Report: Military Turned to Twitter to Gauge NYC Flyover Fallout

The Department of Defense has warned that military use of social networking sites could pose a security threat, and the U.S. Marine Corps has banned Marines from accessing these sites on government computers. However, an Associated Press report published Monday indicates the U.S. Air Force tracked Twitter and YouTube, as well as various blogs, to assess the public backlash from the Air Force One flyover of New York this spring.

On April 27, a Boeing 747 often used by the president — he was not on board at the time — flew low over New York City for a training and photo op mission approved by the White House Military Office. It was accompanied by an Air Force jet fighter. The public and most of the city’s service departments were not adequately informed of the mission ahead of time, and the situation led some to think that a repeat of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks was under way. Many in the city panicked, several buildings were evacuated, and the incident became a public relations disaster for several government agencies.

As the events unfolded, according to the AP report, units within the military monitored the widespread public backlash on social networking sites — sites that some service members aren’t permitted to use via government computers. That reflects the U.S. military’s attitude toward social networking — that it isn’t quite sure how to deal with the phenomenon.

The security threat is clear: Security vendors have long said that social networking sites pose a danger, and there is concern that some service members might inadvertently share sensitive info, putting lives at risk. However, the technology also offers benefits.

The problem is multifaceted and will likely need to be dealt with at various levels.

Eyes in the Sky

Citing documents released through the Freedom of Information Act, the AP report stated that a unit called the “Combat Information Cell” at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida monitored the public fallout from the April flight and made recommendations for dealing with the story.

The unit, formed two years ago, consists of up to nine media analysts.

The 747’s flight over New York triggered a huge public backlash as panicked New Yorkers fled office buildings for fear the city was being targeted in a repeat of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The Combat Information Cell’s first assessment of the situation was reportedly that bloggers were furious, at best, and that local reporting of the event was very critical.

The cell also tracked the number of tweets about the event. It predicted that media coverage would focus on local hysteria and lack of public notification, and that blogs would continue to be overwhelmingly negative.

Cell members continued to review the social networking media, according to the report, saying the number of tweets on the topic had tripled from one per minute to three per minute, and the words “New York” had been pushed into Twitter’s high-frequency topic category. The cell said videos of the event had been viewed on YouTube more than 260,000 times.

A Utah Air National Guard unit, the 101st Information Warfare Flight in Salt lake City, also monitored the social networking sites, the AP found.

Both the Combat Information cell and the 101st Information Warfare Flight are attached to the First Air Force, based at Tyndall, which is in charge of guarding U.S. airspace.

Marines Nix Social Networking

Last week, the U.S. Marine Corps banned Marines from accessing social networking sites on Corps computers because of the threat to security.

Access could be allowed by an accredited authority through a waiver if there were mission-critical requirements for such access.

The administrative message was signed by Brigadier-General G.J. Allen, the Marine Corps CIO.

Love Those Social Networks … or Not

However, in June, the U.S. military in Afghanistan launched a Facebook page, a YouTube site and feeds on Twitter as part of a new effort to reach people who get information on the Internet rather than in newspapers.

Military officials saw those efforts as a way to counter Taliban propaganda.

Also, Major General Hank Morrow, commander of the 1st Air Force, wrote about the issue of achieving a happy medium between security and social networking in a commentary on the Tyndall Air Force base Web site.

In May 2007, the U.S. military banned employees and soldiers from accessing social networking sites, citing security and bandwidth issues.

The U.S. military banned troops from using YouTube in late 2008 and built its own video-sharing Web site instead, Trooptube. Then, in March, came news that several military bases began banning TroopTube.

That’s understandable, Carl Howe, director of anywhere research at the Yankee Group, told TechNewsWorld.

“If you’re an officer and some information is leaked, you’ll get in trouble,” he said, “but if you clamp down, nothing gets leaked — so your career’s safe.”

In June, the U.S. military ordered its network managers to give soldiers access to social media sites once again. Then came the ban specifically for Marines on government computers.

Can’t the military make up its mind?

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Military

It’s not just a case of blocking or allowing access to social networking sites; the issue is a multilayered one.

“You have to break the problem down into several pieces,” Martin Reynolds, a Gartner distinguished analyst, told TechNewsWorld.

One is tracking enemy activity through monitoring social networking sites. A second is using social networking to get people to adopt your cause, as the military is doing in Afghanistan.

The third is the need for secrecy in the military.

“When you see the benefits of the first two parts, you can see why the military would want to be circumspect about giving troops social network access,” Reynolds said.

However, that could also cause a backlash. It’s vital to give troops a channel for communicating with those back home, and sites like Facebook are often the channel of choice.

“Our troops are young and grew up on social networking,” Reynolds explained. “They’re not used to being blocked.”

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