Cyber Recruiting: The US Army on Social Media

On: October 5, 2011
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About Floris Spronk
I am a 24-year-old Dutch New Media MA student living in the city centre of Amsterdam. I completed the New Media BA course back in 2010, also at the University of Amsterdam. Besides following the MA program, I work as a New Media communications assistant for a political party.

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In my first post I shared my primary interest: Governments & New Media. For this particular research, I propose to look into a very specific part of government’s new media use: recruiting for the military. As most Western countries got rid of the draft, recruiting an all volunteer military force is a significant challenge. In the old days, the recruitment officers would go to high schools and festivals, because they’re always trying to meet their target audience in the places those youngsters frequently visit. But nowadays there’s a new place where the youth spends most of their time: Social Media websites. That’s why Uncle Sam came to Facebook.

Before we get into this you might ask: why focus on the US Army? I’m Dutch, but the recruiting activities here are much smaller, so is the military(culture) itself. Because of the current economic crisis, the Dutch government is cutting spending on all fronts, including on the Defense Department. They’re getting rid of  some equipment and personnel and also severely limited hiring for 2011. They used to have some nice campaigns in the past though, with special recruiting sites for each brand of the military (Royal Army, Royal Navy, Royal Airforce), including flashy games and Hollywoodesque commercials. But their activities on Social Media are a lot less sophisticated: there’s  the occasional Twitter account (almost inactive) and even a decent looking Facebook page but it’s still very basic compared to their foreign counterparts.

Also, the US Army is the biggest of the military branches in the US, so their recruitment budget is the largest. Their online activities are centered around goarmy.com, the HQ of all online activities. The site focuses mainly on answering questions, not only from prospects but also from parents, family or friends of the prospects. Goarmy.com is very rich in content: it has over 5,000 pages of information, a live chat service (with active soldiers), dozens of video’s and personal stories of active soldiers, and there’s Sergeant Star, an animated bot that servers as a virtual AI guide to the website. Or a very detailed first person game, experiencing the action first hand. And every page, (and Sergeant Star’s answers or the game’s results) can be shared on social media with a single click.

They take those steps on Social Media very seriously. In 2009 the Army even established an special online and social media division. The division’s director Lt. Col. Kevin Arata explained why: “we know that’s where they are, and we need to go to them”. For starters, they have the obligatory accounts: Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Facebook and even a pretty looking MySpace page. And there’s also an app for that. But they try to go further, especially on Facebook. The main page is a nice blend of information and activation. It shows video, answers questions and will direct you to the nearest recruitment center. But thousands of those recruitment centers themselves are also on Facebook. And most of those are proactively trying to connect with local youth. Next to that, hundreds of deployed brigades and battalions have their own Facebook pages, posting pictures, swapping stories and answering questions of prospects. They’re really making an effort.

I know it’s not that original to propose a research in the form of: ‘How does x use Social Media for y? I want to be careful not to simply describe the activities without contextualizing it. How do their activities compare to ‘normal’ advertising? And are they similar to cyber-recruiting efforts from ‘normal’ companies? What steps do they take in convincing someone to enlist? What are the underlying themes in those recruiting efforts? Or: how do you sell the military? And: would the same approach be effective in the Netherlands? I would like to speak to recruitment officers, gather data on their success rate, speak to the people who created the sites (what options are priority on the site, and why?) and also speak to recruits who did enlist because they got interested trough social media.

Joining the army is a very big and life changing decision. The sites and recruiters are not selling toothbrushes, in the end they’re influencing young men and women to leave their homes and go to some of the most dangerous places on earth. While they know that some of them won’t make it home alive. That might also create some moral questions:  Is it right to use the familiar environment of the social media sites to ‘lure’ young people into these dangerous jobs? They’re not even ‘safe’ at home for the influence of the military apparatus. There are already Facebook pages protesting the army’s presence on Social Media: “Always remember: recruiters are some of the best salesmen. Don’t give up your life”. Or, you might argue, is the army that great chance for unemployed prospects who can do something for their country, learn discipline, acquire important skills and a social network which will help them the rest of their lives? So it’s a good thing they get a change to learn about this on social media? Even though it’s more of an ethical question instead of a media studies question (and the answer will depend on your view of the military), I still think it’s also an interesting argument to explore in this research.

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