Social Media and the Military: An Interview with Professor David Denney

Social Media and the Military: An Interview with Professor David Denney

In early June, PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sat down with Professor David Denney, Emeritus Professor of Social and Public Policy at Royal Holloway University of London, to discuss his work on the current and future use of social media technologies by military personnel in their families. This project was funded by ESRC and Dstl, and was accredited as a Global Uncertainties Project under the cybersecurity and conflict themes.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision.

Kate McNeil: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today! Would you mind getting started by telling me a little bit about your background as a researcher, and how your work on the use of social media in the military fits into that?

Professor David Denney: My academic career has been long and varied. My early research in the 1970s and 1980s was concentrated mainly within the criminal justice system, looking specifically at various aspects of race and racism in the criminal justice system.  Between 1997 and 2002 with other colleagues from Royal Holloway, University of London, I was involved in the ESRC Violence Research Project. In all this produced twenty studies of contemporary aspects of violence in society. Our own study led by Professor Jon Gabe concentrated on violence committed against professionals in the community. From this I developed an interest in the theoretical concepts related to risk. From there, I went on to write a book entitled Risk and Society  , and went on to  edit a book on fear, uncertainty, risk and social policy called Living in Dangerous Times.  I was then put in touch through one of my colleagues with a Royal Holloway team that collaborates on science, security and society.. Our proposal to study the ways in which the military uses social media was partly linked to my work on risk.

What did that project entail?

The project, which ran from 2014-2015, took a mixed methods approach, led by a multidisciplinary research team from Royal Holloway. We did 39 focus groups with military personnel across the Royal Air Force, Navy and Army; we conducted interviews with senior military personnel; and a survey across the services. We also conducted   a network analysis of 825,000 Twitter users. Our focus group work enabled us to visit British military bases in the UK, Cyprus, and the Falkland Islands. We were very fortunate to be working in conjunction with Dstl on this project, and the military were always cooperative, helpful, and supporting of the research.

Was there anything that emerged from the project that surprised you?

We did not really have any preconceptions going into the project, because it was such a new area for us and for the military,  however, one major finding that surprised us was that the military had become digital by default. We found that, at that point in 2014-2015, 70% of military personnel between the ages of 18-34 were using social media several times a day, and 70% of those above the age of 35 used it at least once a day. Meanwhile, only 7% of military personnel at the time did not use any form of social media.

Facebook was the most used platform for military personnel and their families. However, we also found that WhatsApp had been informally integrated into some military units to distribute messages within teams. This had replaced some of the traditional top-down communication channels. Surprisingly, there was a much lower level of Twitter usage, while LinkedIn was used often – particularly among senior personnel who were at the stage where they were considering moving on from the military.

The other thing that surprised us was the lack of connectivity, particularly in distant locations such as the Falklands. We found that military personnel had very high expectations that there would be connectivity, and then when there was not, it could potentially have a significant impact upon morale.

Finally, one other thing I found fascinating was social media’s double-edged sword. The implications of connectivity are complicated, particularly when it came to the emotional ramifications of connectivity upon personnel who were separated from their families for instance at Christmas.

Based on your findings, were there things you found that you think policymakers or the administrative bodies within the military need to be thinking more about?

Definitely. We were lucky to be able to share our findings with Dstl and other parts of the Ministry of Defence, though because of the  security implications within our findings, I’m not in a position to know how or whether our findings were integrated into policies across the services.

However, at the time, one of our major  recommendations was that there should be a Joint Service policy document to codify and clarify what  appeared to us to be  a  somewhat uncoordinated  approach to social media use. It seemed to us that there should be clearer communication of social media ‘do’s and donts’ for personnel, and better communication and training concerning the potential dangers inherent within it, such as, taking a selfie near potentially  sensitive material in the background or sharing your location. There needed to be top-level involvement in formulating these policies, and a more consistent approach in dealing with inappropriate uses of social media.

We also noted a generation gap in how military families and personnel  engage  with social media features, and we felt that the knowledge held by younger military personnel was not being properly utilized across the services. Moreover,  better management of expectations concerning connectivity were needed – especially as we’ve come to live in a world where connectivity is almost seen as a human right, and where you’re likely to have some problems with retention and recruitment if members regularly can’t access social media services.

What have you been working on since this study finished?

I have continued to be  interested in  military research and have recently been working with colleagues on   research commissioned by the Forces in Mind Trust  The mental health needs of serving and ex-Service personnel: A systematic review which was published earlier in the year by Nat Cen Social Research.The aim of the review was to bring together evidence to support FiMT’s Mental Health Research Programme, as well as to provide a resource to inform wider research, policy and practiceThis  review  examined the prevalence experience and effectiveness of mental health interventions.  It is an extensive  report, which examines the transition from being in the military back to being a civilian again. One of the key findings of that report was the impact of post-traumatic stress, particularly upon those who had been in combat. Many of the mental health challenges  suffered by military personnel  can also be seen in the general population, such as depression. However military personnel  were  less likely  to ask for help. It would seem plausible to deduce that underlying  mental health problems can therefore be hidden in a military organisational culture which emphasises self reliance and  can seen as a weakness.

At some point in the future, I hope to be able to link the work I have done on social media usage in the military with that work on mental health. For example, someone in a focus group in the Falklands suggested that bad connectivity might be linked to increased alcohol consumption and possibly depression. So, I would love to explore that further.

The work David and his team at Royal Holloway undertook has proven useful across multiple Dstl projects and was well received by stakeholders across the MoD when presented. Additionally, Dstl has maintained links with RHUL, through the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Cyber Security for the Everyday. 

Cover Photo by Gilles Lambert on Unsplash