Flash-to-Bang: Nonsense on the internet, hearing it from soldiers

soldier running with a smoke screen
Smoke Grenade

Just about everyone I meet in the Army has a Facebook account now. It is more odd to not have one than to have one. Whenever I am up, standing in front of soldiers, I automatically assume I’m being Snapchatted. Social media is out there and exists. There’s no putting it away.

There are loads of military themed sites that vie for the attention of service members and veterans. Years ago, it was soldier blogs that made waves, giving others a peer inside the world of the military. Those have mostly died off, replaced instead with aggregate sites that allow many more voices to be broadcast to a much wider audience. These are sites like Task & Purpose, We Are The Mighty, The Rhino Den, Havok Journal, SOFREP, etc.

Then there are the strictly social media landing spots – Power Point Ranger, U.S. Army W.T.F. Moments, Gruntworks, Doctrine Man, etc. The list goes on and the low barrier to entry – an internet connection and an idea – allow these sites to rapidly proliferate and compete for the attention of its audience.

While aggregate sites allow for the display and dissemination of partially to fully formed ideas, the social media sites are pure candy. They post clickable, shareable, rage-baiting images and ideas designed to trigger an emotional response. Some of it is hilarious. A lot of it is nonsense.

Last week, before the media event and graduation at Ranger School, I heard soldiers speaking with confidence to one another that the outcome was pre-determined because of the Havok Journal article that claimed the President was going to be at the graduation, so ipso facto, the women got a free pass. In the circles I heard the claim, no one made a correction. No one said it was nonsense. It was read on the internet, disseminated, and settled.

A couple of months ago, when this article about the demise of Army leadership began making the rounds again, I was approached by a good soldier asking me why he should stay in the Army, because that article resonated with him.

Back in Afghanistan, I watched junior soldiers grow enraged over the ARCOM awarded to MSG Moerk because they saw a thousand memes on it. I could never imagine why a junior soldier – or any soldier – would be so interested (and outraged) at an award a senior NCO gets at a post, far, far away.

I’m not sure I’m shedding any new light on this. I’m sure in institutions all over the world social media is having a similar effect. I certainly see it in politics. It’s just something I’ve noticed a lot more in the military recently.

There is still this assumption that what happens online, stays online. That is an outdated understanding of the internet. What happens on Facebook, Twitter, and the like, interplays with conversations in morning formations. That funny picture I clicked ‘like’ on before PT becomes the actual thing someone references during the run. Only, out in the wild, removed from its original context of a funny thing on a goofy military site, it might not be so funny.

Related: The Military Meme Machine. I’m not a fan.

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The Military Meme Machine

When the whole Brian Williams thing went down, I wanted to chime in because my read of the situation was that the story he was telling slowly morphed over time, the way all war stories tend to do. Honesty is obviously a chief value in a journalist, and to betray that is wrong. But I didn’t think that Brian Williams deserved the hate being thrown his way, if for nothing else, because he has been a friend to the veteran community.

I chose not to comment though (much), because the horse, as it were, had already left the stable. The veteran community had already decided that Brian Williams was an exaggerator and a liar of the worst kind. Ranger Up, a kind of barometer for the vibes running through the veteran community labeled him the “Douche of the Week.”

Every comment thread on military-themed pages filled with Brian Williams memes.

It was already over, and the outrage machine had done its job. To try to get in front of that would have been futile, and suicide by meme.

In private conversations with many other veterans, a similar sentiment was shared, that he was wrong, but the pitchfork and flame treatment was largely overdone.

Related, I recently read something about Seth MacFarlane, who was being criticized for jokes about Caitlyn Jenner. He captured the idea I’m trying to get at as “the outrage industry,” which I think is accurate.

When asked how the jokes came about during a recent “Ted 2” conference call, “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane told The Huffington Post he’s “too savvy to comment on the issue to the media.” He explained, “Once the outrage industry shuts down, I will be happy to have an adult conversation about all of this stuff anytime anyone wants, but, even though I’m on the side of support, I just don’t think there’s any way to … you just got to play it safe because the climate is just too charged. Anything I say can and will be used against me.”

On top of this is last weekend’s Star-Bellied Sneetches back and forth on who is the bigger asshole, combat veterans who put signs in their yards asking for respect when it comes to fireworks, or combat veterans who get annoyed with those combat veterans, or combat veterans who call out those combat veterans (and on and on…).

It’s all kind of sad, because I think a lot of reasonable voices avoid getting involved in many different conversations (especially online) out of fear of being dredged through the digital mud.

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