The U.S. military may be the country’s warfighting machine, but its many personnel operate in a wide range of fields, including across social media, where U.S. officers are working alongside spies and allies not only to battle disinformation from foreign forces and trolls, but also engaging with users in sometimes comedic ways that are redefining their industries.
“I know there is some risk to my style of humor, but who wants Army leaders who are risk averse?” Lieutenant General Theodore D. Martin, deputy commander of the Army Training and Doctrine and Command, told Newsweek.
Martin has made somewhat of a name for himself for his Twitter antics, which are intended to reinforce official policy and boost morale. Recently, the three-star general broadcast himself jokingly bribing military police with donuts, whipping up grilled cheese sandwiches with a blowtorch and parking his old “hooptie” in the coveted spot reserved for the flag officer’s vehicle.
He sees his high-profile presence as an asset for his position and the service as a whole.
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“I think it’s a huge advantage to be on social media as a leader, and I highly encourage other leaders to get in the fight if they are not doing so already,” Martin said. “Don’t be afraid—fear is a bad trait for a leader.”
He explained how his work humanizes his message, and makes him more accessible to soldiers, non-commissioned officers and all ranks down to the squad level, where unlike many in the top brass, most have grown up with social media. If they’re using it, so should he, Martin told Newsweek.
“I want to be where the soldiers are at,” Martin said, “and they are on social media.”
It also offers an opportunity for unfiltered feedback, both positive and negative. Sometimes, Martin said he felt the need to step in when he saw users posting information that was incorrect or misleading, especially as it related to the U.S. military.
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“You have to be prepared to correct misconceptions quickly on social media,” he said, “so a false perception doesn’t spread.”
But among his most frequent targets are some of his fellow servicemen.
“When you talk about disinformation—look no further than the Navy,” Martin said in jest. “They’re always putting out propaganda about how they’re going to beat Army…nuts.”
And despite the online ribbing between the two branches, the Navy too takes its social media operations seriously.
For the U.S. military, social media has arrived.
“It’s no longer a question of if social media will be part of outreach efforts,” Rear Admiral Charlie Brown, who heads the Navy Chief of Information Office (CHINFO), told Newsweek, “it is only a question of how.”
Like Martin, he saw a need to go against the grain in a traditionally conservative institution gradually adapting to a new mindset on communication.
“Military organizational culture is generally risk averse,” Brown said. “Leaders tend to value the ability to minimize variables and to control interactions, but that approach is not compatible with effective use of social media.”
But Brown says social media interaction is not for the timid.
“Like in any relationship, we need to be willing to be a little vulnerable and tolerate some risk if we want to engage in authentic interaction,” he said.
He said it’s a matter of engaging with your audience, which is ultimately a reflection of the institution itself.
“If you’re not willing to engage with the community—if you’re only transmitting, and not listening or responding—then that choice says more about your organization than any press release will,” he said.
And, while Brown finds himself also poking fun at fellow servicemembers (his preferred victim is the U.S. Space Force), he’s also taken on a more high-stakes foe: the People’s Republic of China.
In June, Chinese Communist Party-owned outlet Global Times shared a post citing defense experts who claimed the three U.S. aircraft carriers deployed to the Pacific were being withdrawn due to a lack of combat readiness amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. While COVID-19 did hit the Navy hard, Brown found the article to be deceptive and questioned the legitimacy of those cited.
“eXpErTs…” CHINFO hit back mockingly, alongside a GIF further deriding the publication.
CHINFO took on Global Times again in July when the outlet suggested that two U.S. aircraft carriers could only operate in the South China Sea because the missile-wielding People’s Liberation Army permitted it.
“And yet, there they are,” Brown wrote, reiterating that the warships were “not intimidated.”
CHINFO also shared Newsweek‘s coverage last month of the South China Sea, where Chinese military officials claimed to have “warned away” a U.S. warship near a contested set of islands. CHINFO dismissed China’s claims both to the waters themselves and as to what actually happened at sea as “excessive.”
“If social media can help us connect the American people with their Navy, then it’s important that we make ourselves available there,” Brown told Newsweek. “At the same time, social media can carry significant dangers from misinformation and disinformation, so it’s up to all of us to improve our social media literacy and make ourselves less susceptible to division.”
But it’s not all fun and games for Brown.
“Social media literacy is national security, too,” he said.
Secret agents see this too. The CIA, which took a crack at the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) after the U.S. victory over the U.K. in U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team during last year’s Women’s World Cup, believes it’s important to “incorporate humor” in its online image, said spokesperson Nicole de Haay.
An agency known for its shadowy, behind-the-scenes activities is today increasingly refining its public image to shape the narrative surrounding intelligence work and to appeal to potential recruits.
“We use our Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook accounts to share stories about life at CIA and entice talented Americans to join our global mission,” she told Newsweek. “We try to humanize CIA via our social media accounts so followers may envision themselves here.”
These interactions include trivia challenges, quizzes and the running #AskMollyHale advice column. On Instagram, the CIA follows actors who portrayed spies on film in order “to explain how our global mission is alike and different from big and small screen portrayals,” de Haay explained.
In a world where virtual interactions are increasingly prioritized—especially in the grips of a pandemic—it’s not just the U.S. military rethinking online operations, but allies as well.
Captain Kirk Sullivan serves as the Assistant Canadian Forces Public Affairs Attaché at the Canadian embassy in Washington, and he too seeks to spread awareness online. He most recently countered a follower with a Grinch-themed username questioning the usefulness of wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by sharing a Dr. Seuss-style retort.
“And the Grinch, with his Grinch-tweet stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if a mask wasn’t such a chore? What if he wore a mask a little bit more?” he tweeted.
He also shared a link to a “spot the troll” quiz designed by Clemson University’s Media Forensics Hub to help users better pick out those just trying to stir the pot.
“Watch out for wolves in sheep’s clothing,” Sullivan tweeted. “Debate. Disagree. But don’t let them divide us.”
It’s not his rivalries he’s perhaps best known for, however, but his favorite style of pizza that he’s striving to impress on his host country.
“There’s no feud. Pineapple belongs on pizza,” he said of the oft-debated topping actually popularized in Ontario.
And while Sullivan said he and his U.S. colleagues may not see eye-to-eye on pizza toppings or hockey teams or denim-on-denim outfits, social media provides him with an opportunity to interact with U.S. military and civilian life in new ways that bolster the common goals between the two countries.
“The humans are the message,” Sullivan told Newsweek. “We try to tell their stories. Their service and their many sacrifices speak for themselves. People defending people. We try to talk about their work in common language, and we’ll try to crack a joke every now and then.”
“The Canadians can be funny sometimes, you know,” Sullivan said. “Sometimes.”