Iraq Social Media Experience Sparks Training for Leaders
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jul. 30, 2009 Army Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV discovered the power of social networking in 2007 when he was the U.S. military’s top spokesman in Iraq.
It was “probably one of the toughest times in Iraq,” Caldwell recalled of his time as Multinational Force Iraq’s deputy chief of staff for strategic effects. Mounting U.S. casualties and sectarian violence dominated the news headlines.
Caldwell, who commanded the 82nd Airborne Division before arriving in Baghdad, knew the coverage wasn’t telling the whole story.
“Men and women were doing incredibly great things every day, and not just heroic things,” he told American Forces Press Service. “They were building schools, helping establish government systems, empowering the Iraqi police forces to take on more responsibility, training Iraqi army forces.
“We were doing a lot of incredibly great things,” he continued, “and the stories weren’t getting out because they were overshadowed by the kinetic things going on and the loss of American life and the fact that casualty rates were up.”
So at the urging of his younger staff, Caldwell took the monumental step of launching Multinational Force Iraq into the world of social networking.
“A ‘You who?’” Caldwell recalls asking when his staffers first recommended a YouTube site. “I had absolutely no idea what it was.”
But the staff talked him through the process, sat him down with a commercial server and showed him how YouTube worked. “I immediately understood the incredible power that would exist if we could leverage that,” he said.
The problem was that access to the YouTube site had been blocked within the U.S. Central Command theater. So Caldwell took the issue up with Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., Multinational Force Iraq commander at the time, and got approval to establish an official YouTube site.
The site went live in early March 2007 and amazed even Caldwell with the following it attracted. “Within the next six months, it was in the top 10 of all YouTube sites visited in the world,” he said. “Viewership was phenomenal.”
Officials put word out to the theater, urging troops to send videos that helped to explain the work they were doing. “We were looking for a variety of things -- we wanted kinetic and nonkinetic [activities], and we wanted personal stories,” Caldwell said. “Nobody was out collecting. We just asked people, ‘Feed us what you’ve got.’”
And feed they did -- clips showing troops engaged in everything from firefights to the destruction of bomb-making factories to delivering medical care to wounded Iraqis.
Officials reviewed the videos to ensure they didn’t violate operational security considerations, use profanity or show sexual, overly graphic, disturbing or offensive material, then posted the clips as quickly as possible.
“The entire rest of the time I was there, it was an enormous hit,” Caldwell said. “The number of people going to it and looking at it on a daily basis was phenomenal.”
YouTube was just the start of the command’s effort to deliver a more complete story of what was happening in Iraq to a broader audience. And as Caldwell discovered, social networking offered a whole new range of outlets for sharing that story, without the traditional media filters.
“It eliminated the gatekeeper,” he said. “We now had the ability to help inform and present information that people might want to hear about or see in a way that was never there before.”
Command officials urged people to come forward with ideas about how to leverage social media as part of a broader communications outreach. Meanwhile, Caldwell ratcheted up his media engagements with a growing array of outlets. His team, taking the lead from the enemy they were working to defeat, redesigned the command’s Web site to make it more interactive, visually stimulating and user-friendly.
“We saw the fact that insurgents were making great use of the Internet,” Caldwell said. “It was clear that this was a venue through which they were transmitting information and providing visuals. And we also started realizing that it was an opportunity for us to do the exact same thing back -- not in a propaganda sense, but in a sense of informing and educating people about just what we were doing.”
The Army that Caldwell had grown up in had only one way to do that: through print and broadcast media outlets. And like many of his fellow officers, Caldwell conceded, he was leery of engaging with them.
“I came into a culture that said, ‘Avoid the media at all cost. Absolutely nothing good comes out of a media engagement,’” he said.
He’s made a 180-degree turn in his thinking, he said, recognizing the military’s responsibility to keep the American public informed, and the importance of that understanding to ensure support for the mission. Now, as commander of the Army Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., Caldwell is working to impress those concepts on future military leaders.
One of the first things he noticed after arriving at his post was that nobody was taking advantage of the social media tools that had proven so successful in Iraq. “Nobody was blogging. Nobody was going on YouTube,” he said.
As when he arrived at Multinational Force Iraq, Caldwell found these venues had been blocked, and military members weren’t allowed to use them. He set out to lift those prohibitions.
“For the first four or five months there, I kept working through the system to get permissions to allow us to blog, go on YouTube, play with Facebook,” he said. “I wanted to engage in these social media forums, and you just couldn’t get access to them on your military computers.”
But Caldwell met with red tape everywhere he turned -- until he mentioned his frustration to Casey, now Army chief of staff, during one of Casey’s monthly visits to the Combined Arms Center.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Just do it,’” Caldwell said. “And when I asked him if this meant he was giving his permission to do this, he said, ‘Absolutely.’ He said, ‘We have got to change the culture of the Army, and you can help make this happen.’”
Then-Army Secretary Pete Geren turned into another big advocate of giving soldiers access to social media.
Caldwell got the ball rolling at the Combined Arms Center by starting to blog on the center’s Web site. “I’m not a prolific blogger, but I recognize that if I don’t get on there periodically and do it, nobody else will,” he said. “I saw it as a venue to stimulate discussion. It was a great mechanism to reach out and touch a large portion of the United States Army about an issue we might want to talk about or dialog on.”
He recognized many soldiers’ resistance to blogging, especially after a Defense Department message had outright prohibited the practice in late 2006. Those willing to give it a try still felt hampered by longstanding approval chains that stilted opinion-sharing and individual expression.
So Caldwell began requiring his students to blog as part of their curriculum at the center. His goal, he said, is to help create a new generation of leaders who recognize the power of social media and help the Army change its cultural mindset so it’s able to embrace it.
“The idea is, once you have done it and have seen the power of social networking that can be done through the blogosphere, we are hoping that it becomes a routine habit they have through the rest of the academic year,” he said. “That way, by the time they graduate, they are comfortable doing it and recognize it as something they can use … as a great connectivity tool.”
Caldwell established seven basic rules for bloggers on the Combined Arms Center’s Web site: Report only personal experience unless you can document it. Don’t divulge classified or sensitive information, planned military operations or tactics, techniques and procedures that haven’t yet been approved. Keep the discussion above-board, and don’t post material that’s political or endorses a commercial interest.
“The idea is, use it as a professional forum to dialogue and get at tough issues,” Caldwell said.
The Combined Arms Center has become a case study in how social media tools can benefit the military.
Students are encouraged to contribute to the center’s YouTube, Twitter and Facebook pages. The Command and General Staff College class to assemble at Fort Leavenworth next month will set up Facebook accounts for their 16-member staff group exercises.
Meanwhile, the center is exploring ways to use social media to capture and share lessons learned throughout the Army and improve the way it operates. Using an Army common-access card, users can access a variety of sites to contribute thoughts and suggestions to improve the way the Army trains and operates.
A new pilot program, for example, is using a military “wiki” site to encourage collaboration in updating seven Army field manuals. Five thousand contributors visited the wiki site when it first went live two weeks ago, and last week that number increased to 8,000.
“It’s really brand new at this point, but we are just thrilled by the number of people coming to the site and the input that is being provided,” Caldwell said.
Meanwhile, center officials set up an Army training network that will enable people to suggest ways to improve military training. Caldwell called the networking opportunities social networking provides a major breakthrough in elevating the level of information exchange.
“We can have a much greater and richer exchange of information than we have ever had in the past by using more of these social networking sites as a mechanism to exchange ideas and thoughts,” he said.
Caldwell concedes that the military still has many barriers to break down before it can fully capitalize on social networking forums. He said he’s been impressed by the way bloggers police themselves to ensure their postings don’t violate established rules. But errors could -- and probably will -- happen, he said, as people learn to use these new tools.
“There are going to be some errors. This is a learning process, and along the way, people are going to make mistakes,” he said. “They won’t be deliberate or intentional, but people will make mistakes.”
Caldwell called these mistakes, particularly because they can be corrected simply by pulling down a blog entry, a small price to pay to unleash the power of social networking for the 21st-century military.
“To take advantage of it and utilize it to our benefit, we have to first embrace it,” he said. “And in embracing it, there are going to be inherent risks. People have to be willing to underwrite some of those risks in order for us to move forward.”