U.S. Military Gingerly Embraces Social Networking

After-hours on any given workday, scores of young soldiers plug into a world that would have earlier generations scratching their heads.

They Tweet on Twitter.com and flit from Facebook to Flickr to YouTube. They are, as the late comedian George Carlin once put it, uplinking, downloading, cutting-edge multi-taskers who can give you a gigabyte in a nanosecond.

And they're fueling a revolution in how the Pentagon connects with troops and the public.

From the front lines of Iraq, where Army Gen. Ray Odierno posts daily updates to his Facebook page, to Fort Huachuca in Sierra Vista, which posts video greetings to deployed troops, America's military is infiltrating the world of online social networking.

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"With our younger soldiers, especially, once they're off the Army clock, they're attached to some form of electronic device," said Tanja Linton, a spokeswoman for Fort Huachuca and its military intelligence school, about 75 miles southeast of Tucson.

"They've got their cell phones, their iPods, their laptops; they're texting, Tweeting, surfing — and sometimes they are doing it all at the same time."

Odierno, the commander in charge of military efforts in Iraq, has close to 4,000 "fans" on his page at Facebook.com.

His site proclaims, among other things, that the four-star general is a fan of Motown, classic rock and country music, and that his favorite films include "Animal House" and "Sleepless in Seattle."

Stories referenced on the general's site range from a report on efforts to revive Iraq's air force to an article about an overseas jazz festival that featured Iraqi and American musicians.

The U.S. Army launched its own Facebook page April 16 and has more than 17,000 fans so far.

"It puts a human face on the Army that you might not otherwise see," said Lt. Col. Kevin Arata, head of the service's new online and special media division.

The move to social media has been somewhat unsettling at the Pentagon, with its tradition of top-down authority, he said.

In cyberspace, where anyone can post feedback anonymously, the musings of military supporters can appear alongside those of anti-war critics.

"This is a culture shift for us," Arata said. "When people exchange thoughts, it's not always rosy. That's something we as a culture have to get over."

There also have been technological snags. Many of the social media sites the military is embracing aren't accessible on military computers, due to concerns about network security.

Solutions are being sought, Arata said. In some cases, staffers have had to work around the issue by having one office computer that isn't connected to military networks.

Locally, Fort Huachuca is using Facebook, YouTube and TroopTube — the Pentagon's version of YouTube — for many forms of outreach.

Last Christmas, for example, the fort's public affairs office arranged for local Army families to post online video greetings to deployed soldiers.

Bonnie Sanders, 32, a mother of two, said she was grateful that the new technology allowed her to connect with her husband, Staff Sgt. Roland Sanders, a member of the fort's 11th Signal Brigade who recently returned from a 15-month stint overseas.

"It was emotional. It choked me up," she said of the experience. "It felt good knowing that he would know we were thinking of him."

Fort Huachuca also posts footage from its "Fort Report" cable TV show on YouTube and TroopTube. The video segments include informational clips on cultural and sporting events, health alerts and other aspects of Army life.

In Tucson, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base has not yet taken the plunge into new media, said 1st Lt. Mary Pekas, a base spokeswoman. Staffers there are still awaiting instructions from Air Force headquarters on how to proceed, she said.

The general public isn't flocking to Pentagon-sponsored sites yet, judging by numbers.

Last year, for example, a video clip showing decrepit Army barracks at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, posted on YouTube by an outraged parent, drew nearly half-a-million viewers. The Army's official YouTube clips typically draw fewer than 5,000 viewers.

The push to social networking is a smart move on the military's part, said Sean Aday, an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., who recently spent time in Afghanistan teaching government leaders there how to deal with the press.

Much of what the Pentagon posts online is akin to advertising that aims to create a good impression, Aday said. Viewers drawn to such sites most likely already have a positive opinion of the military, he added.

The wider public may be more inclined to take the Pentagon's pronouncements with a grain of salt and to rely more on independent news reporting for information about the military, he said.

"Who is reading the general's Twitter page? It's probably someone who is predisposed to thinking that the general is right about things. It's sort of like preaching to the choir," Aday said.

"From a public-relations standpoint, maintaining that kind of support makes a lot of sense," he said. "You want to keep the choir singing your tune."