The US military has a social media problem. And, no, it’s not an addiction to doomscrolling or botching the latest TikTok dance in public. The Defense Department, as an institution, is unlikely to select the correct photo filter, craft the next popular hashtag, or achieve the right selfie angle when posting on social media. Even setting aside one-off social media flubs, the armed services have struggled more broadly to craft the authenticity necessary on these platforms to influence audiences—like potential recruits. Often, the services’ outreach and strategic messaging efforts fall on deaf smartphones. Luckily, scores of social media–savvy influencers have sworn an oath to support and defend the Constitution already. Personally, I understand the potential asymmetric messaging effects of a personal social media account based on my own experience as an Air Force pilot and minor Instagram influencer. The Defense Department should recognize its organic talent pool and adequately train and equip its service members for public messaging campaigns. A decentralized network of social media influencers can assist in recruiting diverse talent, retaining current defense personnel, and even combating disinformation in the information environment.
More and more of the world’s population stays informed of current events via social media rather than traditional news sources. In the United States, of Americans under the age of thirty—a demographic accounting for half the total US population—more than a third turns to social media as its preferred news source. While a growing percentage of the world engages with social media daily, it is essential to highlight that these users do not view all content through the same lens.
Importantly, social media users assign greater merit to authentic user-generated content than traditional sources of information. Deloitte conducted a global survey and found that 27 percent of millennial and Gen Z respondents harbored zero trust in traditional media. It follows that audiences rarely perceive an institution’s social media account to be as genuine as an individual’s social media account, regardless of whether the content spotlights a food review or dairies daily college life. A military component’s Instagram account can post recruiting advertisements but will fail to engender trust with its audience due to being a faceless organization. Despite the public’s distrust of government institutions, the public still very much trusts individuals, especially military service personnel. Consequently, the Defense Department should train, coordinate, and channel a network of individual military social media influencers to amplify key messaging across broad audiences and combat recruiting and retention challenges.
Regarding recruiting, Defense Department officials acknowledge the need to engage with key youth influencers to overcome accession shortfalls. The services rely on traditional influencers like teachers, religious leaders, or older family members to communicate the benefits of military service to potential recruits. Unfortunately, these conventional influencers may convey a distorted message about today’s military experience based on imperfect information or poor perceptions. Moreover, potential recruits may not even have an in-person influence network: a 2021 RAND study discovered that those youth who enlisted had limited in-person information networks, like coaches or guidance counselors, and were less inclined to even build such information networks. Although some youth lacked an in-person information network, the same RAND report found that some female recruits gained “a sense of belonging and confidence that they could be successful in the military” after watching others “like them” vlog about their daily life in the military on YouTube. From my own Instagram experience, I frequently received messages and engagement from potential recruits enamored with aviation and interested in military service. My personal brand of humor connected with certain audiences that may not have had the opportunity to interact with an official Air Force recruiting account. And, at times, I labored to find the right answers to the questions they peppered me with. Similarly, other accounts like mine regularly connect with audiences that official accounts do not; the Defense Department must leverage every opportunity to communicate, capitalize on this organic talent, and connect with the public.
It is critical to note, however, that social media utilization is not uniform across demographic groups. For instance, seven out of ten teenage girls use Instagram compared to only half of boys. Likewise, teen boys use Twitch and Reddit at double the rate of girls. Notably, 81 percent of Black teens use TikTok regularly compared to 62 percent of White teens. And today, half of all US adults sometimes or often receive their news from social media. Ignorance of social media usage and audience differences among platforms could hamper messaging efforts. Of course, the recruiters should continue public outreach with novel ideas like esports teams, but military departments should also coordinate an influencer network attuned to the nuances of various social media apps. By informally organizing social media influencers across myriad platforms, the services can maintain an authentic, agile messaging network adjusted to each platform’s audience to properly inform the traditional influencers of youth as well as the youth themselves.
Social media influencers can expand the services’ reach by messaging diverse audiences, but how can those influencers be utilized to educate and retain service personnel? Simply, by being brokers of valid information. Now, service members hunt through unofficial, informal online sources for answers to pay issues, healthcare, or even suicide prevention. And they already subscribe to their favorite military social media stars to witness reaction videos to the latest military rumor or international event. In response, the Defense Department should adequately train and equip these military social media stars with current talking points or links to online resources so the influencers can, in turn, provide accurate information to their networks of followers.
To be clear, the military should not dictate the content influencers produce—a network of manufactured influencers will appear inauthentic and lose the trust of its followers. Instead, the services can provide an influencer toolkit for their social media stars and utilize their official public affairs credentials to authenticate and elevate organic influencer talent. First, an influencer toolkit could offer up-to-date information about US government efforts in current regional conflicts or provide reminders about available mental health tools online. Armed with this information, the military influencer could avoid spreading disinformation or even assist a follower in mental distress if needed. Likewise, this informal network of social media influencers can help propagate information that educates service members on more benign topics like how airmen can rent unneeded childcare capacity from another Air Force family, how to increase contributions to the Thrift Savings Plan, or how the influencer successfully navigated personnel systems to change his or her military occupation.
Second, the services should coordinate with app providers like Meta or TikTok to authenticate and verify their social media influencers. Scammers regularly concoct social media accounts based on real service members. At best, the member’s likeness is used to engineer a miliary romance scam. At worst, the bogus account spreads misinformation across social media. Protecting the informal network of real members’ social media accounts bolsters official messaging and combats disinformation.
Third, the Defense Department can use its established public affairs capabilities to connect military and civilian social media influencers in collaborative posts. For example, a Navy culinary specialist could host a live stream with a YouTube chef, or an F-16 crew chief could collaborate with an Instagram dancer while marshaling a fighter jet on the flightline. Collaborations between influencers with similar audience interests expand the military influencers’ reach, showcase a positive military image, and increase the impact of Defense Department messaging to audiences that otherwise may not interact online with service personnel.
That said, there are multiple challenges the Department of Defense must navigate when curating this network of military influencers. First, collaborating with an influencer network does not alleviate the services of educating rank-and-file personnel on operational and informational security to prevent classified information leaks online. Instead, the military will have to provide advanced training for social media influencers about posting photos around military equipment or in military training areas, such as how to strip metadata from pictures or post asynchronously from real-world operations. Second, the military should reexamine ethics and its online social media policy. Specifically, do military social media stars unethically benefit from their positions when posting in uniform or doing some eye-popping, unique activity not generally seen by the public? While advertising or sponsoring a specific product or service in uniform may be illegal, simply gaining a following by posting about a military career is likely not. Last, the influencer network must remain independent and distinct from official communication efforts. By bifurcating official messaging channels and an informal social media network, the military protects the authenticity of both its public affairs professionals and social media stars and avoids legal objections that could be raised, for example, when blocking or deleting harmful comments from other users on social media sites.
Certainly, successful social media efforts in the global information environment require a basis in a comprehensive communication strategy. The proposed social media influencer network is not a strategy in itself. But neither is it simply a temporary tactic or technique. In a broad sense, the ability to understand and develop targeted social media messaging, to recruit authentic influencers within appropriate communities, and to coordinate and shape their messages is something that the services need to build. Social media on its own is not the ultimate weapon in the global information environment, but the strength of its military influencers can be developed and channeled by the Defense Department to boost recruiting, facilitate retention, and compete in the cognitive dimension.
Lieutenant Colonel Mike Knapp is a US Air Force pilot stationed in the Washington, DC area. As a social media specialist, he authentically influences his network of Instagram followers via aviation-themed dad jokes as the face of @vectors_to_final.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, Department of the Air Force, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Jason Kriess, US National Guard