Social Media And The U.S. Military

Until recently, access to social media sites varied widely across the military. But after a lengthy review, the Pentagon has authorized the use of sites like Facebook for nearly all members of the military. The Pentagon's Price Floyd oversaw development of the new policy.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Last September, the Pentagon's Price Floyd joined us to talk about the military's policy on use of sites like Facebook or YouTube.

Mr. PRICE FLOYD (Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs): Right now, there is no policy on working with or in social networking sites or media. It really doesnt exist.

CONAN: So an Army private serving overseas might be able to blog and tweet but not go to YouTube. A Marine rifleman was blocked from almost all of the top social media sites. Access was confusing and inconsistent. Well, a few weeks ago, the Pentagon tried to change that with an official policy on social media, the short Twitter-friendly version. The default across all branches is open access with some limits.

If you serve in the U.S. military, how do you use social media sites? And has access changed since the new policy took effect? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. If you're on Twitter, you can also find us at TOTN. Price Floyd is back to talk about the new policy he helped create. He serves as the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, and he joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. FLOYD: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: So what has changed?

Mr. FLOYD: As you said in your opening piece, the default is now set on open. And it's not with limits, it's just open.

CONAN: Well, certainly, the policy as I read it includes options for commanders in various circumstances say, well, not here, not now, based on, well, they might not have access to bandwidth, for example.

Mr. FLOYD: Right. Well, I mean, the laws of physics still apply. So even though the Defense Department has a policy of being open, if there's not enough bandwidth for people to access the Internet, there's not enough bandwidth.

CONAN: There will be a lot of officers, commanders who have concerns about operational security too.

Mr. FLOYD: Absolutely. And that's actually not new. Operational security or OPSEC, as the Defense Department has called for short, is a concern that we've had since the beginning of the U.S. military. And that doesnt change with access to social media. If anything, it becomes more important to be aware of what you say and where you say it.

CONAN: You may be aware of the case in Israel, where an Israeli soldier wrote on his Facebook site that, well, we're going into this village over here to do some arrests and hopefully be back by Thursday. Some of his buddies saw that, notified the commander and of course the operation had to be called off.

Mr. FLOYD: Right. It was - I mean, it's unfortunate that that soldier put that information up there. It reminds all of us to be careful what we say and do, not just in letters home but even more importantly on Twitter or Facebook or YouTube.

CONAN: Would you expect policy to be somewhat different if you're at Fort Hood, in Texas, would - or indeed on duty in Haiti? Would the situation be different than if you were serving, for example, in Afghanistan?

Mr. FLOYD: I don't think so. Operational security is operational security no matter where you are. You need to be cognizant of what you say and write, either on a cell phone or in a Twitter or social media site. It can be seen and heard not just by the people you're sending it to it - to sending the message to, but by the enemies as well.

CONAN: So you have to be aware that there are others reading your mail?

Mr. FLOYD: Absolutely. And one of the things we've done with this new social media policy is also start a concurrent training education process called NetSmart, which you can find it on a dod.gov Web site, to educate people how to use Twitter and Facebook and other media sites responsibly.

CONAN: Do you have to also educate some older people as to why this is important?

Mr. FLOYD: Actually, I thought I would have to when I started in defense department. But what I found is in the senior leadership, they get it.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

Mr. FLOYD: And at the lower echelons, the junior folks, they get it as well. It's in the middle that we've had what I call it a cultural challenge to educate these people on the opportunities but also the responsibilities for using this kind of technology.

CONAN: Well, a lot of military units are using Facebook and MySpace in places like that to have pages up and try to communicate with the other. But a lot of them are so-called zombie pages.

Mr. FLOYD: That's a great - I havent heard the term zombie page...

CONAN: Oh, I borrowed it from Wired, but that's okay.

Mr. FLOYD: Right. Some might be, but the ones that I have heard of, and maybe the reason I've heard of them is because they're not zombie pages, are quite interactive. Families who have been in touch with me talk about the tools in these Facebook sites are an invaluable way to stay in touch with their wife, husband, brother, sister or father, even mother. And in fact, they talk about the ability for their kids to do homework with their parent who's at war in real time.

And that kind of morale boost that happens when you're able to do that is immeasurable.

CONAN: They're using Skype for...

Mr. FLOYD: Some of them have Skype. But also on chats you can, you know, have an ongoing conversation in real time. They don't actually need Skype.

CONAN: We want to hear from those of you in the military. How do you use social media sites? And has access changed in the past couple of weeks since the policy was changed? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Let's start with Robert(ph), Robert with us from Waynesville in North Carolina.

ROBERT (Caller): Hi, sir. How are you doing today?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

ROBERT: Thanks for having me on. I just wanted to comment, I've been to Iraq twice. I was stationed in Qatar for six months. The social networking sites are vital to our morale as a whole. You know, they don't allow us to do those networking sites on government computers. We have to do it on our own computers - or at least the place that I've been that was the case. You know, there's not very many opportunities for us to be able to connect with our loved ones in a cheap way. The phone companies jack up their phone card minute rates so that they're just unbelievably expensive. So if you're able to network through MySpace, Facebook - I don't personally use Twitter, but Yahoo instant messenger, all of those things are absolutely invaluable.

CONAN: And what do you say, Robert, to somebody who might say, how does this help war fighting?

ROBERT: How does this - how did it help war fighting or stop war fighting?

CONAN: Or how does it help war fighting? I mean, your mission in the military is to - is your mission. How does this help your mission?

ROBERT: Well, I think that all troops, regardless of where they're at, need some place to blow off steam. I think there's definitely a place to do that. And we all go through countless briefings on operational security, I mean, COMSEC, OPSEC. You know, we go through all this training, and I'm sure there are some exceptions, but the vast majority of the young men and women that I know watch their tongue. They don't say what they're not supposed to say. And, you know, it just ends up being your buddy out there that you're compromising if you do it. So...

CONAN: Robert, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

ROBERT: Thank you. Have a good day.

CONAN: And what he was saying was that during his tours, he had to use his personal computer for this. Would he now be able to use a military computer?

Mr. FLOYD: It depends on the area that he's in. And some of the broadband issues or the bandwidth issues, sorry then it wouldnt matter whether it's his computer or a government one. But this policy expressly deals with government computers and access from government computers and social media sites. And the default is now set on open, and this is an across the board policy. There are exceptions. And if you read the policy, you can see the exceptions. But their exceptions are supposed to deal with temporary blockage, if you need it for security reasons or operational concerns.

CONAN: Right. And obviously, if there's a unit in the field, they need their net capacity to communicate with their superiors and get orders and that sort of thing.

Mr. FLOYD: That's right.

CONAN: So obviously, that has to be a factor in anybody's decision. Let's go next to Richard(ph), Richard calling us from Singapore. Richard, are you there? Well, apparently cell phones don't work very well from Singapore. So Richard, if you can, call back, it's 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

Earlier this month, Floyd - Price Floyd, wire.com reported some anecdotal evidence from troops that access was not being granted to social media sites, commanding officers, in some cases, not even aware of the change.

FLATOW: Right. I saw that article. The article came out the day after, or maybe two days after the policy was established.

CONAN: Five days, actually.

Mr. FLOYD: So - or a few days after. So I'm not surprised that everyone hadn't heard of it yet. Good news takes longer to travel than bad news. So - but we are pushing it out far and wide, using Twitter as well as traditional - this interview being one of them - traditional ways to get the news out.

I did want to comment on something, actually on the question you asked, how does this help the war fighter? One of the things that's interesting about social media, the software behind it, is that the U.S. military uses it, as we're speaking, to update its counterinsurgency manual. Men and women who are in the field fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq are sending back and communicating with people back here in the States to update the counterinsurgency manual, how we fight counterinsurgency wars, in real time. We don't have to wait several years or until the conflict is over to do that, and we're able to do that because of this technology.

CONAN: It's also interesting, back on the morale part of it, to have seen the first part of the new many miniseries on HBO, "The Pacific," and to see soldiers on Guadalcanal in 1942 reading their mail to each other. This is the modern equivalent of that. So let's get another caller on the line. This is John(ph), John with us from Boston.

JOHN (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, John. Go ahead, please.

JOHN: Hi. Yeah. I was just - I was tuning in myself. I just got back from Iraq last year. We had a social - we had, you know, sort of Internet center on the base. We were pretty lucky to have a lot of telecommunications available for the Marines, you know, serving over there. And pretty much, we had a situation where a Marine had been misinforming his girlfriend over the - sort of the operations we were conducting as a company. And it got back, and he got hammered pretty hard for it. It's not - you know, it's a two-edge sword. It's great for morale to have these social networking sites like Facebook. You know, I use it and I thought it was great. I got to stay in touch with my brother and sister and my fiancee, but not - you know, I mean, it's a two-edge sword. If you don't have that maturity level at the lowest common denominator, it can be pretty, you know, pretty harmful.

CONAN: Mandating maturity is something none of us can do.

JOHN: Well, no, I know that. But, you know - I mean, you got to understand that, you know, the average private, PFC, lance corporal in the military is 19 to 20 years old, you know? It might not be, you know - I mean, I don't know. It's - it can be difficult. It's - you know, it's got to be regulated. I can't say it's not beneficial to morale but it's got to be regulated.

CONAN: All right, John. Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

JOHN: Yeah.

CONAN: Bye-bye. There's another issue - some of - if you just have access to the Internet, there's a lot of sites that might cause problems for some in the military. Pornography sites, gambling sites, dating sites, are those going to be available?

Mr. FLOYD: They're not. Those have long been verboten by the U.S. military, and that doesn't change with this policy.

CONAN: We're talking with Price Floyd, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs. He helped create the Pentagon's new social media policy. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go next to Mary(ph), Mary with us from Milwaukee.

MARY (Caller): Hello. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

MARY: I just wanted to call and thank everyone who's assisted with this. My sister-in-law is currently serving in Iraq. Her husband is in specialized training. And we are helping out with their children - watching over their children. And the children can talk to mom and dad at any given time through Facebook and through Skype and all those things. And I can't express how wonderful it is, because obviously you have two children who are under the age of 10 who are separated from their parents, yet if there's a issue with their homework, they can call mom and have almost immediate reply. Of course, it's eight-hour difference, but mom stays up very late sometimes.

CONAN: Moms stay up pretty late sometimes anyway. So Mary, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. I'm glad you can stay in touch.

MARY: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Let's - I think Richard is back on the line with us. Is this Richard from Singapore.

RICHARD (Caller): Uh, yes, it is.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

RICHARD: Yeah. I've got one comment. Not to be a stick in the mud or anything, but I was a lieutenant serving over in Singapore. But one of the items I came up with the Facebook - we are in a staff environment, in an office environment, and people logging on to Facebook as opposed to logging on to other sites or doing the daily work that needs to be done. I completely agree with the Marine who was pleased with the center that was set up.

When you have access - my concern is with your guest - if you have access to it on your work computer in that environment, it can also create a loophole or an inroad for hackers - big problems with Russia and China getting in to the unclassified system and working their way up from there. How is that going to be dealt with - those problems dealt in the future?

CONAN: Price Floyd?

Mr. FLOYD: Those - that is a great a comment and question. The technical people, the security people, are looking into how protect our systems. They're ever vigilant. You know, people are always trying to get in. Social media and the use of it from work computers does offer another way. But the same kind of lessons that we learned when email first started - don't open emails from people you don't know, don't open an attachment that's in an email from people you don't - those kind of things still apply. And the kind of common sense rules of using it should be applied here.

I do find it interesting with social media sites that for some reason there seems to be an opposite effect of more people can see it and read it, and therefore your audience is bigger, any damage to be done is larger. And yet, people often - and it's often that young people, think they can say and do things they wouldn't ever say or do in front of their own parents or grandmother, yet they'll say and do it through social media - YouTube or Facebook.

CONAN: Right.

Mr. FLOYD: And so we really are pushing an education campaign to teach people not to say or do in front of their own mother or grandmother.

CONAN: I don't think those indiscretions are limited to the young.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Rick, thanks very much for the call. Glad you got back to us.

RICHARD: All right, thanks.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to Caroline(ph), Caroline with us from Clarksville in Tennessee.

CAROLINE (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

CAROLINE: I have one concern. My husband and I are going on our fourth deployment, and for the first time he's actually going to get Internet access in his room. And we've decided to sign up for Skype, but - which is fantastic because I will be able to see him and hear him - but at the same time I have this concern at the back of my head is it going to make it worse? Is it going to make me missing him worse because I can see him and hear him but I can't touch him, you know?

CONAN: It's a new problem. I - you know, there's no way to answer that until you go through the experience, I guess.

CAROLINE: Right. Right. Exactly. And the other thing I actually wanted to bring up is the Internet. They're charging us an arm and a leg to be able to use the Internet, so if he wants to go on one of the social networking sites at work and he can't - there's a filter - then he has to get one for his - the Internet for his room, but meanwhile they want to charge, 60, 80, $120 for us to be able to use the Internet per month.

CONAN: Thats a major factor for military families who certainly don't get paid a lot.

Mr. FLOYD: I think it is. I think the issues you raised are important. And it raises a whole bunch of issues about to look at in the future. The young people coming up through the ranks, they expect this kind of access. For them, it's not something unusual to be able to have it, and we're trying to work through that. It will be intriguing to see the results of having access to Skype and other things on reintegration process, when you come back. You'll be able to judge for yourself, if this is the fourth deployment. By the way, I thank your husband for his service, four deployments.

CONAN: It's Ferocious, yeah.

Mr. FLOYD: And so we had to see - I mean, you can, you know, call back and let me know, you know, how - and my Twitter account is on the dod.gov Web site. Let me know how it goes as you're going through this process of using Skype and are there downsides to it.

CONAN: Caroline, good luck.

CAROLINE: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Appreciate the phone call. And Price Floyd, thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. FLOYD: Thank you.

CONAN: Price Floyd is principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, and helped create the new policy on access to social media sites. And he was kind enough to be with us here today in Studio 3A.

Tomorrow, another casualty of the recession: Your retirement. We'll talk about the now maybe-not-so golden years. Join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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