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The Ironic Social Media War On Social Media Champion General William Caldwell

I can’t help but note the irony that General William Caldwell finds himself under attack on social media as a result of allegations waged in a recent Rolling Stones piece by Michael Hastings.  The Hastings piece, which is hardly flattering of Caldwell, has been recommended on Facebook 18,000+ times.

What goes unmentioned by Hastings is what a champion General Caldwell has been in the use of “information engagement” by the U.S. military and how strongly he has advocated putting both the tools of social media and our trust in their use in the hands of our troops.

And, I’ll quickly admit, that background on the part of General Caldwell probably colors my reaction to the Hastings piece.

Though there are several legitimate questions raised in the Rolling Stones story, there are an equal or greater number of questions that are never even asked, much less answered.

Perhaps General Caldwell feels constrained by the investigation called for by General Petraeus and therefore doesn’t feel it would be appropriate to use the tools of social media to wage a fight on behalf of his own reputation. Since he may not feel capable of “information engagement” in this case, it only seems fair to make a few points on General Caldwell’s behalf about the Hastings piece.

What’s his nefarious motive again?

It hardly seems like a shocking notion to me that the people charged with protecting our country would take their job seriously and seize the opportunity to advocate for the tools they need to be effective in the mission that they have been charged with by their country.  At its core, that is the allegation made by Hastings and his source, Lt. Col. Holmes.

Sure, there are many who disagree with the war in Afghanistan and want it to end, but can Caldwell really be faulted for wanting what he needs to get the job done?  After all, it is not his decision whether to be there or not. That responsibility lies with the President.  Caldwell’s only option is to do his best to accomplish the mission assigned to him by others.

The “targets” were far from helpless babes in the woods

Secondly, the supposed targets of this psy-ops effort were members of Congress—big boys and girls who are the target of an endless barrage of persuasion efforts–to the tune of several billion dollars a year. There’s an entire industry built around trying to shape their perceptions on matters of public policy.

If they have such a fragile grasp on their worldview that a weekend in Afghanistan with a handful is soldiers is going to cause them to suddenly believe that up is down, what are we to think about how they will hold up under the incessant pressure of Washington’s Public Affairs-Industrial Complex?

Side note:  Given my personal experience with Senator Al Franken, the thought of anyone manipulating him into doing anything that he doesn’t want to do strikes me as pretty amusing on its face, but maybe I have that part all wrong too.

Still, there are rules

With all that said, I readily concede that there must be rules and even three star Generals should follow them.  But Hastings article doesn’t exactly make it clear to me that Caldwell crossed any lines.  He asked staffers to gather open source information about the background and interests of visiting dignitaries.  It is worth posing the question: In the social media world, the gurus are constantly dispensing advice to “get to know your audience.”  How is this different?

Hastings doesn’t allege true propaganda tactics

It is also important to note what Hastings does NOT allege: Hastings doesn’t suggest that Caldwell directed his psy-ops team to create phony records of their achievements, alter photos or knowingly give lawmakers false information to persuade them of anything. Nor does he suggest that Caldwell suggested plying the politicians with mind altering drugs.

Instead, Caldwell supposedly used the publicly available tools at his disposal to make the most effective case possible to decision makers for what he feels he needs to do his job.  How is that radical?

Caldwell is an advocate for the use of social media and media engagement

It is also worth pointing out that Caldwell is one of the most informed senior officers in the military when it comes to the importance of managing the information environment as part of military engagement.  Surely, he would not be expected to put that knowledge aside when it comes time to advocate for his own mission.

Bullets and Blogs

Caldwell’s been a leader in the area of advocating information engagement by the U.S. military, whether it was enabling a working group to analyze the uses of new media and information engagement in the 2006 conflict between  Israeli Defense Forces and  Hezbollah, or writing on those topics personally.

In fact, Bullets and Blogs, a publication of the Center for Strategic Leadership of the Army War College, which Caldwell championed, would serve as a useful guide to him in managing his response to this controversy, if he didn’t  so constrained by the prospect of an investigation that he found it inappropriate to fight back.

The SAMMS protocol from Bullets and Blogs lays out a concise framework for “information engagement” whether in a battle context, or a reputational one.

  • Speed: First past the post sticks
  • Authorities powered down: Agility requires it
  • Message: Specific, consistent, persistent
  • Media: If you aren’t in their space, you’re no place
  • Messengers: Trusted by audience
  • Soldiers telling their stories: Informing the home front
    • Official and embedded bloggers
    • Citizen bloggers: The misinformed, not-so-friendly and independent friendlies
    • Third party validators: Credible and specific
  • Synchronicity: Essential for coherence and credibility

I am especially taken by the gutsy move of Caldwell to advocate letting the troops tell their own stories.  He lays it out in stark terms:  If we can trust the troops to make life and death decisions on the battlefield, how can we say they can’t be trusted with Facebook?

Given that perspective, that knowledge and experience, it seems unlikely to me, as Hastings suggests, that Caldwell would casually and recklessly undertake an information engagement with lawmakers that crossed any obvious line.  He’s smart and he’s knowledgable about the very subtle issues involved.

Advocating a particular policy to support his mission hardly seems like a sinister plot to undermine democracy, but everything about Caldwell’s advocacy of social media to this point suggests that he understands that it’s not just your motives that count, it also matters how you go about pursuing them.

To me, that suggests it’s less likely that Caldwell would act as Hasting’s presentation alleges.

There are broader questions involved: What is propaganda?

The current debate shouldn’t simply be a debate about what Caldwell did or didn’t do, or should or should not have done.  This debate should also be used to wedge some important issues into the public debate.

The law prohibiting propaganda efforts dates back to 1948.  Historically, the separation between public affairs and psy-ops appears to have been made by plotting those efforts on two axes: Informing versus Persuading on one axis, and the distinction between International audience and Domestic audiences on the other axis.   It is worthy of discussion whether those distinctions are still the appropriate ones given the changes in the communications landscape.

From the Rolling Stone piece:

According to the Defense Department’s own definition, psy-ops – the use of propaganda and psychological tactics to influence emotions and behaviors – are supposed to be used exclusively on “hostile foreign groups.” Federal law forbids the military from practicing psy-ops on Americans, and each defense authorization bill comes with a “propaganda rider” that also prohibits such manipulation. “Everyone in the psy-ops, intel, and IO community knows you’re not supposed to target Americans,” says a veteran member of another psy-ops team who has run operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It’s what you learn on day one.”

I suspect the information versus persuasion has always been a tricky distinction to try to navigate for the military, so the emphasis was likely placed on the intended audience because that was more objective and easier to enforce.

However, those strictures were put in place at a time when communication channels were largely bound by geography.   If you were transmitting radio signals to a local audience abroad, that was pretty clearly intended to persuade someone of something, if you were answering the questions of a reporter of a U.S.-based publication, that was providing information.

However, the new media environment destroys, or at least distorts, those distinctions in ways that render them fairly dangerous to the clarity that these guidelines need to provide to U.S. soldiers.

Our adversaries understand these tools and will use them against us.  Our soldiers must understand them as well and must have sufficient guidance to permit them to be effective, without having to worry about being second-guessed after the fact for judgments they had to make in the heat of a military engagement.

Let’s hope these issues get the discussion they deserve

So, it’s all well and good that General Petraus has appointed an officer to look into the allegations against General Caldwell, but I hope there will be an equal or greater effort invested in how to clarify the rules of engagement for the use of new media tools so that the U. S. militaries momentum in this area—attributable in no small part to the efforts of General Caldwell—will not be lost.

And finally, a topic for another day

And lastly, and probably a topic for another day, is how all these concerns about “propaganda versus informing” squares with the communications arms of the Congress, the White House and every federal agency?

With the use of New Media, are they simply trying to inform, or are they trying to persuade?


  1. Lyn Bunch says:

    An excellent article that really tells the whole story of the man, the key issues around digital communications in the military. I look forward to reading your coming posts.

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