“I think there are two issues that need to be balanced,” said Price Floyd, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs. “No. 1, you need to recognize the benefits taking part in social networking sites and social networking media give you, as well as the risks involved. And I don’t want in any way to shortchange the risks.
“I believe [the policy] … will encourage the use of social networking because of the benefits that are there, but also understand and underscore the risks there,” he added.
Social media generally refers to using Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and other interactive media tools to communicate with ever-expanding networks of family, friends and colleagues. Currently, Floyd said, the department does not have a policy on the use of social media.
“Right now there is no policy on working with or in social networking sites or media. It’s currently under review,” he said. “It’s on course to be finished within about two weeks.”
Introduced on NPR as the department’s “social media guru,” Floyd said not everyone in the department feels the same because they worry that operational security — Opsec — will be violated.
“In the past, when a soldier, airman, [sailor] or Marine sent home a letter to their family or loved ones and had information in it that might have been sensitive, it could have been read by two or three people, and that was it,” he explained.
“The problem now with social networking is that when you Twitter that information that might be sensitive … or put it on your Facebook page, thousands of people see it immediately, and then thousands more could see it as it’s forwarded on to others,” he said. “The ramifications of making a mistake, of putting things that shouldn’t be on there on those sites, are even greater than they used to be.”
Noah Shactman, editor of Wired magazine’s National Security Blog ‘Danger Room,’ was also a guest on the NPR program. He noted there are dozens of overlapping policies about what various branches of the military are allowed to do. The Marines, for example, recently banned Twitter and Facebook from its official networks, while the Army ordered that its networks be allowed access to the sites.
“That’s just one example of how there’s a lot of tension within the military about whether to use these sites or not, and that’s why I think this review is very helpful,” Shactman said.
The operational security concerns “might be a little overblown,” Shactman said, noting that a 2006 study revealed independent military blogs only had 28 security violations over the course of a year, while official military sites had more than 1,800 violations of those same security policies.
Floyd said he used his Twitter account to get feedback on the Marine policy ban when it was announced. Most people who responded said they wanted folks to have access, but “a large minority” said they understood there were security concerns.
“These people were on Twitter saying, ‘Yes, this should be blocked,’ so not everyone who uses social networking sites is in favor of having complete and open access,” he said.
Many of the people who called into the NPR program spoke in favor of more regulation of social media sites, even as they pleaded for more constant access to their deployed loved ones.
One former soldier, Matt, who served two tours as an officer in Iraq, said using social media in Iraq earlier this decade was distracting to his troops.
“I’ve also heard comments from other commanders on the ground that they need to be focused on the fight, not what’s going on at home,” Floyd said. ”But I’ve also heard lots of comments about how it was easier to reintegrate once they came back.”
Mike, a noncommissioned officer who served a tour in Afghanistan and two tours in Iraq, said for his soldiers to have “seamless communication with their families was absolutely helpful to morale.”
Kira called in to say she talks to her deployed boyfriend in Iraq via Skype, a free video chat service. She thanked Floyd for being able to use social networking, but she said she also recognizes the risks it poses.
“It might seem innocuous, but if the right pieces of information are put in the right order, then that can really put our troops in danger,” she said. “I think [operational security] needs to be emphasized more within the military community.”
Floyd pointed out that some military commands have been using social media for years: Navy Adm. James G. Stavridis, commander of U.S. European Command and NATO’s top military commander, launched his Facebook page and blogged while leading Southern Command.
Recruiters also are using social media to keep in touch with troops who have signed up but have yet to report for duty, Floyd said.
“I was at the Recruiting Command at Fort Knox, Kentucky, several weeks ago, and they’re going to use Twitter to keep in touch with recruits before they show up,” he said. “They also use Twitter to let their recruits know how they can earn credit towards promotion even before they show up for their first day of duty.”
Overall, Floyd said, he believes there is a general misunderstanding about social media.
“A lot of people think of it as a new way to get information out. So in that sense, when we went from blast faxing information to blast e-mailing, people were so excited you could push one button and reach so many people,” he said. “And they believed that Web 2.0 is just the next extension of that. I believe that’s just a fundamental misunderstanding of what Web 2.0 is all about.”
It’s not so much a way of getting more information out, he said, it’s also a way of engaging the American people, and “in the case of the military, engaging internally with our internal audience of several million members of the Defense Department.”
The department’s newly revamped Web site, www.defense.gov, is designed to engage the public in discussion, Floyd stressed. He added that he is not concerned that things may be posted that haven’t been strenuously scrubbed – “things that may not be — quote-unquote — ‘approved talking points’ from public affairs.”
“I actually welcome that sort of talk and chatter on the Web,” he said. “I believe it shows a Pentagon that has multiple voices, and it gives a transparency to our decision-making process that I believe is good.”