Social media in the army

The Digital Brew : Episode 2. We chat to Colonel Mike Shervington OBE about how social media has impacted the lives of soldiers and their commanders.

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Browser Media is based in old cavalry barracks and, on a personal level, I have enjoyed knowing the soldiers and officers from The Parachute Regiment, with whom we share a Colchester home.

It therefore seemed fitting to have a military focused episode of The Digital Brew and I was honoured to speak to Colonel Mike Shervington OBE about how social media has changed the life of soldiers and their commanders.

Mike has had a long and distinguished career and offers some fascinating insight into the opportunities and challenges that social media has introduced:

View video transcript

Joe: Hello and a very warm welcome to the Digital Brew. I’m here today at the Colchester Garrison Officers Club and I’m here with Colonel Mike Shervington, and we’re going to be discussing social media and the Army.

Mike, firstly thank you very much for finding the time to be with us today it’s great speak to you. You’ve had a wonderful career in the Army and I don’t think I could do it justice, so perhaps you could start by giving us an intro to your career?

Mike: Sure Joe,  thanks very much for inviting me along to Digital Brew, very exciting. I’ve done 22 years now in the Army the vast majority of it in the parachute regiment. I joined from Newcastle University back in 1994-95, I went to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst for a year and then became a Second Lieutenant, a young Platoon Commander in the Parachute Regiment. My first overseas tour was to Northern Ireland before the peace process, you know, really began and I served a couple of times over there and after then I deployed all around the world with the regiment and also with some overseas military’s; most notably the 101st Airborne Division which is a very famous US Army division based out of Tennessee, and that was for a couple of years. And I’ve also served in various African nations as well with their militaries and also the Australian military. So over 22 years I’ve served all over the world, I’ve commanded at pretty much every level, and I’m now heading into Civilian Street and taking all those leadership skills into the next life.

Joe: Fantastic. And I think it’s worthwhile pointing out that our chat today is very much as my friend Mike, and not in an official Army capacity.

Mike: Sure.

Joe: And as you say you are leaving the Army, tragically, and actually emigrating which is even worse! But it’s nice in the social media and the Army’s probably not a natural connection but it just struck me that there’s actually lot within the Army itself and similar issues across other bigger organisations and I think three key areas that would be interesting to look at are the positive aspects of social media in the Army, I think the operational challenges that you’ve experienced in that long career, you know, how social media’s perhaps changed stuff and lastly the the, kind of – blossoming is a bad word – but the evolving, sort of, cyber warfare and how that’s impacting life as a soldier, because I’m sure it does.

So I think starting with the positive aspects of social media, you know, me being on Civvy Street, and then living in Colchester, you know, I look at 3 Para boxing team Twitter stuff, they’re  good at that.

Mike: Yep.

Joe: I look at the regiment stuff… less brigade stuff but for me it’s a nice window in to Army life and I imagine social media’s allowed you as an organisation to speak to the wider community in a way that’s been a little bit harder perhaps in the past.

Mike: Yeah everything about social media is like a coin, Joe; there’s two sides to it, of course. So when I was commissioned back in ‘95 the way to spread messages around a battalion of 650 people, or around their families wider than that, or a bigger organisation was by hand – handwritten letters using the newspapers mostly using the radio and so on – and that took time. So events would happen and then clearly by the time you caught up with those events with the newspaper article or whatever…

Joe: Long gone.

Mike: … it has long gone. Clearly social media has compressed that new cycle to instantaneous messaging, which is terrific.  But there’s a flipside to that coin – as with all things with social media – by having an old system which was slightly slower and more pedestrian but thoughtful you could craft your messages quite well.

Joe:  Yeah.

Mike: You could let the families know exactly what had happened, whether it’s to their son, to their brother their sister,  husband or whatever it might be, and you could get your facts in place. Now you can’t do that. So with the speed comes an acute requirement for as many facts as possible as quickly as you can and as we found even with London over the last couple of days, controlling the media, controlling the messaging, is very, very difficult and you’re requiring a lot of trust and help from people at doing that.

This isn’t a communist state but it’s really important that the message is right, otherwise is like a it’s like Chinese Whispers and then you’re trying to chase the error all the way through.

But it’s terrific as a medium. I mean, it has enabled me as a commander to be able to talk to families instantaneously. We can spread our recruitment message instantaneously, we can build videos that can be compressed into very, very digitally bite-sized pieces. Much better. And then you can record how many hits you get which is a lovely way of doing business. You were always slightly pitching your wares into the unknown with old-fashioned media.

Joe: Yeah yeah that’s particularly – I think advertising recruitment, you know, the old ‘Army be the best’ TV ads probably cost a fortune to film, produce and certainly distribute. And I imagine that, in terms of pure costs and efficiency, social media’s opened up a whole new world of recruitment and getting to… I’m sure your soldiers are probably the best ambassadors for their hometowns you know they’ll be spreading word and if social media enables them to do that faster absolutely but, you know, more visual. And I think the advent of action cameras and head cams – there’s a lot that they can do as individuals to help show that the great life that the Army affords.

Mike: Yeah, but as with all these things there’s a flip side to it. So every single item of social media is, as I said at the beginning, is like a coin.

Joe: Yes.

Mike: So you can get you know tons of headcam footage from exercises, sporting events, operations or whatever, but there’s a flip side to it. And we’re seeing that clearly with the marine case at the moment, we’ve seen it in my own experience whether it’s jumping out of an airplane canopies not opening properly and suddenly families are seeing things happen very very quickly or instantaneously without knowing any of the facts behind the case or the context. And that leads people down rabbit holes and assumptions and everything else so it’s a really difficult environment to control. It’s… you can’t avoid it but you’ve got to be very, very sharp and very clear as to what message you’re trying to put out there.

Joe:  Absolutely. Is… is there  – I mean in your experience – who is defining the policy? Or is there a clear policy for how individual soldiers could and should use social media, and crucially… well that’s the first question… if there is one, who’s policing that? Is that actively policed?

Mike: Great question. So there is official Ministry of Defence policy, of course, about communication with the public, social media handling and so on; so there’s official, sort of, architecture for that.  Below that, of course, through the various chains of command through that, you know, through the wiring diagrams of who does what and where, there’s individual policies as well.

Joe:  Okay.

Mike: So there’s an overarching policy that ‘you must operate within these bounds’ and then commanders can craft their own policies within the overall structure. Which is quite helpful. So just to give you an example of that, when we went to Kenya with the battalion a couple of years ago, eight weeks in the desert of Kenya – North Kenya – doing some hardcore training. There was an overarching social media, media communications policy which I dipped into and got my reference points, and then I created my own battalion policy for how the guys and the girls would operate once we were over there. And then what you’re then doing inside Kenya is managing things as they go because you’ve got 1,200 soldiers all with their own individual accounts…

Joe: Yeah.

Mike: … all with their own individual feeds and families and so on. So if you multiply that by whatever in fact it would be, you’re suddenly controlling a pretty mass media organisation with a fairly old fashioned centralised policy.

Joe: Yeah, and that’s it. It strikes me that the… and that’s a big job, and it’s difficult, and I think are senior officers being trained in this is? Or is it largely common sense and sort of find your way?

Mike: I think it’s a bit of both, Joe. I think the older the particular officer will be, the less comfortable he or she will be in that very loose and fast environment. I’m not saying… that’s no secret, but you ask a 60 year old what social media is and he’ll give a very different answer to what a 20 year old would give.

Joe: Absolutely.

Mike: So trying then to harness what that means to that individual and that individual is quite difficult. So as long as you set the bounds properly and the parameters correctly, and then delegate it down to the lowest level, and the lowest level means a drop in age but an increase in awareness of what that media is all about. And people know how to operate, they know what’s right and wrong, and I found through my career if you tell people what’s not allowed and tell people, therefore, what kind of is allowed, people know what to do. They know when they’re breaking the rules, they know when they’re distributing content which is illegal, they know when they’ve overstepped the mark. And of course they push it all the time because what we do is an exciting red-blooded career. But as long as you set the bounds I’ve always found, and the message… the overarching message is always clear, then actually people tend to play by the rules.

Joe: Yes makes sense. And I suppose… I mean, it must be difficult with, you know, the younger generations who… they’ve grown up with it; they don’t really know anything else. And for them, the mobile phone particularly, that’s their window into their life almost.

Mike: Yeah.

Joe: So just for someone to say  ‘guys, you you can’t do that’ or least you need to control how you do that’, I imagine that can cause a resentment.

Mike: Infinite amount of problems. You’ve got 18 year old soldiers who are glued to their device. And when you take them into an environment where 4G doesn’t come up on their screen – if any ‘G’ comes on their screen – if you take away Wifi from the welfare facilities because the Army operates – certainly the Parachute Regiment – operates by looking at environments where it is hot, dusty, very austere, back of beyond where there’s no signal anywhere.

Joe: Yeah .

Mike: So putting a battalion of you know 650 plus plus plus plus people in that all with their mobile phones, all expecting instant messaging, instant communication with their families back home instant communication amongst all of them as that’s how they’ve been back in Colchester, and you deprive them of that then suddenly, again, you’ve got to manage it. So I remember very clearly in Kenya when I flicked off the switch to the Wifi because we had to deploy out into the desert and I had to cut it off there and then there was an immediate backlash because I as young private Johnny Smith couldn’t get hold of my girlfriend who was going to work that day and so on. And I had to then by… I had to then somehow massage the system. So I had to think about the wives and girlfriends and the husbands and the brothers etc back in England that weren’t getting their their feeds from Johnny in Kenya. And you would have silences for 72, 96 – six, seven, eight, nine days. And you just have to think about that.

Joe: Did you effectively say during this period there will be no communications, so set the expectations, you’re not going to have your phones on you?

Mike: Yep, yep.

Joe: okay and I…I imagine, I mean it’s interesting the fact you even can get Wifi out in the middle of nowhere. It’s almost like it would be easier, your life as a commander, surely it’d be easier if it just didn’t exist?

Mike: So then you’ve got this sort of generational challenge between someone like me who’s growing up without it, and I know that when I would deploy to the back of beyond I wouldn’t even have a phone with me, and I wouldn’t expect to keep in touch with the family. It would be done by hand written letter and that would arrive three weeks later – if at all. Now, as we’ve already discussed, the instant stuff is a really difficult one to manage and you’ve got to then educate the young lads and lasses that you’re going to have the phone taken off them and you’re going to not be able to speak to your family for three weeks.

Joe: Yes.

Mike: Now once you get over that and you starve them of it – just like any addiction – you can cut the umbilical cord and after a week, you’re fine! And the guys and the girls are used to it, but it’s that first week of painful, trainspotting-like reaction which is again, manageable.

Joe: Yeah, that’s hard to deal with. You talk a lot about going away on operations and tours. Presumably life as a battalion commander whilst at home – so here based in Colchester, they’re young red-blooded blokes so, you know, there are problems. Do you use, as a commander, social media as a way to investigate particular issues? Is that part of your…

Mike: We don’t have the facilities… if a particular soldier, you know, commits a crime, or gets involved in something that is on the illegal side of life, we don’t have the powers or the facilities to be able to investigate that. That’s up to the civilian authorities…

Joe: Okay…

Mike: … and quite right too. What we can do though is use social media cleverly to put pressure on soldiers who are playing slightly truant with the military rules. So I’ve had a couple of soldiers that have been on exercise they decided to disappear for a couple of days at the end and by social media I can work out through various mates of theirs where these people are, what they’re up to and then put pressure on them through their friends basically to say get your arse back, to get your arse back to Colchester and stop being an idiot.

Joe: So you have seen that happen?

Mike: I’ve done that, yeah, I’ve done that on numerous occasions.

Joe: Yeah so again, I guess that you could argue that they’re pretty stupid to do it, but if they’re that addicted and they can’t resist the urge to say what a great time I’m having doing  X Y Z.

Mike: Exactly, exactly and what you do you about 18 year olds, they are addicted to their phones.

Joe: Yes.

Mike: And they can’t go for days and days and days, in that first week anyway, without it.  As we see in society, so and the Army is just a reflection of society.

Joe: Yes… no that’s interesting. Something you mentioned about tracking down your guys…  I was reading the other day about the use of social media to track down bad guys, so this is like the new form of warfare. It  was actually and American company called snap trends I think who… they worked with the government after the Boston Marathon Bombings to geolocate the people they’re looking for. Do you personally think of the Parachute Regiment as a classic, good, hard infantry regiment of proper soldiering. Do you, I mean how has that that kind of slight shift towards to the cyber warfare and intelligence gathering, is that something that as a regiment you had experience of? Or are you working with other divisions within the Army…

Mike: So within the regiment there is some base level facilities that we can use to track various individuals and so on. But we rely on the broader Army, or the broader military and intelligence communities, to give us the feeds so that we can go and execute a particular stage of an operation; and that’s just part of the intelligence gathering cycle as we call it. And there are numerous feeds but civilian, military, government etc which feed you the information you’re after. And that might be a start point to a trail, it might be an endpoint to a trial, it might be just broad information, context is always critical. But no, we can’t operate independently, absolutely in concert with other agencies.

Joe: Yeah okay and I suppose in the social media… I mean propaganda has always existed, full stop I think, in the kind of war scenario. Propaganda has always been hugely powerful. And even leaflet bombing, you know, back in the day ever since aeroplanes have existed they’re dropping as many leaflets to spread propaganda as they were bombs. So I think it’s Plato who had a great line about ‘whoever controls the stories has the power’. Propaganda is powerful and I think social media has just made that propaganda spread a lot easier and a lot faster and a lot more terrifying in many ways. You think of Isis, you think that look at the Arab Spring risings and they’re fueled primarily by social media. It’s very quick to get that message out there. What, what can we do to combat that?

Mike: You have to I think… this is a really interesting area because you’ve got these ground movements which can create global chains,  so they called it the ‘butterfly effect.’ And you’ve got the forces that have to confront that which is the militaries or the police or the security whatever it might be, that are built typically on stove pipe lines, there’s a pyramidal structure to those organisations. And information in those organisations tends to come in from the bottom and filter its way to the top and what have you so when you put the mass influence of a global movement against a relatively stove-piped, structural organisation, the two don’t necessarily synchronise as well as they could do.

So what the military certainly is trying to do is to flatten its organisation as much as possible and to delegate that, that ability to pump out its own messaging to the lowest possible level. It comes back to the earlier thing, if you set the broad parameters and delegate it down to the lowest level you kind of can stay, at least, in the same race – not necessarily alongside them  – but you can stay in the same track.

But it’s a constant challenge because you’ve got a mass media without any form of structure, and you’ve got a very controlling structure. If the wrong message gets put out then suddenly, you know…

Joe: It’s  hard to control that, yes.  I was reading the other day about the US Marines having a digital recruitment drive, there’s the  77th brigade which I didn’t really know about. It does seem the bigger military organisations – there is kind of a recognised need to do something about it and imagine they’re all –  not stumbling through it – but they’re finding their way as they go and exactly as you say, trying to to get around that big, big ship factor where it’s hard as very, sort of, regimental… psychology to adapt and that, that must be difficult.

Mike: It is but I do take my hat off to the military for seizing the nettle on this one because it has to move with the times. The current changes are trying to do that, so 77 Brigade is a creation out of the last of three or four years. It’s a very dynamic, very cosmopolitan organisation full of experts in all sorts of different fields whether intelligence gathering, whether reconnaissance, whether social media etc. They’ve got people that work inside Google that are Army officers who are being employed by various, sort of, search engines etc. Which is great.

Joe: In an advisory capacity?

Mike: Advisory, but also it works both ways, so we learnt from the Googles of the world and they learn from the military. And those relationships are now being fertilised which is terrific, and I see 77 Brigade Being a key unit, sometimes almost well ahead of the parachute regiment coming in later on to do what it’s always employed to do.

Joe: Yes what ultimately needs to get done at the end of it.

Mike: It’s all about the environment, Joe. It’s all about understanding as many bits of that context as you can to allow people like me and the battalion to come in and prosecute what these guys are telling us.

Joe: Yeah. So they’ll do some intelligence, fact finding…

Mike: – Because what you then find is if you get it wrong here, and you strike the wrong target or you make mistake, the social media backlash will make your next job 10 times more difficult.

Joe: Yes, are there times where you wish that it didn’t exist so that the…the kind of the Isis and their videos… would you just like to shut the door on that? Would that make your life easier? Or do you think it’s an important…

Mike: … some people might say that’s the case. I’m kind of an individual where you’ve got to adapt pretty quickly and its survival of the fittest. And I think once the military puts its mind to it, it can come up with ingenious solutions to all sorts of problems because it’s got indigenous people in it.

Joe: That’s right.

Mike: … Red-blooded individuals that want to go and serve their country and all those good things, but they’ve got real brain power working out what the enemy is trying to do. And so, for me, I welcome these, these kind of environmental social changes because the military reflects society and if we don’t bother… if we don’t bother with it or dismiss it as a trend or a fad then we can’t serve the society we’re there to protect.

Joe: I agree and I think it’s a different channel but it’s the same in communication, it’s always been –

Mike: – It’s like the advent of the machine gun, or the advent of a jet or an advent of a particular vessel on the sea. You’ve just got to move with the times, otherwise, you’re going to be overtaken by them.

Joe: Left behind, yes. Do you, again, in your personal experience operationally have you had instances where mobile phones have been hacked, for example. So your soldiers, are they vulnerable to that form of attack?

Mike: Yeah certainly and it’s, again, education. But operating as the military does these days around Eastern Europe, you have to be very, very careful and tread carefully there because various agencies in that part of the world are offensively targeting soldiers. Both with fake news but also with individual hacking of phones and accounts and so on. I went to Poland on an airborne exercise jumping into the east of Poland and phones were hacked. Now partly that was my fault because sim cards and everything else but this was a couple of years ago and so on…

Joe: Yeah but you don’t expect that do you?

Mike: You don’t expect it but maybe in six months time when suddenly Apple are emailing me saying can you please update your account and we need more money please, you suddenly smell a rat. And that was only because of my trip to Poland, it had never happened before. So with current deployments to Estonia and the Baltic States you’ve got this clash of cultures with a battalion of 18 year old soldiers wedded to their phones and having to be absolutely surgical in saying ‘I’m leaving it behind, otherwise my family’s in danger…’ and so on.

Joe: Yeah, so are there any units which would just have a blanket you are not taking the phone with you. I mean… deploying to Afghanistan for example… would the guys still have their phones with them there?

Mike: No.

Joe: So that’s an environment where it’s just a no-no?

Mike: Yeah.

Joe: So but sort of training exercises like Kenya, out in the states, that’s where they will still have them with them.

Mike: Yep, and the welfare facilities are so good now on these operations – these long-established operations compared to, you know,  ‘go there tomorrow’ and we haven’t been there before. But the Afghanistan’s of the world, the Iraqs of the world, the Balkans of the world, there are very, very well established welfare facilities. So lots of laptops and computers and iPads that the system provides for the guys so that they don’t miss their phones. They can still keep in touch with their families and loved ones.

Joe: Yes, and so in the scenario of  bad news do you have lockdowns? Can you effectively just shut everything down?

Mike: That’s the beauty funnily enough about the military is that they always build their sites with metal clad buildings in the middle of nowhere,  where there are no phone masts. So sometimes it’s actually quite easy to put, you know, complete kibosh on any form of signal. So Camp Bastion in Afghanistan, for example, whenever a casualty occurred anywhere around the theatre, the big switch was flicked and no one could transmit anything.

Joe: Yeah but even that eventuality,  I think it’s back to the speed of things,  any families back home if they know there’s a lockdown then they start to worry it’s a… but unavoidable.

Mike: It is, it is. And then the moment the switch is put back on again this deluge of messaging back to the UK saying it’s this particular soldier or it’s not me or whatever else, again, can overwhelm the system.

Joe: I imagine.

Mike: So it’s a very difficult, very difficult game but you can’t not play in that game.

Joe:  Absolutely.

Mike: You’ve got to be a part of it and understand it and be able to control the bits that you can control.

Joe: Yeah and it’s, I mean, if you think the pace of change, you know, over your career it’s just accelerating and  accelerating it feels. Do you have any vision for the future? Can you see where it’s going to end up, and how is soldiering going to be…?

Mike: I think if you look at the US Army is doing, US Military in particular, and they’re digitising their soldiers and sailors and their marines, you know, to the umpteenth degree more than we can do back here because of resources. We are trying to be in that game of digitising soldiers and you’ve got either wrist consoles, or you’ve got visors, or you’ve got some sort of awareness of what’s going on in the environment. Now  the US Army is leading on all this sort of stuff. But sometimes… there’s a great, great quote that ‘technologies come and go but the primitive endures’. And while we can get completely overwhelmed and wanting to stay inside the sort of technological far sling if sometimes it comes down by the primitive, and you’ve got to be able to execute your rudimentary skills and not get so engulfed and saturated by the next bit of information. That would apply to any business as well, I presume…

Joe:  Absolutely.

Mike: … you could always wait and wait and wait for the golden nugget of information, but then you’ve missed the boat anyway, and you’ve missed the opportunity.

Joe: That’s right.

Mike: And so sometimes you’ve just got to go with a gut instinct because you’ve lived the environment long enough and you know the primitive can actually endure.

Joe: Yeah and I think that’s the kind of interesting angle I have in terms of social media in the Army and the fundamental premise of the Army when it distills down is to do stuff that lots of people can’t do and don’t want to do and, unfortunately, needs doing. And so it’s good that that still exists.

Mike: Yeah.

Joe: And long live the primitive. Mike’s been fantastic talking to you, I appreciate it and we’ll miss you, and have fun.

Mike: Thank you.

Joe: Thanks very much.

Thank you very much to Mike for spending the time with me and to The Colchester Officers’ Club for having us. Despite its name, the club is open to all and is an oasis in the heart of Colchester, so pop in if you are in the area.

As always, we welcome your feedback on The Digital Brew so please feel free to leave comments below. Thank you very much for the positive response to Episode 1 – I have had some lovely emails about that and am excited about the next few episodes that we have in the pipeline.

We are always on the lookout for interesting topics for future episodes, so please do not hestitate to get in touch if you would like to be involved.

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