Blogging and Social Networking in the American Military: a Short History

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

In the waning moments of the final Veteran’s Day of the decade, I can’t help but to think of my late Grandfather—a purple heart recipient and a combat veteran of World War 2.  While he lived long enough to see the Internet become an important social force, if he were still alive today, undoubtedly he would be amazed by the ongoing debate over the role of blogging and social networking in the military.

When my grandfather was a soldier in Europe, options for communication were few and far between. This is not the case in the contemporary world.  During the first American wars of the social media generation, blogging has proven to be both promising and problematic for the American soldier and the American military. 

Colby Buzzell has been called “the father” of military blogging. He started his blog, My War, in 2004 as a continuation of a journal he started before he joined the military.  In addition to attracting numerous followers, Buzzell was praised for both the quality of his writing and the clarity his first-hand accounts offered into a soldier’s daily life.  The success of Buzzell and others attracted many soldiers and readers to military blogs.

By 2005, blogging was becoming a common culture practice.  While there were only 200 blogs to start the year, by the end of 2005, it was predicted that there would be at least 1,000 members of the United States Armed Forces blogging about their experiences serving overseas in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The openness of the blog form posed serious problems for the military.  In an autumn 2005 memo, then Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker wrote that some blogs were undermining military objectives by “depicting weapons system vulnerabilities and tactics, techniques and procedures.”  For the next year and a half, the military took a two pronged approach to address Schoomaker’s concerns.  On the one hand, more and more steps were taken to regulate soldier blogs and content.  On the other, the military got into the content production business itself, hiring bloggers to conduct outreach on behalf of the government.

In the spring of 2007 the military virtually ended soldier blogging when a new policy was implemented requiring all soldier content be put through an OSPEC (Operations Security) review before publication.  The rules called for regulating everything from web site comments to private letters home.  An August, 2009 order extended the content regulation rules in the Marine Corps, banning the access of all social networking sites on the Marine Corps network.  The ban on social networking adopted by the Marines is currently under consideration for the entirety of the Department of Defense.

While the military justifies its blogging restrictions as a necessary security measure to save soldier’s lives, some (including those within the military itself) disagree with the ban.  Citing a common argument against the ban, James Dao at the New York Times argues that attempts establish tight controls over blogging and social networking will set back the military’s ongoing efforts to modernize their web presence.  Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV agrees writing in the upcoming issue of Military Review,  “[the]contemporary media environment demands the Army rethink its media strategy to foster a culture of engagement.”

Whether or not the military can or should foster this culture of engagement remains to be seen.  Military culture is notoriously conservative and government bureaucracy is intransigent to change–even under the leadership of the tech-savvy, change oriented Obama administration.