CENTCOM Team Engages 'Bloggers'
By Capt. Steve Alvarez, USA
American Forces Press Service
MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla., Mar. 2, 2006 The widespread use of Web logs, or "blogs," by online writers has proliferated information on topics as varied as the authors.
Blogs, in essence, are online journals or forums for their authors, known as "bloggers."
Public affairs officials here said thousands of blogs are created each day, and they estimate that more than 21 million blogs are posted on the World Wide Web today.
Blogs sometimes include information -- accurate and otherwise -- about the U.S. military's global war on terror. U.S. Central Command officials here took notice and created a team to engage these writers and their electronic information forums.
"The main interest is to drive their readers to our site," Army Reserve Maj. Richard J. McNorton said. McNorton is CENTCOM's chief of engagement operations.
Anyone who wants a virtual voice can create a blog and share information with the online world. The ease with which bloggers spread information is what public affairs officials at CENTCOM saw when they created the blog team.
McNorton said the team contacts bloggers to inform the writers about any given topic that may have been posted on their site. This outreach effort enables the team to offer complete information to bloggers by inviting them to visit CENTCOM's Web site for news releases, data or imagery.
The team engages bloggers who are posting inaccurate or untrue information, as well as bloggers who are posting incomplete information. They extend a friendly invitation to all bloggers to visit the command's Web site.
Many bloggers appreciate the team's contact, blog team officials said, and most post CENTCOM's Web site as a link on their blog sites. This, McNorton said, has a "viral effect" that drives Internet news consumers to CENTCOM's Web site.
"Now (online readers) have the opportunity to read positive stories. At least the public can go there and see the whole story. The public wants to hear these good stories," he said, adding that the news stories the military generates are "very factual."
From his desk at CENTCOM headquarters here, Army Reserve Spc. Claude Flowers of the 304th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment from Kent, Wash., fights in the global war on terrorism daily in his own way. It is an effort, officials here said, that is making a big difference in the communications arena in the online world.
The team's motto is "Engage," and Flowers and others work with more than 250 bloggers to try to disseminate news about the good work being done by U.S. forces in the global war on terror. The effort, officials here said, has reached more than 17 million online readers.
"We were given the mission to do electronic media engagement," Flowers said. "The idea was put forth that so many people are getting their news from online sources that we would be remiss if we neglected that audience."
Flowers is one of three people who read blogs and try to drive Internet readers to the CENTCOM Web site, where readers can learn more about operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.
"We needed to do something to make people aware of the fact that we had this clearinghouse of photos and information," Flowers said. "We can get the whole story out there. We let them know we have a Web site."
Flowers said the Web site is filled with informative facts, figures, imagery, data and information that readers can digest before a third party processes and presents the information for them through other media.
"Certainly anyone is welcome to use the material on the Web site," Flowers said. "So far, the reception has been tremendous."
Team members said they have contacted a full spectrum of bloggers. In one instance, a blogger was writing about the opening of a water treatment plant in Iraq. The writer was presenting the information as a positive milestone for the U.S. military in Iraq, but the information was not complete. The team contacted the writer and offered information via the CENTCOM Web site, and more information was added to the blog to make the article more accurate.
In another blog contact, the team wrote a blogger who had written untrue information about U.S. military tactics. The blogger stated that the U.S. military routinely used children in Iraq and Afghanistan as human shields during their operations by using candy to entice and lure kids near them. The team posted a comment on the writer's blog stating that the U.S. military did not use human shield tactics and explained the full circumstances of the incident where Iraqi children died in 2004 when insurgents attacked U.S. forces in Baghdad.
Most blogs ordinarily have a feature that enables readers to contact the writer or allows readers to post comments. When the team "reaches out" to a blogger, the team members do not conceal their identity. They fully disclose that they are public affairs personnel and identify themselves accordingly. And, McNorton said, they are there to correct information, no more.
"We don't go in there and get into a debate," he said. And officials here are quick to point out that they are not policing Web sites. They are simply offering bloggers the opportunity to get raw information directly from the source.
Flowers said that many military personnel have also become bloggers during their deployments as a way to keep friends and family informed on their activities in the war. Here too, the team members don't police content, but if they do discover an operational security violation, they contact the blogger's command to point out the security violation.
"(Operational security) for a Web site is no different than OPSEC for a letter," Flowers said. "You shouldn't publish anything you don't want everyone to read," he said, adding that the enemy uses open sources of information to wage war on coalition forces.
But, he said, "The power of military blogs is that they're a letter home from servicemen and women that the entire world can read," Flowers said.
All bloggers have their niche audience, Flowers said. Some are faith-based, others are military community members, and yet others are involved in mustering humanitarian aid for people in Iraq or Afghanistan. But while the reasons for their blogs differ, most bloggers consistently offer the same comment to Flowers and his team.
"Repeatedly we hear from people, 'I never would have heard this story in the mainstream media,'" Flowers said. "People really are interested in what soldiers are doing. Blogs are individual statements. They're the voice of individuals. They're a way of understanding this war on a very human level."
(EDITOR'S NOTE: The author wrote a daily blog for hometown online newspaper Orlando Sentinel as part of his official duties during his yearlong deployment to Iraq in 2004-2005. CENTCOM officials said his blog, the first official U.S. military war blog published by a daily newspaper, helped in conceptualizing the blog team.)