Blinded by the ‘Likes’
17 Jun 19
I was prompted to write this after seeing the success of a team of Royal Marines on the Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race and parallels being drawn with the daring raid conducted by the Cockleshell Heroes of WWII. Whilst I understand the sentiment (physical achievements in Klepper canoes etc), I couldn’t help but feel a sense of deeper irony. One event was a highly covert action conducted during the darkest days of WWII, the other was being broadcast in the most public of places – Twitter. I feel that this particular comparison serves as a useful case study for a larger dichotomy that I believe the Corps is now facing, or very likely to face in the near future. Internally there is much talk of evolution with the Future Commando Force project taking the Royal Marines back to its Commando roots; operating on the edge of policy, in contested spaces, with a higher level of associated risk than that entrusted to conventional infantry. Externally, and perhaps paradoxically, the Royal Marines footprint on social media is growing rapidly. At the top of the tree, @MajGenStickland and @RoyalMarines communicate strategic level activity on twitter and have been doing so with considerable success – @RoyalMarines followers have more than doubled over the past 11 months to the current number of c.27k.
Following this lead, each of the Commando Unitsnow manage twitter accounts, and most recently 3 Commando Brigade joined the fray. These strategic and operational level accounts are managed with obvious purpose; Recruitment and Influence. Below this at the more tactical levels, military activity on social media can be generalised into a few broad categories – Publicity, Sport, Charity, Education and Personal Blogs. This is where the lines between official and unofficial become murky and the purpose of the publicity remain unclear – do they serve the individual or the organisations interests? In this short opinion piece I will look to explore the pros and cons of this type of tactical social media activity and consider whether or not it supports the strategic aims and ambitions of the Royal Marines.
“Our mission: Organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. – Larry Page, CEO of Google, 1998.
The power of social media is undeniable and its ability to spread the Royal Marines brand to the farthest reaches of the Globe (and cyber space) is seemingly limitless. Social media offers organisations and individuals the ability to build, connect with and influence networks of people (and networks of networks). These networks of contacts can be engaged and mobilised with ease and from a military perspective, social media platforms present an opportunity for service members to connect with leadership and educate themselves in a way previously not possible. Examples of this might include the growing number of Professional Military Education (PME) focussed twitter accounts such as Puzzle Palace,Wavell Room and The Cove. It also provides an excellent platform for publicity, with a number of charity challenges being marketed using twitter over recent years. The 1664 Challenge, brought about as part of the Royal Marines 350th Birthday celebrations, utilised social media too heavily publicise physical challenges occurring throughout the 350th Birthday year. Since then, a number of smaller scale events and challenges have been publicised heavily on social media including a Marathon Speed March World Record Attempt and engagement events such as those with the England Men’s and Women’s football teams and management teams from the corporate world. Generally it is assumed that this type of publicity assists with recruitment and brand awareness; there is no easily accessible data to support or refute this argument. There’s also the consideration that this type of engagement raises much needed funds for the Royal Marines Charities and circuitously benefits members of the Corps. I am not sighted to the mechanism by which these types of engagements come about or are paid for, but agree that any source of funds that benefits members of the RM Family should be explored at all opportunities. Whilst I recognise that there are some benefits of this type of activity and it’s publication on social media, it is important that they are weighed against the potential long term costs.
“Attacking an adversaries centre of gravity no longer requires smart bombs….. all it takes is a smart-phone and a few idle minutes”. – Singer and Emerson, LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, 2018.
Helping to bridge the gap between the people and politicians, social media has succeeded in enabling an age where war and politics have never been so intertwined. Not only has it flattened communications between soldiers and their political masters, it has made politicians more accountable to the public and it has even created new lines of communication between soldiers and their adversaries on the battlefield. Evidence of this can be found with a quick scan of recent newspaper reports and a little bit more analysis can illuminate some interesting concepts. Analysis of recent operations can reveal how social media has been used to attack the will and cohesion of adversaries at the tactical level and has been used to undermine large scale, covert operations.
As Signer and Emerson stated “Social media has given opposing forces a platform to communicate direction to one-another; ‘liking’ a adversaries pictures, sending friend requests, messages or simply stalking private lives”  are all made possible by low level social media accounts. These tactics became popular for ISIS who mastered the weaponization of social media and conducted what were ostensibly ‘cyber guerrilla campaigns’ in support of their actions in the physical space. These seemingly low-level actions may appear superficial, but the relevance of this example lays in how it highlights vulnerability. This is the same vulnerability that can be used to undermine the larger scale activity of nation states. As the Royal Marines evolves with the Future Commando Force project, the Corps might look to develop its abilities to operate within the ‘Grey Zone’, offering the MoD a competitive advantage in the nebulous space between war and peace. If we look at recent ‘Grey Zone’ conflicts, we can find further examples of how social media has rendered deniability of covert action implausible. Social Media analysis conducted by the private third party organisation EchoSec used open source information and basic search techniques to build a comprehensive picture of Russian involvement in the Donetsk region of Ukraine during the 2014 Annexation of Crimea. Using Facebook, Twitter and Instagram it was possible to identify individuals, deduce their nationalities, track their movements and build a detailed understanding of their employment within the Russian Armed Forces. These conclusions led NATO to perceive Russia to be the key instigator in the conflict and amongst a number of measures, justified increased NATO military activity in the region.
It’s clear by looking at this particular example that seemingly innocent social media activity at the tactical level can be fraught with significant strategic risk. This is particularly worrisome for military forces shaping themselves to operate in a space which requires information security and a level of covertness not usually associated with conventional military operations. This brings me to the question that I feel lays at the heart of the dichotomy mentioned earlier; Is increasing low level activity on social media worth the risk it poses to the evolution of the UKs Commando Forces? The military utility of social media is undeniable; a recruitment tool, intelligence tool, enablers to operations, the list goes on. Despite this, its use by members of the Royal Marines must be part of a coherent strategy centred on Recruitment, Education, Influence and Operations. Strategic military actions can easily unravel through tactical blunders in the cyber domain, and with more and more activity being publicised on social media, the risk is surely rising. Fitness challenges and corporate engagement are all positive activity that should continue to take place. When it comes to publicity, they sit in the murky space between official and unofficial and generally have no obvious and measurable benefit to the wider Commando community and its long term ambitions. It is hard to see the parallels between the overzealous us of social media by individuals attempting physical challenges and the creation of a ‘5th Generation Commando Force’. The short term gains of recruitment and fund raising must surely be far outweighed by the operational risk to force and the strategic risk to reputation by needlessly creating
This piece is not designed persuade members of the Commando Community to delete their Facebook accounts and stop using Twitter. They are excellent platforms that when used in the correct way can be incredibly powerful (SM is afterall giving me a platform to share this view). My view is that a coherent SM strategy is required which sweeps up social media activity all levels: Tactical, Operational and Strategic. Any coherent strategy that is formulated must reflect and support the longer term ambition of the Corps; the Future Commando Force and activity that occurs outside of these aims must be discouraged and if required, punished. At the minute, it feels as though the opposite is the case – it is being encouraged and in many cases rewarded. Are we being blinded by the ‘likes’?.
Singer and Emerson, LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, 2018.