A Social Media Experiment Gone Awry

Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Mark Burrell, 210th MPAD

Wired Magazine’s Spencer Ackerman reports that the US Marine Corps booted embedded journalists working for the cutting-edge social media site “Basetrack” from Helmand, Afghanistan.

According to their website, Basetrack consists of eight “mobile media operators”, who file dispatches from Afghanistan incorporating the latest in social networking, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Digg.

Yet, it wasn’t the actions of the journalists which concerned among Marine Corps brass.  As is par for the course in the 21st Century, the dark side of the Internet reared its ugly head:  some users divulged details of Marines wounded in action, while others posted complaints about the chain of command.

It’s unfortunate that a handful of commenters ruined what could have been a remarkable journalistic endeavor.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Though the potential for abuse is always existent, some military officials have carried out a wonderful dialogue with troops and their families without inviting 4-Chan style comments.

Lt. General Michael Oates, once the commander of the 10th Mountain Division, hosted one of the première military blogs, Task Force Mountain.com.  In the “sound off” section, then-Major General Oates and his successor, Major General James Terry, solicited feedback on a slew of issues ranging from providing better opportunities for single soldiers to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell“.

In the case of the latter, seasoned journalists were surprised at the maturity with which the soldiers of the 10th Mountain respectfully made their cases both for and against the repeal.  The debate featured thoughtful discussion of the second- and third-order effects on the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, including the plethora of issues which stemmed from legal recognition of gay marriage (or lack thereof).  A few service members–speaking under the conditions of anonymity–even shared their experiences with hiding their sexual orientation through decades worth of military service.

It’s worth noting, however, that the 10th Mountain Division’s “Sound Off” blog is heavily moderated, and this is paramount in establishing an effective social media site.  That ought to prevent spouses from clawing at each other as they did in one notable post at Tom Ricks’ The Best Defense.

About Crispin Burke

Major Crispin Burke is a US Army aviator qualified in the UH-60 and LUH-72 helicopters. Major Burke has served in the 82nd Airborne Division, 10th Mountain Division, and Joint Task Force-Bravo in Honduras. In what is likely a sad statement on the state of humanity, Major Burke's writings, musings, and irreverent cartoons have been featured at Small Wars Journal, National Defense University, Foreign Policy Online, Wired Magazine, Egremont, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Great Satan's Girlfriend.
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