Social Media: A Modest Proposal for Senior Military Leaders

Hello, again.

Last time, I addressed my message to my fellow field grade officers and all senior staff non-commissioned officers out there on social media.

Today, I am writing to the Generals and Admirals of all services on social media (and off) and to their Senior Enlisted Advisors, with an article that for continuity’s sake should have been entitled:

As with my last such essay, this was not the writing I thought I would be doing today, but it is the writing which is necessary.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I call upon you all to do better at breaking the wall of silence so often heard from officers of your ranks when the ugly specter of sexist, racist, or otherwise inappropriate commentary appears on social media — especially when the apparent culprits are senior in rank — O5, O6, and E9 — and above…

Here’s an example — this is a senior officer in a leadership billet

And here’s a retired General telling his audience of 94,000 followers that we don’t have an institutional problem with sexual assault. While numerous respected national security thinkers highlighted his problematic statements, his active-duty peer group did not publicly challenge him on this stance. Yes, I know all about free speech — but in this case, these words (or lack thereof) make a substantial contribution to systemic harm. And I suggest that you use your freedom of speech to call out your peers when they use theirs to make factually incorrect statements that diminish the traumatic experiences of over 19,000 of our fellow service-members.

I know that you have seen such comments — if you have not, it means one of three things.

One, you’re not on social media at all, which means you’ve chosen to absent yourself from the battleground — and make no mistake, it is a battleground. It is the battleground for ideas, for narrative, for the institutional zeitgeist. It is a key component in cyberspace. It is a place to keep a finger on the pulse of your Army, your Air Force, your Fleet and Marine Forces, and (sigh) your Space Force. And most of you are not here. That absence makes you unaware of the inappropriate cyber space actions of some of your senior officers and enlisted. However, all of us who have served in command know that ignorance cannot excuse a lack of oversight. If your barracks are in poor order, if your ship’s deepest holds are rusting, your failure to “walk the spaces” is a factor. You knew this when you held O5 command yourselves — you “walked the spaces” then. Not enough of you “walk the spaces” online.

Two, you are on social media, but you’ve made a calculated decision not to publicly respond to such matters as you have seen, or that have been sent to you. Your reasons are no doubt various; you may in fact be “handling it in-house,” you may have real concerns about “undue command influence” — but your public silence raises questions in the ranks. Do you know? Do you care? Is it really being handled? Is it being covered up? This point is key — too many cases have been and are still being swept under the rug. How are your people to know when there has been accountability, and when there has not? If there are constraints on what you can share, consider how you are able to communicate in a timely manner to signal implicitly what you cannot say explicitly.

Three — you have a social media account, maybe even a big one — but it’s not actually you behind the avatar. You have a staff who Tweets for you and reads your @s and you assume they’ve got it under control. That’s problematic — you’re functionally little better, and perhaps worse than the flag officer without a social media presence.

So, what can you do about it?

First, if you’re not on social media, get on it. Take the time to learn about it. Social media is not just a place for you to blast out your message (though I’ll touch on that shortly) — it’s a place for you to listen. You have some outstanding peers who are engaged on social media and have been for some time. Admiral Stavridis was an early adopter. General Donahoe has done an outstanding job. If you’re not already “in the spaces,” I’d respectfully recommend that you get in — but start by walking them quietly. Observe, talk to your team and your senior enlisted about what you see and hear.

Second — if there’s an account for you (or your billet) and you’re not running it, get involved. Pretty much all of what I just said still applies. Not saying you can’t have a staff member who helps administer the account, but you need to set your CCIRs — and a big one should be any time anyone @s you with allegations of online impropriety by someone in your Service.

Third, for those of you who are already on Social Media, you need to get ahead of the 8-ball on the topics that matter — and I will tell you quite plainly that the topics I’m talking about are racism, extremism, sexism in general, and harassment in particular. While sexual assault and suicide do not actually happen online, social media can also be a very important place to address those issues — and I can count on no fingers the number of times in recent memory that I have seen a General or Admiral address these issues publicly, deliberately, and with the appropriate “violence of action” on social media. The closest example that comes to mind is when the 18th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, Chief Master Sergeant Kaleth O. Wright called out the issues of racism and lack of diversity that still plague his service, and the nation in a remarkable Twitter thread.

But even that was simply a reactionary response. It took a black man dying on national television to prompt it.

Reactionary responses should not be your go-to as senior military leaders. It’s time to be proactive.

When’s the best time to make a bold online statement about the need to eliminate sexual harassment online and in the real world? Some random Wednesday at 14:23 would be great. When’s the best time to write a long thread about the institutional reasons for the lack of diversity in senior officers in your service, and what you are doing about it? Tomorrow would be grand.

Literally any time is a great time to put out a bold message laying out your personal position on these issues.

Let me close by sharing the absolute best example of how these messages should be put out. It comes, not from a US officer, but from General Morrison of the Australian Defense Force.

It’s a 3-minute video, but after having watched it, you will have absolutely no question what his position is on sexism in the Australian military. And frankly, though I follow many of you online, I don’t know what your position is, because I’ve never heard you say it out loud.

So, ladies and gentleman, my challenge to you is to say it out loud. Put it in writing, record it in a YouTube video, or be the first Flag Officer to have your own TikTok channel and communicate that way. Do what you have to do, but break the wall of silence.

V/R

LtCol Edward H. Carpenter, USMC

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Edward H. Carpenter

Author, businessman, athlete, Marine officer, and world traveler. Likes rugby, reading, scuba-diving, and volunteer teaching. Hates liver and sea urchins.