Secrecy, Troop Movements and Social Media

13 May

Reading the Pulitzer-winning (1931) memoirs of General John Pershing recently, I am struck by many things, including the horrifying first use of chemical weapons, the unprecedented loss of life (700,000 dead at Verdun alone), and some unexpected ‘walk-on’ cameos including the Zelig-like appearances of a youthful, high-energy captain on the General’s staff named George S. Patton, Jr. (who later would return to his own fight in France).

But perhaps most interesting, given the unbelievable progress in communication technology since Pershing’s time, is the commander’s genuine shock and horror that the arrival and movements of the U.S. Expeditionary Force on European soil was extensively covered in the press of the time. “To my utter surprise” Pershing noted, the arrival of the Doughboys was thoroughly documented including “port of debarkation, the designation of units and the number of men.”

Pershing called on his aides for an immediate and total censorship lockdown, which was mostly successful. “Secrecy gives a commander the possibility of surprising his opponent,” Pershing writes (pg. 89) “The surest road to defeat would be to let the enemy know all about one’s plans and preparations.”

Fast forward to about a year ago, when a blogger in Abottabad, Pakistan started tweeting about the unusual presence of helicopters in the night sky of the city. Those helicopters, of course, were carrying the U.S. Navy SEALs who killed Osama bin Laden. Had the local blogger been a little earlier, or a little more aggressive, he might have alerted the entire Bin Laden compound to the presence of the commandos.

How long will it be before the casual tweet or Facebook post will actually directly lead to a botched rescue mission, assault or other incident? It is hard to imagine anything else.

What’s even harder to imagine is how to put this particular genie of social media back in the bottle. When I was running Yahoo! News, there was light editorial oversight of social comments. But there really is no mechanism that has the footprint or scale to have any sort of pre-publication review. Hard to imagine that even being possible.

Which leads solely to this conclusion: Had social media existed in ‘Black Jack’ Pershing’s time, there’s no question that the arrival of the US forces in France would have been tweeted and blogged. Probably the arrival would have been recorded and streamed on YouTube.

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