The Twitter Brigade


The UK’s lack of Information Operations capability and the dead hand of the MoD’s social media engagement policy has been a recurring subject of discussion on Think Defence.

Over a number of posts I have looked at the effectiveness of both ISIS and the Peshmerga’s online presence. The Peshmerga, although arguably less coordinated have what I think is a much more nuanced online presence that actively targets the ISIS fighters with grisly before and after shots. A recent example focused on one of the ISIS celebrity beheaders. Over a series of Tweets they showed the ISIS photographs, the same person doing the finger raised machete in the other hand pose just before cutting the head off a prisoner. The series continued with images of his passport and other details. It concluded with a number of images his shattered bloody corpse.

The message was clear, the intent obvious and the effect, chilling.

It was personal, visceral and absolutely targeted at the morale of the ISIS fighters.

But that wasn’t it, the real master stroke was a follow up series that showed ISIS prisoners being treated with humanity, being fed and cared for.

A powerful stab at the morale at ISIS personnel and a reminder to those in the West that the Peshmerga are the ‘good guys’

Now I don’t know if it was or is effective, I am not a Chechen fighting in Syria for ISIS, but that is not my point here.

Hamas and the IDF also have a very effective information operations presence on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook etc.

Back in November last year I published a short post about the establishment of the Security Assistance Group.

The Security Assistance Group pulls together the  soft effect capabilities of the Military Stabilisation Support Group, 15 Psychological Operations Group and potentially Media Operations Group.

The important thing to note here is that SAG contained the Military Stabilisation Support Group, combined with regional pairing and a general concentration of resource on ‘upstream engagement’ the intent is to prevent conflict through the combined action of effective media and communications, assistance and mentoring, training and early intervention where necessary.

The table below showed the strength at the end of last October.

Unit/Sub Unit Strength as at 22 October 2014
Headquarters Security Assistance Group 50
15 Psychological Operations Group 50
Media Operations Group 70
Security Capacity Building Team 10
Military Stabilisation Support Group 120

This is all relevant of course because of the recent news of the establishment of the 77th Brigade which will apparently replace the SAG.

I honestly though this was a joke, it just seemed so ‘out there’ but no, it is absolutely true and has exploded all over social media channels (which is interesting in itself). What made it seem so impossible (apart from the Chindits/77th Indian Infantry Brigade thing) was the proposed size of the force, 1,500 to 2,000 full time and reserve personnel from all three services with less than half being reservists.

This is a big unit, make no mistake.

They will develop means of shaping behaviour through the use of dynamic narratives

Wow, straight out of the Ladybird book of defence management language

I guess the first challenge will be to get DII to allow access and get some computers that don’t run Internet Explorer 6.

Once that’s done, untangling the complex relationships between various intelligence branches of the services, special forces (especially reserve SAS), GCHQ, MI5, MI6 and the FCO will be the next challenge.

If they address the first challenge though, pretty sure everything else will be a piece of cake.

Where will they recruit from, will vacant posts be back filled and the obvious question is, what units will suffer as a result of the formation of the 77th?

This is a serious subject that needs a heavyweight and long term commitment, short postings and glittery flim flam are not going to achieve anything but I think it is positive that despite being well behind the curve there is at least a recognition of a) the value and b) the current capability deficit.

There are doubts though, can the Army’s decision making arrangements be reconciled with the speed and agility of the medium, can it use the kind of, frankly unpleasant, imagery and targeted messages the Peshmerga use (for example), will the new Brigade be able to cope with a targeted counter attack, what about current UK legislation on the use of social media, language and libel (no, I am not joking), what happens when a human rights lawyer points the finger at the Army’s media operations and above all, how will this fit within our vague and generally incoherent strategy on pretty much any overseas conflict these days?

What characterises the most effective media operations is they are one component of whole, a whole that also includes engaged and deployed ground combat forces.

I also wonder if this is wholly a role for a ‘soldier’

The group needs direction, it needs to understand the fundamentals of intelligence gathering and conflict in general but these skills are needed at the command and direction levels, not necessarily at all layers.

Some of the best examples of effective media operations have been by people operating in loose groupings, certainly without the overbearing command environment of a disciplined military force.

Can the Army master the cultural change needed or would this type of function be better delivered by civilian organisation?

If we look back to only last week with the post on the lack of British Military Bloggers. the suggestion is the ability of the MoD to engage with the world of social media is hampered by deeply ingrained cultural issues.

Personnel numbers are finite, can the Army afford to swap fighting strength for this kind of capability.

I saw a joke somewhere a while ago about computer chess, it went along the lines of;

My computer beat me at chess the other day, but it was no match for me at kick boxing

There is an argument that the Army should stick to its knitting, yes, conflict is changing, yes, social media and information operations are vitally important, but swapping combat power for a capability that can be delivered by civilian organisations (in the main) is actually a very poor use of finite resource.

Instead of trying to evolve with the times, the Army might be better simply recognising that there are some things better done by others?

Good luck to this new group but I think there are still questions in the why column.


As a footnote, there seems to be an enormous amount of misinformed commentary about the Chindits connection on social media, that the Old Comrades Association was not consulted and that it had nothing to do with the Chindits but the 77th Indian Infantry Brigade. Whatever the truth, whatever the reality, the simple fact is it is this issue that is getting most attention which to my way of thinking is rather a poor start for an organisation that is supposedly media savvy.

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