Social media: Threat or revolution?

Fears of the security risk of new tools miss the point

In this online era of social media and interactive social networks, the wartime phrase “loose lips sink ships” has become outdated. The new game in town is transparency, which works against the grain of this aging culture of secrecy. From World War II to the present day, we embraced secrecy in the belief that we could defend our interests, control powerful technology and maintain world order through a complex and pervasive system of security. History has proven us wrong.

The fact is, our nuclear secrets and many others were stolen without the assistance of Wikipedia, Facebook or Google. Robert Hanssen and other traitors betrayed our nation without the help of LinkedIn, Flickr, Twitter or Slashdot.  We can look at these technologies and the shift in culture as a threat, or we can see it for what it truly is — an opportunity to radically shift our nation’s strategy and security.

Our president sees the social Web as an opportunity. On Jan. 21, President Barack Obama released a profound yet often overlooked memo entitled “Transparency and Open Government” — a bold directive that instructed all departments and agencies to “establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration.”

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both advocate and support engagement across the social Web. In fact, Mullen and other military leaders have created Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, blogs, podcasts and more.

Why are they doing this? My best guess is that these leaders recognize the lessons of history and are charting a new direction for our nation’s security. Rather than cling to the supposed safety of extreme secrecy and isolated decision-making, these leaders see the social Web as a foundation for a new national security strategy rooted in transparency, participation and collaboration.

In this new era of the social Web, our government and military will increasingly communicate, engage with and gain the trust of the citizens they serve and the world they protect. They will do so online.

Until recently, it would have been impossible for our leaders, our military staff, or the average soldiers and sailors to engage directly with the public. The average person was accustomed to being force-fed their news through newspapers, radio and broadcast TV. However, sometime in the past couple years, a shift occurred. The bloggers matured and earned a reputation for timely news and honest dialogue; YouTube videos and citizen journalism provided content the broadcasters couldn’t cover; and Twitter and Facebook started breaking and sharing news faster than the mainstream media.

Recognizing the power, reach and authenticity of the social Web, our leaders have started to engage. They are cautiously building a new strategy that emphasizes transparency over secrecy, participation over isolation, collaboration over stove-pipes. This stealthy strategy has just begun and anyone not following it will soon become irrelevant.

Tactically speaking, it’s possible that this strategy will compromise the occasional piece of technology and may lead to the occasional politically embarrassing video and improper tweet. Yet, from a strategic perspective, the social Web offers us a foundation to build a new strategy, one built upon our nation’s trust, our citizens’ participation, and the world’s assistance as we solve the complex threats of today and tomorrow. I’m willing to accept that risk.

About the Author

Matt Bigge is the co-founder and chief executive officer of Strategic Social, a company devoted to using social media tools in the interests of national security. An Army veteran, Bigge has co-founded more than 10 companies in his entrepreneurial career.

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Reader comments

Wed, Jul 8, 2009

Very thought provoking article. The value of transparency and potential of collective thought are undeniable. It doesn't mitigate the need for security. The challenge will be a governance model that is well understood by all that drives sharing when appropriate and security when required.

Wed, Jul 8, 2009 Emma Antunes Maryland

While I am a firm believer in social media for better government, I think that "loose lips sink ships" is still something we need to remember. Not everything we do is appropriate for a public forum. I have a responsibility to protect the information I work with, and think before I share. Should we share? Of course. Should we do so responsibly? Absolutely!

Wed, Jul 8, 2009 M Reston, VA

I think we all stand to gain. Garret's point about transparency as security is key. The most serious damage done to us was from neurotics on the inside. It's harder to slither around for years like they did without lots of topcover and side barriers. Yes, we need security people, but as Michele notes, they need to work at keeping up, not at holding everyone back. They also need to embrace the changes and see the advantages to their function.

Tue, Jul 7, 2009 JKy

Can one discount the fact that the writer works for a company that stands to gain from the proposition? I did like this story on the MI6 chief too -

Tue, Jul 7, 2009 Garrett Strzok Maryland

Excellent article that really shows leadership is starting to gain an understanding in the importance that transparency brings to governance. That the number of eyes on a problem make it much more shallow. On the issue of secrecy and need to know, I would submit that in a more open an transparent environment that those individuals that would conduct that kind of activity may have actually been identified sooner then they were and that it would be harder in today’s world to pull off the same elicit activity and not be noticed.

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