British army creates team of Facebook warriors
Soldiers familiar with social media sought for 77th Brigade, which will be responsible for ‘non-lethal warfare’A British soldier looks at an Iraqi colleague's mobile phone during a joint patrol. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Ewen MacAskill, defence correspondent
Saturday 31 January 2015
The British army is creating a special force of Facebook warriors, skilled in psychological operations and use of social media to engage in unconventional warfare in the information age.
The 77th Brigade, to be based in Hermitage, near Newbury, in Berkshire, will be about 1,500-strong and formed of units drawn from across the army. It will formally come into being in April.
The brigade will be responsible for what is described as non-lethal warfare. Both the Israeli and US army already engage heavily in psychological operations.
Against a background of 24-hour news, smartphones and social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, the force will attempt to control the narrative.
The 77th will include regulars and reservists and recruitment will begin in the spring. Soldiers with journalism skills and familiarity with social media are among those being sought.
An army spokesman said: “77th Brigade is being created to draw together a host of existing and developing capabilities essential to meet the challenges of modern conflict and warfare. It recognises that the actions of others in a modern battlefield can be affected in ways that are not necessarily violent.”
The move is partly a result of experience in counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan. It can also be seen as a response to events of the last year that include Russia’s actions in Ukraine, in particular Crimea, and Islamic State’s (Isis) takeover of large swaths of Syria and Iraq.
Nato has so far been unable to find a counter to what the US and UK claim is Russia creating unrest by sending in regular troops disguised as local militia, allowing president Vladimir Putin to deny responsibility.Isis has proved adept at exploiting social media to attract fighters from around the world.
The Israel Defence Forces have pioneered state military engagement with social media, with dedicated teams operating since Operation Cast Lead, its war in Gaza in 2008-9. The IDF is active on 30 platforms – including Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and Instagram – in six languages. “It enables us to engage with an audience we otherwise wouldn’t reach,” said an Israeli army spokesman.
It has been approached by several western countries, keen to learn from its expertise.
During last summer’s war in Gaza, Operation Protective Edge, the IDF and Hamas’s military wing, the Qassam Brigades, tweeted prolifically, sometimes engaging directly with one another.
The new brigade is being named the 77th in tribute to the Chindits, the British guerrilla force led by Maj Gen Orde Wingate against the Japanese in Burma during the second world war. Wingate adopted unorthodox and controversial tactics that achieved successes completely disproportionate to the size of his forces, sending teams deep into Japanese-held territory, creating uncertainty in the Japanese high command and forcing it to alter its strategic plans.
In a nod to the Chindits, members of the 77th Brigade will have arm badges showing a mythical Burmese creature.
The aim is that the new force will prove as flexible as the Chindits in the face of the dizzying array of challenges being thrown up in the early part of this century.
The creation of 77th Brigade comes as the commander of Nato special operations headquarters, Lt Gen Marshall Webb, speaking in Washington this week, expressed concern about Russia and about Isis.
“Special operations headquarters is uniquely placed to address this,” he said. “We tend to take an indirect approach. We can engage without being escalatory or aggressive. We tend to view things from an oblique angle, and we absolutely acknowledge that trust, information-sharing and interagency collaboration is crucial.”