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The proliferation of social media has taken ‘media’ out of the hands of specialists and placed publicity and journalism in the hands of anyone who cares to acquire a ‘handle’. This term ‘handle’, in hindsight, is perhaps quite appropriate. It is just that. Something to hold. If it was meant to have been a writing instrument, its inventors may have called it a ‘pen’ or ‘stylus’ or something like that. Quite funnily, all entities that wield social media handles start thinking they have suddenly become writers and seasoned media professionals. The armed forces are relatively new entrants into this game and this has brought about quite a cultural transformation in the manner that information is given out. In the past, the armed forces were kept insulated from the media, often for good reason. Today, social media handles have proliferated across uniformed organisations and the earlier tightly controlled information dissemination system has given way to a more distributed and sometimes uncontrolled mechanism.

This has also, in part, been the result of the armed forces having literally ‘come out of the barracks’ over the past decade or so. The two-way pollination between the armed forces and civil society has increased exponentially with the armed forces getting involved in more and more activities such as internal security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, building bridges and tunnels, other nation-building activities, combating lower-end security threats such as armed robbery, piracy and narcotics smuggling, coupled with the transparency afforded by the Internet and modern communications technologies.

Additionally, pressures to put out pictures mass yoga events, coastal clean-ups, pledge-taking ceremonies and such other activities add to the social media pressure, leave alone the time and human resource wasted in the process. Then there are platforms over which serving members, their families and children  interact with their colleagues, friends and acquaintances, the credentials of whom cannot be established. While social media has enabled unfettered communications and contact, it has also provided information services on a platter, to those who are fishing for intelligence. It is well known that a large percentage of intelligence that is acquired by any agency is from ‘open sources’.

So much for the security risk that is associated with the media. The other point to remember is that social media is also media. It has become as professional a field as mainstream media. Social media journalism should be as responsible as print or visual media and its subscribers are rising by the day. As OTT platforms have gradually started replacing traditional motion pictures, it is just a matter of time before social media components become platforms of choice for accessing information. The purpose of media is to convey a message to a target audience, sometimes directly, sometimes nuanced. Sometimes, what is not said is as important as what is said. The photographs, the personalities, the message – together comprise a composite package that is designed to convey the right message to the right audience.

Officers and men of the armed forces are not trained to be media savvy. It is not their core function and too much involvement in social media detracts from core functions. Combat units must do what they are meant to do – train and prepare for every description of conflict. The trumpet-blowing, information dissemination and publicity is best left to a handful of public information staff at higher formations and not delegated to formations lower than Command Headquarters. Every lower formation with a handle suffers from risks of poor media training, lack of discretion in what to put out and how, apart from engaging combat formations and units in unnecessary work. There are several examples of social media releases by combat units and formations that were totally avoidable, too jingoistic or issued merely for self-glorification.

A colleague with whom I was discussing this (over social media) commented that we have unleashed a beast which now, cannot be controlled. I disagree. The beast must be controlled, lest it tramples over its creator. The proliferation of social media handles within the armed forces must be reviewed by the highest leadership. If necessary, authorizations that permit combat formations and units to have individual handles can easily be revoked. This will not be a regressive step. Technology is available and must be used to advantage. But how that should be done is clearly a leadership function.

One is reminded of an adorable limerick from our younger days (poet unknown) that is so appropriate to the situation at hand. It went something like this…

There was a young lady from Niger
Who went for a ride on a tiger
They returned from the ride
With the lady inside
And a smile on the face of the tiger

When you are riding a tiger, it is wise to have safeguards in place.

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