Defense leaders stress importance of social networking

Twitter, Facebook and other Internet tools thwart authoritarian governments and improve internal communications, officials say.

The widespread use of social networking technologies by Iranians frustrated with election results shows "it is increasingly difficult for an authoritarian government to maintain control of all the means of communication that are available to its citizens," Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told reporters during a Pentagon news briefing on Thursday.

Gates said the use of advanced communication technology by average citizens worldwide is one of the "more significant developments in the last 20 years" and added "freedom of communication and the nature of it is a huge strategic asset for the United States."

The Defense chief said tools such as Twitter are "a huge win for freedom around the world because this monopoly of information is no longer in the hands of the government."

In response to a question about Twitter, Gates noted, "there are clearly a number of governments, around the world, that try to control these communications ... [they] try to control the Internet and so on. "

But, he said, these governments "can't draw the net tight enough to stop everything.... If you can't text, then you Twitter.... My guess is, in some of these countries, that the leadership is kind of like me. They don't have a clue what it's about."

Gates said he did not use Twitter nor did he have a Facebook page. But Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he does Twitter. In a Tweet after the news conference he said Twitter is "critical and meets needs for flexibility and adaptability."

He added he used Twitter to stay in touch with the 2 million troops whose average age is in the 20s and who grew up with Internet-based communications. The 63-year-old Mullen said even though he might not be as facile using Twitter as the young troops he commands, it was important for senior leaders to understand and use social networks. "I think communicating that way and moving information around that way, whether it's administrative information or information in warfare, is absolutely critical," he said.

Gates concurred, saying Defense needs to use social networking tools to "get better plugged in to what [troops] are thinking."

Besides using social networks for internal communications, Defense has adopted them to gets its message across to the population in Afghanistan. In May, U.S. Forces Afghanistan launched Facebook, Twitter and YouTube sites to speed the pace at which "commanders can get information to the public, allowing them to preempt extremist propaganda."

The Navy does not have a Twitter site, but the Army and the Air Force have embraced the technology. Gates said he believes Defense needs to do more in the social networking arena. "This department, I think, is way behind the power curve," he said during the news briefing. "It's an area where I think we have a lot of room for improvement."

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