Iraq War Social Media and Operations Security Training [Case Study]

By CIA -, Public Domain,
By CIA -, Public Domain,

This case study reveals how the US Dept. of Defense integrated social media as an information operations capability without compromising operational security (OPSEC).

This conflict continued for at least a decade as an Iraqi insurgency emerged to oppose the occupying forces and the post-invasion Iraqi government, and this article details precisely the role social media played in that struggle.

Information Operations involve the use of cyberspace operations such as electronic warfare (EW), computer network operations (CNO), psychological operations (PSYOP), military deception (MILDEC), and operations security (OPSEC), in concert with primarily

specified supporting and related capabilities to influence, disrupt, corrupt or usurp adversarial human and automated decision-making and is considered a matter of national security.

Not all information operations are subversive. Supporting and related information operations capabilities are typically accurate and informative, and social media presents significant opportunities to facilitate the immediate, widespread distribution of information.

Many have argued that Donald Trump’s use of data from Cambridge Analytica during the presidential campaign was more of a PSYOPs play than simply a related capability, as was the Russian Government’s use of psychographic advertising to drive a wedge between liberals and conservatives on Facebook. Still, these initiatives leverage the social networking giant’s psychographic profiles to spread misinformation.

Social networks have become fertile ground for disorienting populations, sowing dissent, and disseminating misinformation by making understanding information easy for campaign operatives via audience psychographics.

As such, this unfiltered information environment emerged as perhaps the most effective, related capability to information operations we’ve ever known, and it was used effectively by the Pentagon Public Affairs detail to disseminate the truth from the battlegrounds.

Public affairs uses factual information to provide greater visibility into the inner workings of the military to maintain support at home. Here’s how the US Dept. of Defense effectively integrated social into its digital communications strategy.

Winning the Iraq War Online

On January 2007, four years after Saddam Hussein was ousted, US President George W. Bush deployed more than 20,000 soldiers, five additional brigades, and an extended tour of Army and Marine troops in Iraq.

The decision, which White House Press Secretary Tony Snow referred to as “a new way forward in Iraq,” became known as “The Surge” and marked a significant change in war strategy in Iraq.

The central element of the strategy was a change in focus for the US military “to help Iraqis clear and secure neighborhoods, to help them protect the local population, and to help ensure that the Iraqi forces left behind are capable of providing the security.”

The idea was to clean up the streets so the Iraqi police stood a better chance of maintaining peace.

Achieving this mission would mean sending these newly deployed service members straight into the belly of the beast.

They’d have to clear some of the most dangerous hotbeds of insurgency in Iraq at a time when the news media had grown ambivalent to the Multi-National Forces’s prospects for peace.

The public affairs strategy of embedding journalists, which Rear Admiral TL McCreary created, had worked quite well for the most part.

The reporters developed a sense of camaraderie and loyalty with the troops they were embedded with and told the story from the perspective the Defense Department wanted it said.

But that changed when the situation in Iraq stabilized, and reporters could travel abound Bagdad on their own and interact with the locals without requiring the protection of the troops.

War is messy. And the reporters saw firsthand the damage and hardships the US-led incursion inflicted upon the Iraqi people.

Supporting Information Operations with Social Media  

This is how Jack Holt, Senior Strategist for Emerging Media at the US Dept. of Defense, counterbalanced the tide of negative public opinion against the new strategy using not much more than conference calls and blogger outreach.

It’s also the story of how social media engagement was initially institutionalized at the world’s ultimate command and control organization, the U.S. Armed Forces.

In 2006, DoD’s Quadrennial Defense Review included a strategic communications roadmap that stressed the need to find a way to communicate in a 24/7 new media environment.

For the first time, Holt had the necessary support to pursue social media communications officially.

He started to dig in, study and engage with the self-professed military blogosphere. And he wanted to know first how the Defense Dept. could help them.

Almost unanimously, the mil bloggers came back with two requests.

They wanted access to service members down range and information to link to online.

He also saw that those bloggers rising to the top had the best sources, the strongest arguments, and the most potent ideas.

Since the Defense Dept. is the leading source for news and information about the military, they tried first to embed bloggers down range with deploying units.

But that wasn’t very easy, took time, and because so many bloggers are hobbyists, they don’t have the luxury of quitting their day job to pursue their interests.

For many of the top mil bloggers, blogging was a personal communications outlet, rather than a source of income.

The Iraqi troops surge came at when the Defense Department was experiencing increased difficulty getting their information out through the news media.

Congress has accepted General David Petraeus as the commissioned leader in Iraq.

He had just written his Counter Insurgency Operations Manual. He was ready to try a fresh approach to winning the war in Iraq at a time when the American people were starting to become war-weary.

Engaging with the mil blogosphere became a more reliable way to get information out publicly because the mainstream media was fickle and had a short attention span.

The military bloggers were interested, cared passionately about the outcome of the conflict and played a crucial role in helping people understand exactly what was happening in Iraq.

Social Media IO on Haifa Street

In February 2007, one of the most intense firefights of the Iraqi War and the first significant combat operation to occur under the change of strategy was captured by field combat cameramen.

The live footage of the three-day Battle in Haifa was riveting, and the Multi-National Forces Headquarters decided to declassify the footage and release it to the television news media as proof that the surge yielded positive results.

The graphic combat footage of the Battle of Haifa Street made the evening news cycles in the US and some of the morning shows and was dropped from rotation by 10 am the following day as the press rushed to cover the death of Anna Nicole Smith.

US Army Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell, the spokesman for the joint forces at that time, didn’t understand why gripping footage depicting such a critical event could be so easily dismissed by the news media.

As an infantryman, his perception was that they’d done everything right.  He laid out his range stakes and set up his sector of fire.

Why weren’t they hitting anything?

Unsatisfied with the responses he got back from his public affairs staff, he ordered them to do something different.

The first major battle marking after the surge had been won, and people needed to know about it. And if the news media wouldn’t tell them, the Multi-National Forces needed other options.

His charge aligned nicely with the 2006 order to find a way to communicate in a 24/7 new media environment. At this point, the public affairs staff for the Multi-National Forces in Iraq contacted Holt.

They were ready to do whatever it took to tell their story. They wanted to put up a YouTube channel immediately and start releasing information directly to the public. But like most big organizations, making new things happen at the US Dept. of Defense takes time.

Holt, a DoD vet well versed in the bureaucracy inside the department, knew it would be near impossible to get a YouTube channel up tomorrow. But he had another idea.

He asked the joint force public affairs officers if they thought rounding up some colonels and majors on active duty in Iraq who had been personally involved in the Battle of Haifa Street was in keeping with military doctrine.

They said they thought it was.

So Holt rounded up a group of military bloggers, set up a conference call, and the DoD Blogger Round Table was born.

By getting mil bloggers access to boots on the ground, they were improving the accuracy of the information being disseminated because it was unfiltered by the news media, and they were helping inform the public about the war in Iraq.

The Blogger Round Table went on for four years until blogging as a pastime waned with the growth of Twitter and Facebook. Still, it had a huge impact on social media communications and grew into what became a full-blown owned media channel for the Pentagon called DoD Live.

“There was more information that got into people’s hands that way,” says Holt. “We were always looking for that third-party witness – which had been the whole purpose behind having embedded reporters – but as things normalized after the invasions and the reporters got around town, they were looking at things from different angles. There were a lot of things happening that no one was reporting on.”

Podcasts as Information Operations

Through simple telephone conference calls, bloggers got access to service members living the war day-to-day who told them their stories.

A shift in the public debate started to happen, and for the first time, social media became an information warfare tool, at least from a related capabilities standpoint.

At first it was subtle.

But as the DoD Blogger’s Round Table persisted, it became more dramatic.

The mil bloggers were investing their hearts and souls in informing the world about the progress that was occurring as a result of the surge.

Holt got transcripts on the Pentagon’s website so the bloggers had articles to link to.

He didn’t rely exclusively on the mil bloggers to get everything said on the conference call out there.

His military information support operations team recorded the calls and released them as podcasts, and podcast transcripts were released as text.

One week, they’d talk to an Air Force officer; the next week, it would be enlisted personnel from the US Army.

Lifting restrictions on the use of social media on the DoD’s nonclassified information systems so deployed service members could communicate online with friends and family helped as well.

Eventually, they developed their own Blogger Round Table website, hosting all the content.

In one month, they had half a million visitors downloading the files. They’d struck a nerve.

They also saw the mainstream news reporters become more engaged through the process.

Reporters used the Round Table transcripts to prepare background and ask more informed questions.

They were drawing on the Round Table content to educate themselves and cover the war effort on a deeper, more nuanced level. “It helped us in the press and the public,” says Holt.

Today, almost all US Military units have badges on their homepages where you can link directly to their social media profiles on YouTube, Facebook, Flickr and Twitter.

But it wasn’t always that way.

Were it not for the contributions of Holt and the circumstances that led to his creation of the first Blogger Round Table, set up to help the Multi-National Forces in Iraq get their story out about the successful impact of the troops surge, perhaps they still might not be.

Acknowledgment: I am grateful to Shel Holtz, co-host of the podcast For Immediate Release: The Hobson and Holtz Report, who interviewed Jack Holtz for an episode on which this blog post is largely based, and grateful to Jack for delivering such a compelling case study on the origins of social media at the United States Department of Defense.

This is a social media information operations case study in my social media policy development training course as well.

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