Why We Tweet

Why We Tweet
AP Photo/Jenny Kane, File

We are now nearly 15 years into the Era of Social Media. Facebook emerged in 2004 and Twitter began its rise in 2006. Both have hundreds of millions of users, including military personnel. It is well past time that all of our senior leaders appreciated the value of an open dialogue facilitated by these social media tools. These new 21st century technologies for interacting are not the only means to effect engaging and transparent leadership, but they provide an additional tool in the leadership kitbag of the most senior military leaders.

Why is this so?

If military institutions are to fully realise the potential of social media (they do not currently), they need all leaders from top to bottom to embrace and advocate its use. That is not to say that there are not pitfalls in using social media. A principal concern is that in using social media, we might inadvertently reveal things about ourselves or our institutions that should remain private or that breach security policies. This concern is entirely valid and has both security and reputational impacts. At the same time, however, there are many guides on the effective use of social media to assist us as we steer through the perils of social media. Two particularly useful guides are here and here.

But no activity in which we engage to improve our military units and institutions is free of risk. Our training at the individual and collective levels always possesses degrees of real and perceived risk. We use good leadership, planning, and control mechanisms to mitigate risk while gaining improvements in capability and decision-making by exposing our people to risk.

So it is with using social media. It is certainly not a risk-free environment. For a general officer to use social media effectively, we need to bare ourselves at times in ways that we may not be comfortable with. We must expose ourselves to a level of feedback and critique that may not occur in a normal unit environment. And we must allow our ideas to be tested by a wider array of people than we might be used to.

Virtues of Social Media

At the same time, there are a range of benefits for general officers to not just use, but to actively engage in social media. Below are some of what we believe to be the virtues of social media:

First, social media cultivates influencers. Every senior leader who speaks to war college students in the United States, Australia, and beyond talks about the virtue of influence for senior leaders. But where do they practice this art? Social media, and publishing articles on blogs, allows our junior and mid-level leaders to engage a variety of different audiences. In short, those who use social media are nurturing and building their capacity of influence. If we are to build effective senior leaders, we must allow our people to apply the art of influence; when our people use social media widely, it is a cheap and effective training tool.

However, to be an influencer a senior leader must have a social media philosophy and think about who they intend to influence. They must have an engagement strategy. Every senior leader will have slightly different approaches. For example, one of the authors (Major General Smith) adopts the following as a strategy:

My Twitter philosophy is “Be Present, Be Human.” My engagement strategy for “Be Present” is that I rarely post new or original content, I interact with other people’s content. I’m present in their conversation, not trying to pull them into my conversation. For the “Be Human” part of my philosophy, I use humor and am not afraid to make light of myself (Peeps!) so that when I am Present people are not intimidated about interacting with me. What I want to influence with “Be Present, Be Human” is character and values, respectful and fun interaction, and cohesion in the social media space.

The capacity to influence is increased by access to the platform the audience is on. It’s a tiny group when senior leaders speak at a venue such as a unit or a war college class. But social media puts senior leaders directly into multiple people’s living rooms simultaneously, sharing the same media platform as the user.

At the same time, we must not let ourselves believe that if we are on Twitter we are on social media; we are only on Twitter. Senior officers must not confuse their reach on Twitter with their influence in the larger military institution. Senior leaders must seek out the platforms their audience is choosing. If the spouses have Facebook groups, go there. If the field grades read blogs, go there. If our young leaders use Instagram, go there. Align the reason for being on social media with the audience to be influenced.

Second, social media is another means to foster and improve transparency in military institutions. Both transparency and auditability are core responsibilities of military organisations in our democratic systems. Cleverly employed, while maintaining appropriate operational security considerations, social media provides timely insights into our daily workings, and permits the broad distribution of key initiatives. This is an essential part of leadership for all our leaders, especially our general officers. It can also humanize military senior leaders to the mothers, fathers, and significant others of those who serve, and reassure them that military leadership is caring, empathic, and engaged.

Let’s be quite frank. General officers can often be insulated and isolated, even the best leaders with awesome battlefield circulation plans. Access to a social media platform increases access to a military audience, even if what the senior leader does is passively lurk and learn. In doing so, senior leaders can focus on areas they can directly influence or are at the heart of their current commands. But it is not (except in the most exceptional of circumstances) about intervening in the chain of command. Social media provides insight into the formation that is unattainable elsewhere. A general officer can see the challenges of the most junior members, and also see what is important to those in the ranks simply by monitoring social media.

Third, social media provides an additional layer of understanding for military families and enhances senior leader capacity to visualise the challenges and achievements of families. Providing information on the activities of service members to their families assists in family comprehension of the contribution of their family members’ service, and does so in an easily accessible and easily understood way. Social media is one of the few places where a family member has access to a senior leader. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced town halls onto social media platforms, and has in many instances actually improved how we interact with families. We must maintain the increased family access we’ve gained using a virtual space even when conditions are safe enough to return to a face to face town hall.

Fourth, social media reinforces the responsibility of institutional stewardship in our general officers. We all have a responsibility to leave our institutions better than we found them. When senior leaders use social media to break through hierarchical and generational strata, it adds a layer of quality to our engagement of our people. It also permits general officers to be better advocates for our people, recognise their achievements, and amplify the new ideas that are so essential to the challenges of the 21st century. This relatively new medium amps up critical thinking and critical writing within institutional stewardship.

There is a huge amount of disinformation in social media. It therefore must be a place to teach and coach, pushing back on myths and conspiracy theories. Senior officers can, and must, use their real-world expertise to point others toward the experts in the national security world. The whole point of social media is that it is collaborative across different levels and generations, and we all benefit from that collaboration.

Fifth, social media is a great way to understand, connect, and interact with a global community of military people and national security professionals, many of whom are eager to engage in professional discourse and debate. Unlike email and journals, social media is open to a global audience at all times, and access is open to all. It permits general officers to appreciate the breadth of views in military organisations and among national security professionals.

Finally, senior officers must use social media to lift up marginalised voices from across our organisations. If we are honest, we must accept that there are many people in our military institutions who have been treated terribly because of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, or just the power balances inherent in military hierarchies. This is a much broader leadership challenge (and opportunity). But social media can play a small role because it allows senior leaders to lift up marginalized voices in a unique and quite powerful way.

So, using social media is an essential tool for general officers in the 21st century. But the why is only one element. It is important to also understand what kind of subjects are important to general officers on social media. To that end, we have developed five important thematic areas that guide our use and might be useful for other senior leaders.

Command, Leadership and Ethics

The most vital element in any military institution is good leadership. As General Martin Dempsey wrote in “A Profession of Arms,” it is foundational to our profession. As we wrote earlier, social media provides us with a useful tool to engage with more of our people and to message leadership priorities and themes. More broadly however, social media also permits senior leaders to see the strategic messaging of our political leaders, as well as other senior national leaders across government and commerce. This permits a better understanding of strategic intent and alignment of strategic messaging. We have included Twitter feeds of leaders—at many levels—who demonstrate good leadership and a well-developed capacity to use social media to engage their people and influence their broader organization. In this category, there are some terrific feeds on ethics and military ethics.

Twitter feeds we like: @Martin_Dempsey @WD_Eyre @Ross_Coffman @Mil_Leader @ChiefofOrdnance @SEFrench @KaurinShanks @StavridisJ @SamanthaJPower @RisaBrooks12 @TradocDCG @DogFaceSoldier

Strategy and Policy

The capacity to think strategically is another foundational skill for senior military leaders. It is an intellectual art that demands constant honing across one’s career. Part of this is the personal dedication to continuous learning through reading, discussion, and engagement with experts. A range of outstanding intellects are now on Twitter in particular, and they participate in a range of online debates on issues of strategy and its related fields, including civil-military relations.

Twitter feeds we like: @ForeignPolicy @ForeignAffaris @LawDavF @BeatriceHeuser @Rory_Metcalf @CharlesEdel @HalBrands @SEKreps @FukuyamaFrancis @AJEchevarriall @AKCronin @MiraRappHooper @KissingerCenter @He_Shumei @JimGolby @OSMastro @BrendanKTaylor @Ali_Wyne @JoanneEWallis @TomFriedman @Kath_Hicks @CliveCHamilton @Brooks_Rosa @KoriSchake @LowyInstitute @AaronFriedberg @NoraBensahel @ToshiYoshihara @WomenInFP @EliotACohen


In his book Thank You for Being Late, Thomas Friedman has written about how the contemporary pace of change—particularly with technology—is bewildering for many people. As senior leaders, we need to build and sustain a level of technological literacy so we might lead our people in what Ray Kurzweil called An Era of Accelerations. We must be able to understand new and disruptive technologies, ask the right questions of experts, and incorporate the exploitation of new technologies into our strategies and plans.

Twitter feeds we like: @AI_Ilachinski @feraldata @AiCommission @EBKania @RidT @MIT @KennethPayne01 @PhysicsToday @SpaceX @KMansted @Paul_Scharre @CNASTech @AlexJoske @SamBendett @KaraFrederick @MarietjeSchaake @DoDJAIC @SethLazar @KarinaVold @NicoleMatejic

War and History

We are all products of our respective military institutions. Each military organization has a different history and possesses a variety of traditions. We are the stewards of these traditions. More importantly, however, war and our profession of arms has a long history that, in essence, provides us with our case law. It is full of lessons for our most senior leaders and our most junior people. In his classic piece on the use and abuse of military history, the late Sir Michael Howard wrote that if there are no wars in the present in which the professional can learn their trade, they are compelled to study the wars of the past. Wars still resemble each other more than they resemble any other human activity. They are all fought in the face of a special element of danger and fear and confusion. So we must all turn to our history to learn about what conflict might face us in future. There are many terrific sources online, and on Twitter, for this purpose.

Twitter feeds we like: @DMorganOwen @DefenceResearch @DrAEFox @CAugustElliott @vanyaef @DefenceResearch @GoldrickJames @WWATMD @MilHistNow @HakanBlarsson @Heather_at_ACTS @JohnKiszely @Mother_of_Tanks @LogisticsInWar

New Ideas about War

Many of our institutions involved in researching and hypothesizing about future conflict and strategic competition maintain a presence on Twitter. But beyond military institutions, think tanks and academic institutions also use Twitter to engage different thinkers and to launch their reports and other products. This provides senior leaders with a variety of different sources to remain informed about current thinking. It also influences our thinking and informs our leadership of the institutions we command.

Twitter feeds we like: @CoveTweet @WarInstitute @TheKrulakCenter @JackieGSchneid @ArmyMadSci @FoW_ADFA @TheCentralBlue @CIMSEC @CSETGeorgetown @August_Cole @PeterWSinger @SparkCognition @LawfareBlog @WomenFutureOps @MOD_DCDC @KJMcInnis1 @Strategy_Bridge @Warontherocks @WavellRoom

The Next Generation

One of the most important and rewarding aspects of being a general officer and a steward of our profession is our capacity to nurture, mentor, and develop the talents of the succeeding generations of leaders that follow us. We have a responsibility to also engage with, and highlight, the emerging leaders and influencers in the next generation.

Twitter feeds we like: @Doctrine_man @pptsapper @ClareONeill @NKFinney @Maz_Jovanovich @MilWritersGuild @GroundCuriosity @ClausewitzRocks @JBylery81 @HelmandProject @Jenna_Ellen_ @Sharp_CR @KeraRolsen @RichGanske @RVAUnicorn @YoungAusIntAFF @AussieSpaceGirl @TeaandTactics @TyrellMayfield

Just Cool and Interesting

Even general officers have hobbies and other interests. Here are some Twitter feeds that have interested, challenged, entertained, and intrigued us.

@OutInNatSec @SpOC_MA @NatSecGirlSquad @edhawan @wimsatweets @loveusveterans @WomenFutureOps @IvepetThatDog


In this article, we have offered our perspectives on why general officers should engage in social media, and what are the key areas of interest. We have also provided some of our favourite Twitter feeds, although this should not be considered an exclusive list. We trust it offers some insights into how we think about social media, and provides a start point for other general officers who might like to leap into the world of social media.

For military institutions, social media is a mature tool that must move beyond the discretionary and into the realm of business as usual. In the absence of face-to-face interaction, social media is one of the most powerful ways for leaders to pass information, broadly convey intent, and for all of us to communicate, interact and foster professional sharing and discourse and build their capacity to influence.


Major General Mick Ryan is an Australian Army officer. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and the USMC Staff College and School of Advanced Warfare, he is a passionate advocate of professional education and lifelong learning. He has commanded at platoon, squadron, regiment, task force, and Brigade level, and is a science fiction fan, a cricket tragic, terrible gardener, and an aspiring writer. In January 2018, he assumed command of the Australian Defence College in Canberra, Australia. He tweets under the handle @WarInTheFuture.

Major General Tammy Smith is a U.S. Army officer. She seeks to leave the Army better than she found it. To meet that goal she seeks out opportunities to discuss leadership, values, and stewardship of the profession with aspiring leaders across the force. She has served a disproportionate amount of her career in the Pentagon and understands that every policy impacts a soldier or a family member. Since June 2019 she has served as Director, Quality of Life Policy, Assistant Secretary of the Army, Manpower & Reserve Affairs. Her twitter handle is @MG_SmithT.

Major General Patrick Donahoe is a U.S. Army officer and commands the Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning. He has led armor and cavalry formations and has served around the world. Married with three daughters and a small dog he tweets as @PatDonahoeArmy.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.











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