NEW YORK — The number of U.S. soldiers wounded in Afghanistan is on the rise. Fourteen hundred more Marines are heading to Kandahar. Dozens of Afghans have been killed in suicide attacks. And a few solar-powered street lights were installed in Kabul.
Those are some of the stories about the war in Afghanistan that were covered in major news organizations across the globe during the first week of the year.
But look at what U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan were talking about on social media platforms last week and you’ll get a very different view:
U.S. troops found and dismantled four IEDs on a single stretch of road. Afghan soldiers learned first aid. Local farmers got seeds to help them earn a living and coalition forces gained control of a district in the Tangi Valley.
An army trying to tell its story, or control its message, in a time of war is nothing new. But with the arrival of social media, the military can now reach more people than ever before, reducing its dependence on mainstream media outlets that might not always agree with the army's version of events.
The official U.S. Army Facebook page has more than 583,000 fans. The U.S. Marines are close to reaching a million. That’s not too far behind CNN, which has 1.6 million Facebook fans or the New York Times, which has just over a million. And that’s not even counting the hundreds of specific units and regiments that have their own Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. And it’s not mentioning all the Flickr, YouTube and Vimeo accounts, or all the blogs.
The U.S. Army even has its own iPhone application.
“It is a gap that we can fill on our own,” said Jack Holt, the Defense Department’s senior strategist for emerging media. “It helps us tell the other side of the story that isn’t always the most dramatic side of the story.”
Social media is a way of “letting people know, as [American radio broadcaster] Paul Harvey said, the rest of the news,” Holt added.
Holt said he doesn’t expect people to forego the mainstream media and rely on U.S. Army public affairs for news from the frontlines. But it’s helpful, he said, “if someone wants to see the whole picture.”
Back in 2006, at the height of the Iraq war, Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, then the U.S. military’s top spokesman, began to see the benefits of using social media. But at the time, platforms like Facebook and Twitter were seen as major security threats, ways the enemy could keep tabs on troop movements and upcoming operations.
Caldwell, however, felt the news media hadn’t been telling the whole story in Iraq, thought it might be an efficient way of telling the military’s side of the story.
“Men and women were doing incredibly great things every day, not just heroic things,” he said. “They were building schools, helping establish government systems, empowering the Iraqi police forces to take on more responsibility, training Iraqi Army forces.
“We were doing a lot of incredibly great things and the stories weren’t getting out because they were overshadowed by the kinetic things going on, and the loss of American life, and the fact that casualty rates were going up,” he said.
It was Caldwell’s younger staffers who first introduced him to YouTube, which at the time, along with other social media sites, had been banned by the Pentagon in Iraq. Top leaders weighed the risks with the benefits and an official YouTube site went live in early 2007.
“Within the next six months, it was in the top 10 of all YouTube sites visited in the world. Viewership was phenomenal.”
“It eliminated the gatekeeper,” Caldwell said. “We now had the ability to help inform and present information that people might want to hear about or see in a way that was never there before.”
And now, the Defense Department’s top leaders have all embraced social media in one form or another. Gen. Raymond Odierno posts to Facebook nearly every day. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is a fan of Twitter. And Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey records video messages in a regular segment called “Chief Cam.”
“He loves going out with his Flip cam and taking videos with soldiers,” said U.S. Army Maj. Juanita Chang, director of the Chief of Public Affairs’ online and social media division.
Chang said what and where they post information depends on the platform. “They all work differently and have different audiences, so there’s some strategy to what we put on what. Twitter and blogging go really well together. Facebook people really like photos,” she said. “We listen to what the audience wants.”
Defense Department social media platforms follow strict security rules and avoid partisanship and political commentary. The closest they get to politics is this recent Facebook status by the U.S. Marine Corps: “Bush is gone. One day Obama will be gone, But the Corps is eternal.”
Much of the chatter is devoted to supporting the troops. Social media does nothing, in fact, if not boost morale. Still, there’s a lot of content that you won’t find in the mainstream media. There are stories about the bombs that don’t go off and the soldiers who aren’t killed in combat.
“These stories need to be told,” said Thomas Coffman, a mass communication specialist with the U.S. Navy.
Coffman is a social media director for coalition forces in southern Afghanistan, known as Regional Command-South. Now based in Kandahar, Coffman sends reports straight from the battlefield to Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and Facebook. They have friends and followers from 26 countries, he said.
Recent posts include stories about providing medical care to Afghan children and another about helping Afghan farmers sell pomegranates. Coffman said positive developments in Afghanistan don’t mean much if people don’t know about them.
“This progress, gained with these partners in the region, involves telling the stories,” he said.
Holt said the rise of social media may be opening more avenues of communication from the battlefield, but it also means that since so many people are watching — you better get it right.
“The public debate is very public now,” Holt said.
Chris Lawrence, CNN’s Pentagon reporter, said turning to the military’s social media sites for information about the war in Afghanistan is a good way to see stories that don‘t always make it on the nightly news, but there are dangers to relying too heavily on it.
“I definitely think they’ve got a right to use social media to get a story publicized that we won’t give attention to,” he said. “I think social media is allowing the public to get a fuller, richer flavor for what these wars are really about. What worries me is that at the same time the military is reaching out more than ever to publicize their accomplishments, they’re also sanitizing the wars like never before.”
“They’re obviously not giving a completely unbiased account of what’s happening,” he said. It “really risks hiding the gruesome nature of the war and making some people believe the campaigns are going much better than the reality on the ground.”
But, he said, the troops are watching and reading too, and that creates a system of checks and balances.
“While the ‘big military’ can bypass the media and get its message straight to the public, individual troops can bypass ‘big military’ and put their own thoughts and feelings online,” Lawrence said.
In Kandahar, Coffman tries to reach as many people as he can to release information about U.S., NATO and Afghan progress in southern Afghanistan — but he still relies on the mainstream media to get his message out.
“I understand that Anderson Cooper has no less than six people dedicated to monitoring what comes across Twitter, so in the back of my mind every time I post something, I say to myself, ‘What do I want Anderson to know about RC-South today?”