Freedom Of Information: Facebook – the new battleground in Iraq and Afghanistan

Social networking sites present a PR problem for the Army. Robert Verkaik, Law Editor, examines newly released papers showing how the generals intend to tackle the new media

Facebook and MySpace are at the centre of a new media offensive in the Government's battle to win the PR campaign over unpopular conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Documents released by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) under the Freedom of Information Act show that ministers are concerned that overwhelming public opinion is opposed to "operations in Iraq" and that there is only a slim majority in favour of Britain's military role in Afghanistan.

A series of negative stories concerning poor equipment, accommodation and pay has been fuelled by soldiers using social networking sites and video-sharing sites, such as YouTube, to publicise their own grievances. The MoD warns that "more discipline" and "greater enforcement" of military conduct rules is necessary to tackle "the publishing of unauthorised content on unofficial channels . . ."

One strategy paper published in August last year acknowledges that "internal communications has tended to take second place to our engagement with the media. Yet our own people are our most effective advocates in promoting our activities, and they can be our most damaging critics."

For military personnel who continue to breach the rules and use the internet to publish unauthorised video footage or complain about their lot, it could mean a court martial and dismissal from the Armed Forces.

On the wider PR campaign, the MoD adds: "There is a lack of public understanding of the rationale behind each mission . . . There is a growing perception that – particularly on operations – our Armed Forces are not as well equipped as they should be and that we do not look after our people as well as we should." To counter these perceptions the MoD spin doctors suggest accentuating the positive rather than allowing the media to dwell on the negative. In Iraq, for example, commanders are told to "focus on the transition to Provincial Iraqi Control whilst continuing to maintain 'Overwatch'."

But in Afghanistan, it is better to highlight the reconstruction and development in Helmand Province and other parts of Afghanistan. "That has only been possible because of the military's efforts in maintaining the security situation," says the paper.

Commanders are also told to use the former conflict in Bosnia to illustrate "the success of the mission to demonstrate that things can be brought to a successful conclusion". In a separate document entitled "Defence On-line Engagement Strategy" sets out plans to use the new media for their own PR purposes. The MoD, in these documents, describes the "social media" as a Brave New World, but warns that it presents "new and emerging threats".

"We will not get our message across through 'traditional' media alone (especially increasingly politicised national press)," one of the papers says:

We need to exploit the many emerging channels and take advantage of their being increasingly trusted. We also need to get our messages direct to the public without going through potentially distorting media. It will be impossible to control the tide of new technology and channels or the way information is exchanged outside "traditional" channels.

r.verkaik@independent.co.uk

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