Thursday, August 11, 2016

Quotable: Gregory Tomlin on social media in a NATO exercise

"Quotable: Gregory Tomlin on social media in a NATO exercise,"

Tomlin image from

Wednesday, August 10th 2016
“For information operations (IO) professionals long accustomed to incorporating messages into host-nation newspapers and radio broadcasts, it is now imperative that they consider online methods to reach the widest audience targeted by their contemporary information campaign.” 

Army Major Gregory Tomlin reported this as a major lesson of a NATO exercise, Trident Juncture, organized by the Allied Force Command (in Brunssum, the Netherlands) with additional players in Canada, Norway, Portugal, and Spain.  At the Foreign Service Institute, students have wrestled with the problems of “San Bronico” and “Anthuria.”  The NATO exercise scenario involved an invasion of “Tytan” by “Kamon.”

Tomlin described the exercise in an article, “#SocialMediaMatters: Lessons Learned from Exercise Trident Juncture,” in the Joint Force Quarterly issue for the third quarter of 2016.  It should interest all Public Diplomacy professionals who are thinking about the turbulence of social media during crises and conflicts.  American embassies will be involved, and Public Diplomacy officers need to understand Information Operations.

Major Tomlin is the author of Murrow’s Cold War: Public Diplomacy for the Kennedy Administration (Potomac Books, 2016).

This gist quotes just a few general highlights from the article.  Those engrossed in the social media will want to read the article with its technical granularity about platforms, “white noise,” messages, long vs. short posts, chatter, propaganda, “pith” vs. “rant,” and a discussion of the long time required for clearance of posts.

  • NATO simulation designers uploaded two social media applications onto the exercise’s Intranet, and controllers encouraged friendly players at all echelons to create profiles. Opposing force and neutral players also established their own accounts.

  • IO specialists, nonlethal targeting officers, and, perhaps most importantly, commanders became aware of the consequential impacts—both good and bad—of social media within the modern information dimension of warfare.

  • Foremost, Trident Juncture demonstrated that the dissemination of canned talking points through social media is no more persuasive than when parroted by a patrol leader to the resident of a host-nation village.

  • Simplistic messages such as “NATO is here under authorization of a UN Security Council resolution” failed to gain the joint task force headquarters’ profile a significant following on Chatter or Facepage.

  • Without “friends” following a command on social media, NATO messages did not enter many personal online streams and quickly disappeared beneath the din on the application’s main page.

  • Like the incorporation of talking points in face-to-face engagements, IO officers must be prepared to weave their messages into interesting social media postings. For example, an official Chatter post by the U.S. brigade mentioning that the commander met with a town mayor to discuss security concerns invited a comment from one host-nation user who asked the brigade to detail specific security concerns. This comment enabled the brigade spokesman to engage in a virtual conversation through a series of comment posts. More importantly for the information campaign, it allowed the spokesman to insert focused talking points about respect for the rule of law and ethnic tolerance that would have sounded like platitudes if written as independent posts.

  • Like the popular Twitter application, Chatter enabled users to transform a topic into a trend through the use of the # hashtag. Leveraging this feature generated interest in a topic that, as part of an information campaign, influenced the local population to support a specific initiative.

  • Although robust for a NATO exercise, 600 profiles is a paltry sum compared to the millions of Twitter and Facebook users who will generate white noise in a real-world theater of operations. PAOs and IO officers must begin to consider seriously the challenges of navigating around the white noise and how to respond to the most blatant information attacks against NATO in social media.

  • . . . commanders cannot pretend that trends on social media are merely white noise during an operation, for they could directly affect the alliance’s lines of effort. The information dimension of warfare must be mastered by developing a following of inquisitive international observers and host-nation friends on social media platforms who seek on their own to navigate around the white noise.

  • It would be optimal to contract with a marketing or public relations firm to play the opposing force and host-nation population on social media. A tech-savvy business would present PAOs and IO officers with the most sophisticated information environment based on current online trends. During the exercise’s train-up and after action review process, the civilian experts could also coach PAOs and IO officers responsible for developing a headquarters’ official social media messages. Although a costly investment, this approach would prevent participants from leaving an exercise with a false sense of bravado about their ability to shape an information environment of only several hundred profiles.

  • . . . Internet surfers in some cultures continue to appreciate reading detailed articles, and scholars and policymakers in most societies expect access to open forums where thoughtful discourse is not restricted to a 120-character post.

  • During the Cold War, for example, Voice of America found that its audience in the Soviet Union overwhelmingly favored lengthy monologues on U.S. foreign policy read by American broadcasters. In Latin America, on the other hand, regular listeners to the Voice preferred short news updates that they could listen to at a cafe during a midday coffee break.

  • A final consideration for IO planners will be to ensure that they understand the time required for higher headquarters to approve Military Information Support Operations messages for dissemination, as well as themes to avoid in such messages.

  • During a unilateral mission, U.S. planners serve under a single chain of command that may make it easier to gain approval for new message nominations in a matter of hours. But multinational operations may require the approval of messages through separate national command authorities that could easily delay the approval of new messages for days.

  • Not only might messages in support of NATO operations require the approval of the North Atlantic Council, but also individual nations might reserve the right to review them independently.

  • Factoring a realistic review process into an IO planning timeline could encourage officers to nominate messages and themes early in the operations cycle and to formulate memoranda of understanding to expedite the approval process for new messages during current operations. Such advanced considerations could empower PAOs and IO officers whose responsibilities remain essential to proactively shaping the information environment . . .

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