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Debating The Benefits Of Military Social Transparency

I reported on the Military's use of social avatars by the US Air force from a post by Shel Holtz a few months ago, and followed up with another post that clarified a few issues after interviewing a public affairs contact in the military.

Recently Jonathan Salem Baskin, a global brand strategist, author and speaker wrote an article about the Military's use of anonymous avatars in social networks on his Advertising Age column, which generated a lot of comments. I responded to Jonathan's call to the industry to give a response, and as a result, he and I are working on a post that debates the positives and negatives of the US Military using social media anonymous avatars.

Here is my and Jonathan's joint post to encourage a debate about military social transparency who writing in general in wider communities and societies:


In order to better fight our war against terrorism, the US Military plans to use anonymous avatars to influence public opinion in overseas chat rooms, and military personnel will control multiple online personas, among other tactics.

The use of anonymous avatars goes against the concepts of honesty and transparency many communications professional would advise for effective commercial social media communications.

Studies from researchers such as Dr. Walter Carl indicate that word of mouth messages are more likely to influence people if the person talking online is transparent about their relationships, but opinion changes for the worse once the relationship is revealed.

Our article will help formulate and share an industry POV on the merits and drawbacks of such a strategy.    This is not a debate about ideals or absolutes. There are circumstances where it's very appropriate to use social tools in such ways, like the efforts of law enforcement to entrap sexual predators or catch criminals on the lam. Spies need faux social profiles to give them credibility in their persona. It makes perfect sense for our armed forces to use every possible twist on social media if it helps them find, capture, or kill those who would do harm to us.  

Our biggest concern is that the use of avatars to influence communities and societies in a broad indiscriminate way, rather than focused use of faux social profiles by spies will mean there’s a great danger of a loss of credibility for the United States if it's discovered that such anonymous profiles are being used to influence societies.

The debate is twofold:

1.    Where do you draw the line between lying to known enemies and lying to would-be friends (and how can we tell the difference)?
2.    If subterfuge is the right way to combat our enemies, what is the best social strategy for developing allies? Are we pursuing it/them?

As professional communicators, we believe we should contribute our thinking to this ongoing strategy developing within our government. Our intention is to support its efforts.

We will ask opinions of the community, and reproduce either full or partial quotes in an article on the topic.

Related Articles:

To Tell Or Not To Tell?: Assessing the Practical Value of Disclosure for Word-of-Mouth
Marketing Agents and Their Conversational Partners
” (2006) Dr. Walter Carl
This research report discusses the controversial topic of disclosure in organized word-of mouth marketing programs and reports findings from a major industry-academic study.

• “The Practical Value of Disclosure in Word-of-Mouth Marketing Campaigns.” (2005) This industry white paper was written by Joe Chernov at BzzAgent, Inc., now at Eloqua, and is partially based on findings reported in Dr. Walter Carl’s research report entitled “To Tell Or Not To Tell?”

• “The Value of Managed Word-of-Mouth.” (2005).
This industry white paper was written by Matt McGlinn and Seth Wylie at BzzAgent, Inc., and is based on Dr. Walter Carl’s 2006 Management Communication Journal article “What’s All the Buzz About?”