The conflict in Ukraine is truly the “first social media war”, as it is the first time that almost anyone on the ground can serve as a de facto war correspondent and share their experiences from the front lines. Social media is also changing the experience of modern warfare not only for military personnel, but also for their families and even the world at large.
Colonel John Spencer, US Army (retired), is the author of the forthcoming book, Connected Soldiers: Life, Leadership, and Social Connections in Modern Warfareand he explained to this reporter that social media also has an impact on the performance of military teams.
As a combat veteran, who led a platoon of soldiers into battle and learned first-hand the importance of unit cohesion, Spencer said five years later, social media has changed that dynamic. While social media platforms and apps, including FaceTime and Zoom, can help soldiers stay in touch with loved ones, it has its pros and cons.
“Like my experiences in Iraq in 2008, we see platforms and apps like FaceTime, SMS and Zoom connecting soldiers to their families daily and hourly,” Colonel Spencer said. “Yes, having this ability to talk to loved ones helps with morale. Soldiers, regardless of rank/years of experience, are complex social organisms; they want to talk to loved ones, children, wives, girlfriends, husbands.”
Yet this ability to connect daily with family has its drawbacks.
“Because there is no separation in space or time between soldier and family, soldier and family live in two worlds – war and home,” Spencer continued. “The soldier has one foot in both worlds, fighting a war while potentially enduring the stresses of everyday home. The family experiences war, sometimes receiving real-time updates on the horrors of war, or less updates like no other time in history – ‘don’t worry mum, I’m fine’ takes on new meaning.”
Feeling of isolation rather than connection
A late call or slow response only worries soldiers and families. Likewise, while talking to family can always be a good thing, another downside is that it can hurt the connection with others who are deployed.
“A major possible disadvantage is that the more time the soldier spends updating loved ones away from the front lines, the less time he spends with fellow soldiers, bonding, forming cohesion, and dealing with their shared experiences,” noted Spencer.
Likewise, those who are unable to have these ties to their family may eventually harbor resentment. It could be a lot worse than not getting a letter on a mail call. Being the one who isn’t constantly on social media or zooming in with loved ones could even cause isolation.
Loose lips in the 21st century
During WWII the US military took secrecy very seriously – so it was common to see propaganda posters warning, “Loose Lips Sink Ships”, but in the age of social media it is far too much easy to overshare. This can put fighters in danger.
“Ukraine shows this important aspect of operations security of having a mobile phone or posting videos and messages on social networks like Facebook, Telegram, etc. Russians and Ukrainians have seen soldiers killed for having used social media, often because the cellphone signal used to post, he was intercepted and shot at,” Spencer warned.
How war is lived
Another way social media can change the military experience is that everyone in the field is now a battlefield reporter.
“The war in Ukraine has fostered past developments of wars that people back home can see on TV,” Spencer said. “Now people all over the world can watch live streams from battle zones. See videos or photos from days of battle before they are reported on news channels. three populations – the military, the politicians and the people – involved in a war and impacts local, regional and global perceptions, support and non-support for military actions.”
It may be increasingly impossible to contain the information. Russia found out almost immediately when reports emerged and were trended on social media. He tried to suggest that the war is going as planned, but the photos of destroyed tanks posted on Twitter and Instagram certainly say otherwise. For now, he may be able to control the message in Russia, but around the world, social media is providing a near real-time report from the ground.
“One of the lessons from the war in Ukraine regarding social media is that there is no control of information. Russia tried that and failed,” Spencer added. “The military and governments will have to fight wars, beyond the concept of ‘TikTok’ war, in full view of the world.”