of MOD and RM policies regarding SMT. This will be followed by a second more quantitative phase of research, during which we will undertake quantitative analysis of language usage and information flow on both officially sanctioned sites and more public sites such as Facebook and Twitter (we have been granted permission to access official military forums and to contact members directly and access the messaging chains). Language usage studies will include simple studies such as the usage and frequencies of different words, co-occurrences of words and phrases, and studies of other language features such as word endings. This quantitative stage will be complimented by qualitative and ethnographic research (stage three).

For the purposes of this study we propose working within the Royal Marines communities based in Taunton (40 Commando) and Plymouth (42 Commando). This research will be undertaken using three distinct techniques; semi-structured interviews, focus groups, and user-generated 'diagrammings' or mappings. Colonel Duncan Dewar and his staff associated with Welfare Support at RN Portsmouth will facilitate introductions and access to these communities. This research will be initially undertaken through the deployment of semi-structured interviews with serving Royal Marines and their family members. The fourth phase of the research programme will allow for the active interaction of quantitatively-accrued data with the quantitative models developed in phase 1 and active development of policy-relevant findings.

Planned Impact

The project intends to have academic and policy impact including updating MOD strategic policy formation and guidance on social media technologies through:
- Improving knowledge about emerging social media technologies and usage amongst armed forces personnel and their families in order to assist future strategic planning.
- Developing new capacity to anticipate and intervene in social media management (e.g. intervening to pre-empt rumour diffusion, trolling, misinformation).
- Improving MOD capacity to respond an increasingly socially networked world where technological and behavioural change is likely to be rapid (e.g. geo-tagging tweets and associated security implications regarding location identification).
1. Our innovative use of qualitative and quantitative methodologies including network sampling, topological analysis and user-mapping will enable insights into how our research communities use online social media to communicate and become enrolled into particular communities. As well as providing a) the ability for MOD and Royal Marines to better understand these trends the research will b) provide recommendations on MOD guidance and policy on social media and c) via established algorithms and detailed qualitative methods, deliver a framework which allows the detection and anticipation of the formation of issues around morale, homesickness, and broader issues of concern.
2. Our qualitative methodologies, especially participatory mapping with Royal Marines and their families, will facilitate more nuanced understandings of geographical and social mapping of online social media behaviour including networking. This approach, especially as participants are asked to reflect on their perceived social media and the quantitative visualization of social networks, will allow families, friends and service personnel to better understand the complexity of social media and its potential wider impact on the morale of group, unit and battalion, as well as wider public awareness.
3. Enhancing co-operation within central government departments and other interested stakeholders concerned with social media usage and associated challenges including security risk. The employment mediation agency (ACAS) have warned that billions of pounds are lost every year addressing costs associated with cyber bullying, trolling, defamation, freedom of speech and invasion of privacy - regulating the personal/professional usage of staff in agencies like the HMRC is a matter of growing concern. The analytical tools and software prototypes developed within the project will have value in data and network science as well as commercial value in social media analytics. Our work will have future impact for other government departments and large organisations in terms of better understanding how personnel (e.g. FCO overseas posted staff) use social media technologies to interact with families and friends in the UK, and the relationship between these interactions for the structure of organisations and how they are perceived, both internally and externally. There are other public authorities that grapple with the issuance of formal guidance on social media technologies and their usage. These would include Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Department for International Development, the Prison Service, the Department for Communities and Local Government.
4. Our work will interest social media consultancies and organizations (e.g. Storyful) and think tanks who work on social media technologies both present and future and produce twitter listing, social media memes and content feeds, or examine the relationship between social media and their implications for defense and security (see Arab Spring, Gaza conflict etc.). With the appointment of a project advisory board, to include representatives from these four interested constituencies working in close collaboration with DSTL, the project will offer wider implications and recommendations for those organisations.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description Social media has become central to military life, making it a critical component of future policy development and welfare planning. Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and WhatsApp challenge the Ministry of Defence's traditional communication and social structures.

Here, we outline the most significant findings and suggest how they might influence policies and procedures on social media, which is what we originally set out to do.

'Digital by default'.
The availability of digital technologies in the Services has made personnel and their families avid social media users. More than 70 per cent of personnel aged 18-34 use social media several times a day, whilst 70 per cent of personnel aged 35 or above use it at least once a day. Seven per cent of personnel do not use social media. For families, this is only two per cent.

Facebook is the preferred platform with over 80 per cent of all personnel and 90 per cent of all families using it, across the Services.
WhatsApp has been informally integrated into some military units to seamlessly distribute messages within work teams, replacing traditional top-down communication channels.
Twitter is used by only a quarter of personnel across the ranks. Yet our analysis of network data indicates that certain military groupings can be identified on Twitter simply by virtue of their connections.
LinkedIn, which is primarily used by senior personnel, is often used without the same level of care as Facebook, and can lead to unintended exposure.

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Management of Expectations.
One of the main observations from the research concerns the management of expectations. There is now an expectation that social media will be available throughout the deployment cycle as noted by most junior personnel and their families.
If expectations are not met, increased disgruntlement and a decrease in morale are just two of the potential consequences evidenced by the research. Where access is limited, unavailable, or seen to be of poor quality, our findings suggest that junior personnel in particular find innovative ways of connecting using different mobile devices. This can lead to an array of security concerns as users are unable to control how messages are transmitted, and who has access to such messages. This is of particular concern when non-UK servers are used.

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Ad hoc approach to training.
The research has revealed an ad hoc approach to social media in education and training across the Royal Navy, the Army, and the RAF along with a lack of coordination between the three Services. It also revealed little evidence of any coherent framework for dealing with the intentional and/ or thoughtless misuse of social media.

On average only around 40 per cent of personnel have received any form of social media training. This figure is higher for personnel aged 18-34 (around 50 per cent) and lower for personnel aged 35 or above (between 30-40 per cent).
Respondents who had received social media training noted a reliance on out-of-date examples in training materials and a lack of consistency. Research revealed limited knowledge of relevant social media guidelines, instructions and awareness campaigns amongst military personnel at all ranks. The perception of disciplinary action relating to the abuse of social media are many and varied, and sometimes unfair, amongst personnel. No or little difference was detected between the ranks and Services. There is no social media training or education in place for families. This was seen as particularly problematic by personnel across the ranks.

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Generation gap.
The research has identified a generation gap. Usage and expectations differ between senior and junior personnel as noted above. Awareness and training varies.

The level of expertise held by many junior personnel is being overlooked by the more senior personnel. This finding is consistent across the Services. An unwillingness on the part of some senior personnel to engage with, or attempt to understand the nature and purpose of social media use, is evident throughout the Services. There is a reluctance to exploit the pool of knowledge embedded within the junior ranks.
Exploitation Route As part of our key findings we have set out a number of recommendations that we believe the military as a whole as well as the individual Services (the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force) should take forward in order to benefit from research outcomes.

A full report will be available in January 2016, which will set out a complete list of recommendations. Here, we outline some of the overall recommendations in no particular order:

1. The research has revealed an extensive use of social media amongst personnel and their families regardless of Service and rank. We therefore recommend that the military embraces social media to a much greater extent and encourages responsible usage through investments in education. Social media cannot be understood as one entity, it is important to consider the specific features and usages of each platform.

2. It is critical that the military manage the expectations of personnel and of Service families in order to uphold morale and wellbeing. We recommend that each Service develops and provides clear and up-to date information about social media access before deployment and before re-assignment to a new location in the UK or overseas. This is also important in relation to recruitment and retention. Therefore, institutional expectations in terms of social media access and use must be clearly publicised and expectations must be seen to be fair.

3.There is an urgent need for improved and consistent training and education procedures across the ranks and across the Services. It is crucial that training materials are regularly updated and make use of recent examples. Social media guidelines should be consistent across the three Services in order to present coherent and clear policies. We therefore recommend a higher degree of coordination between the Royal Navy, the Army, and the RAF in terms of social media. Developing specific training materials and education packages for military families is also strongly recommended.

4. A clear and consistent policy on sanctions related to the misuse of social media is needed. Sanctions should be perceived to be fair if they are to be effective. They should emphasise the importance of compliance and explain the relevance to the military institution and to the individual. Sanctions might be used more as an educational tool rather than as a mechanism for disciplining personnel.

5. Personnel might hold social media expertise that can benefit the military. In many respects, the military establishment is lagging behind the new generation of social media users within their own ranks. In developing appropriate social media policy to meet current and future expectations from personnel, we recommend that the military finds ways of utilising the knowledge and skillset that this 'new generation' of military personnel possess with respect to social media. This will be particularly important in relation to future recruitment and retention.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy

 
Description The findings from this project have already been used extensively across the Ministry of Defence and within the three Armed Forces (the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force). In particular, they have been employed to restructure internal communications, as well as influencing education and policies in relation to digital technologies/social media usage by military personnel and their families. One example of exploitation within the Ministry of Defence is a UK-India programme where the findings are used as part of a project on psychological resilience. Another example is the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory's 'Warfare in the Information Age' project, where findings will be used to address emergent concepts where social media is relevant. We have also been informed that the findings are being considered at a 3-star Chief of Defence Personnel level, and will inform programme requirements. However, due to the sensitive nature of the findings and the security clearances needed to gain further information about the ways in which the data have been used, we are not in a position to provide detailed accounts of the direct impact of the research on policy and practice. It should be stressed that the researchers themselves have not given specific information about how project findings have been employed by key stakeholders, but have only received a general indication of their use throughout the defence community.
First Year Of Impact 2016
Sector Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy
Impact Types Policy & public services

 
Description Exploitation of Science & Security - Social Media Study
Amount £22,000 (GBP)
Organisation Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (DSTL) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2015 
End 11/2015
 
Description Exploitation of Sicience and Security - Social Media Study
Amount £67,188 (GBP)
Funding ID DSTL/AGR/00425/01 
Organisation Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (DSTL) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2014 
End 11/2015
 
Description Dstl presentation 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Talk sparked questions and discussion as well as requests for further talks. The presentation was also used to receive feedback from the audience and gain further access to research subjects.

The talk resulted in internal discussion on social media use. Requests were made to include our findings in internal presentations.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description Gave interview to Partnership for conflict Crime and Security Research in June 2020. This is now on the PaCCS blog 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact . I did an interview in June 2020 ( link below) which is on the Partnership for Conflict and Security Research blog ,

Social Media and the Military: An Interview with Professor David Denney | PaCCS (paccsresearch.org.uk) This described the main findings of the research on social media and the military
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.paccsresearch.org.uk/blog/social-media-and-the-military-an-interview-with-professor-davi...
 
Description Influence in the Digital Age 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This was a presentation at the MOD exploring new directions in the role of the military in a digital age.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Ministry of Defence presentation 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact The talk resulted in extensive discussion and questions afterwards which was followed up by email correspondence with some key stakeholders.

Many of the people present at the talk have requested further information and access to research data. Requests for further engagement with individual units within the UK armed forces.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Ministry of Defence presentation 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This was a focussed presentation and extensive discussion with invited participants from different MOD departments engaged in digital communication, social media training and security. This event resulted in a number of follow conversations and further discussions about further impact.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Talk at an international conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact This was an invited talk at an annual international, industry-leading conference on social media in relation to military and defence, which is attended by industry specialists and policymakers. Other speakers included national military leaders, military media officers, and specialists technology providers. The talk sparked interesting questions about the research project and the reach of the research. The focus of the conference more broadly related to better understanding the digital communications sphere in the defence environment. As the only academic being invited to speak at the event, it provided a unique opportunity to raise awareness of and engage with key stakeholders in relation to social media in the military and therefore are central to further publicising the research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017