Last month, the Pentagon began using a newly opened Twitter account to deliver on-the-ground news of events in Afghanistan, and the channel has begun to pick up traction.
Like all Twitter messages, the military dispatches are short and to the point. A recent tweet, for instance, reported that “Afghan, coalition forces kill four militants, detain two in Wardak; one detainee believed resp. for a 2008 attack that killed 3 US troops.”
Not all of the tweets relay body counts, but many do. On Tuesday, for instance, the Pentagon reported on General David McKiernan’s farewell address in Kabul in this tweet: “Gen. McKiernan: “This year and next will be the two most important years here since 2001 and 2002”
At face value, the fact that the Pentagon is tweeting military developments in a war zone would appear to be a significant change. In previous incarnations, the military’s default setting has appeared to be stuck on “classified.” Any information that was released first underwent careful screening and, on balance, tended to be positive.
To be sure, many of those elements are in play with the Twitter posts. It is inconceivable that the military would tweet anything that might be useful to the insurgents, for example, or that would appear disrespectful to U.S. or coalition troops. Also, the Pentagon’s PR needs haven’t changed: It wants to get out its message.
“After all, look at the length of the average story in a newspaper on Afghanistan or Iraq,” David E. Johnson, principal with Strategic Vision, told the E-Commerce Times. “Sometimes, both are combined in one piece. The message the Pentagon wants to get out is getting lost in that medium.”
Toward that end, it is interesting that the Pentagon has chosen to embrace a channel of communication that has not yet proven to be effective in delivering serious news. Twitter has the reputation of being a frivolous forum, and it may be jarring for users to see reports of deaths in Afghanistan alongside the usual mundane tweets that clutter its pages. Depending on whom a particular user may be following, the war’s death toll could be interspersed with comments on last night’s frat party or the announcement of an enterprise software product rollout.
Another factoid the Pentagon might want to consider: Younger people are not necessarily paying that much attention to Twitter. Only 22 percent of consumers aged 18 to 24 use Twitter, according to a study released Monday by the Participatory Marketing Network — although 99 percent of people in that age bracket engage in other forms of social networking.
Earlier this year, ComScore reported that people between the ages of 45 and 54 years old were 36 percent more likely to use Twitter than those in other demographic categories. Following them were 25- to 34-year-olds.
One reason the Pentagon — specifically, the Pentagon under the Obama administration — might have turned to Twitter is that it wants to keep 18- to 21-year-olds in the president’s camp, Johnson suggested.
“If this particular demographic sours on what the administration is doing there, that could hurt them,” he said.
If that’s the case, it might be a flawed strategy; Twitter might not be the best vehicle for reaching that age group.
In any case, it is difficult to take a cynical view of the Obama administration’s use of social media to connect with constituents — which, ultimately, is what the Pentagon’s Twitter account reflects.
In example after example, the Obama administration has pushed the envelope by using the Internet to give citizens a view of the inner workings of the government, David Erickson, director of e-strategy for Tunheim Partners, told the E-Commerce Times.
“What the Obama administration is doing is a radical departure from the past. It is using social media in almost every aspect of its operations and opening up the government even further as a result,” he said.
Another example is the Data.gov Web site, he continued, calling it “the most profound thing they are doing along these lines. The government creates so much data — and now it is opening it up through APIs so people can create mashups to figure out what it means.”
It is difficult to even imagine the Bush administration allowing comments on the White House Web site, as the current administration does, noted Erickson.