The Future

Behind the bad tweets of the U.S. military

Public documents reveal how the branches of the U.S. military are instructed to harness internet culture to advance their own messaging.
The Future

Behind the bad tweets of the U.S. military

Public documents reveal how the branches of the U.S. military are instructed to harness internet culture to advance their own messaging.

On Sunday, March 17, the official Twitter account for the U.S. Army, @USArmy, shared a minute-long video of helicopters, bombs, machine guns, tanks, and missiles exploding and firing ammunition designed to take human lives — but cheery, Kelly-green shamrocks in recognition of Saint Patrick’s Day were imposed over the actual, deadly residue from the explosions. The reaction on Twitter to this post was a mixture of confusion, disgust, and jokes made in an attempt to deflect from the disturbing reality of the situation, and the tweet was later removed.

An individual identified by their Linkedin profile as the Social Media Manager for the U.S. Army from February 2017 to March 2018 described that role as “content creation, audience engagement and analytics for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Flickr.” Beginning in March 2018, the same month that the Saint Patrick’s Day video was tweeted from the U.S. Army Twitter account, their job is listed as “Digital Strategist” for the U.S. Army. Reached via direct message by The Outline, this person declined to comment.

This video was not the first or last time that a Twitter account associated with the U.S. military — which includes the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, National Guard, and Marine Corps — posted morbid content in an attempt to humanize themselves and connect with social media users. On “World Emoji Day,” the U.S. Army account posted a photo of in-uniform American troops storming up a grassy hill with the grimacing emoji, complete with a camouflage emoji helmet, edited onto the heads of the soldiers.

It’s common practice for brands or government agencies to use social media marketing tactics — such as recognizing internet holidays like #WorldEmojiDay, #NationalDogDay, or #HumpDay using emojis, or generally speaking in a more conversational, down-to-earth tone — in order to spread their messaging and communicate with the public. However, the stakes behind military Twitter accounts are fundamentally different than that of, say, the Department of the Interior. These accounts aren’t just encouraging people to go to national parks; they’re propagandizing and idealizing military valor in order to normalize their actions, elicit acceptance from the public, and recruit new members.

The U.S. military is no stranger to propaganda’s potential to elicit support for a war. In World War I, patriotic recruitment posters — think Uncle Sam, “I Want You for U.S. Army” — were distributed in a largely successful endeavor to garner support for a war that the U.S. had sworn against joining. Propaganda expanded to new forms of media like television, radio, and cinema throughout the Second World War and the Cold War. Ever since the Gulf War and the endless “War on Terror,” glamorized, heroic narratives of American power and democratic noble-heartedness have bled into private movies and television — like Zero Dark Thirty, 13 Hours, and, yes, even Pitch Perfect 3 — enabled by liaisons for the Department of Defense, which have directly negotiated more than 100 military portrayals Hollywood between 1989 and today.

Theoretically, social media offers a medium for the expansion of military propaganda. But it’s one thing to capture the imagination and make a movie where a soldier is a hero. It’s another to create a digital identity that people see alongside those of their peers and friends. On social media, you have to sell a soul, not just a story. It’s jarring when the military attempts to co-opt the positive, shareable content and performative earnesty that real people gravitate toward online because it’s clear that this identity was stolen, and it rings empty.

How does U.S. military branding coexist with and infiltrate civilian culture? After all, when internet memes that start off as joyful distractions get repurposed to justify the existence of a $688 billion military, it often signals the meme’s death. It’s not that social media accounts can’t be casual in tone, but there’s a fine line between transparency and communication, and siphoning the humanity from internet culture in an attempt to bolster the narrative and branding of the U.S. military. The public affairs offices of the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, National Guard, and Marine Corps did not respond to The Outline’s request for comment.

Per a White House directive to the Department of Defense (DoD) issued in 2009 under the Obama administration, government agencies, including military branches, are required by law to use social media so that taxpayers feel informed and connected to what’s going on internally. Federal agencies are required to establish “a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration” by “using web-based technologies, such as blogs, wikis, and social networks.”

The concept of military branch “branding” is central to these mandated social media operations. The U.S. Army Social Media Handbook from 2013 instructs all official accounts to use official Army branding — which of course, includes using the correct color scheme and logos on the accounts. But this branding also extends to the organization’s public-facing ideological persona, which explicitly has its basis in American ideals of strength and power.

“A brand is not just a logo or an emblem; it is an organization’s identity,” the handbook reads. “‘Army Strong’ is a unique brand of strength. Everyone is familiar with the tangible power of the U.S. Army: the Apaches, the Humvees, the weaponry, the pushups. This campaign highlights the true strength of our army — the strength that lies within each and every soldier. It is harder to see, but it is this strength that makes the U.S. Army the preeminent land power on earth. Thus, maintaining the same consistent branding across all army sites (social media or otherwise) is vitally important.”

Similarly, a 2015 slideshow from the U.S. Navy office of Digital Military Engagement titled “Twitter Basics” claims that that the Navy Twitter account is intended to self-characterize and strengthen the branch’s public narrative. “The Navy’s account provides a means to tell the Navy story, share key messages, and interact with key Navy stakeholders in real time on issues of interest to them,” the slideshow reads.

But it’s important to note that adding an element of “fun” to military branding is explicitly instructed by the public affairs offices across U.S. military agencies. According to a social media “Do” and “Don’t” list from the U.S. Army Social Media Handbook from 2016, curators of official Army Twitter accounts are encouraged to “create a voice and be authentic,” “tweet army senior leader quotes,” and “limit the number of hashtags in posts.”

“Balance ‘fun’ with ‘medicine,’” the handbook reads — in which case “medicine” refers to military promotional materials, or breaking news events like a successful military operation. “It is important to post command messages and organizational information, but try to keep the page entertaining enough for people to want to follow it. Don’t be afraid to have fun by posting interesting links, or asking trivia questions. Try posting a photo of the day, or asking a weekly question.”

A U.S. Navy office of Digital Media Engagement document titled “U.S. Navy Twitter Tips 2015” provides a list of examples of exactly how to achieve an on-brand, “fun” tone that’s more shareable. The document says that an example of a “good” official U.S. Navy account tweet is: “Fastest speed by #USNavy surface craft achieved at alt fuel demonstration in Panama City http://www.navy.mil/search/display.asp?story_id=64290.” However, an example of a “great” tweet is “Q: What's #Green and the fastest thing on blue water? A: http://www.navy.mil/search/display.asp?story_id=64290 #BeReady #GlobalForce.” Why is this a great tweet?

“Tweet is phrased in the form of a question,” the document reads, “begging for engagement and adding an element of mystery to the context of the post. This tweet also adds in relevant hashtags that represent the Navy’s key messaging.”

The majority of military social media manager positions relate to the social media presences for small, specific military units or bases — like the Recruiting Battalion in Seattle, Washington. Certain social media managers are required to be an enlisted member of a U.S. military branch. Other positions are extended to the Civilian Services divisions of the Air Force, Army, or Navy, which then use job recruiting agencies like OBxTECH in order to fill positions.

Generally speaking, these social media managers have a decent amount of individual freedom over what they post, or what they define as “fun.” A 2015 “Social Media Spring Cleaning” slideshow from the U.S. Navy office of Digital Media Engagement instructs employees to develop plans for curating the “purpose, goal, audience, content, tone and crisis management” for Navy social media accounts. The slideshow also encourages employees to share these plans with superiors, and to conduct a yearly review that compares the social media plan with site analytics and audience data.

Still, there are some hard ceilings and prohibited content for official social media feeds: “graphic, obscene, explicit or racial comments,” “solicitations or advertisements,” “comments that suggest or encourage illegal activity,” and “apparent spam” are all (predictably) discouraged per the Navy official social media registration checklist.

These guidelines do not always help. In May of this year, the “Yanny” or “Laurel” audio meme prompted the Air Force to tweet from its official account, “The Taliban Forces in Farah city #Afghanistan would much rather have heard #Yanny or #Laurel than the deafening #BRRRT they got courtesy of our #A10. Read more:”

The tweet was bragging about a massive fighter pilot that had just been used in an aerial offense against the Taliban after the group attacked an Afghan city. A NATO representative told Business Insider that mission leaders are “unsure” how many civilians were killed. The tweet was later deleted and the Air Force Twitter account issued an apology, admitting that the tweet was in “poor taste.”

Ultimately, the various accounts missteps don’t appear to have caused much introspection about the right way for the largest standing military to communicate with its public; consistent with its history, in many ways, it remains as jingoistic as ever. A U.S. Navy Facebook Business Rules document from 2015 reads: “The content shared should… invigorate followers’ enthusiasm... and encourage them to be champions of the Navy’s message within their own communities.”

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