To Risk or Not to Risk? Risk Aversion and Social Media in Defence



“The MOD is inherently a risk averse organisation…the business of social media is to shift that appetite from being risk averse to being risk aware and that shift is quite a difficult journey for some people to take”.

Quote from Strategic Interview


There is a culture of risk aversion within the defence community – particularly around digital communications – that may be impinging on the effective management of the risks and opportunities of social media in defence.

This finding emerges from the Strategic Strand of the DUN Project where we conducted qualitative interviews with those involved in the management of digital communications including members of the Directorate of Defence Communications (DDC), the Heads of Digital from all three services of the Armed Forces, and senior military personnel.

Our interviewees highlighted the extent to which social media is feared within the defence community, particularly at a senior level, because there is a perceived lack of understanding about how it works and whether it can be controlled.

On the one hand, these findings are not uncommon to large institutions and are primarily based on our interviewees’ perceptions of others’ understanding and behaviour. On the other hand they can be located within a broader culture of risk aversion within the defence community. Similar sentiments, for example, have been expressed around the military’s management of traditional media.

As a result of this culture of risk aversion our interviewees suggested that members of the defence community were in denial about the everyday, mundane use of social and digital media among Armed Forces personnel and instead were ‘demonising’ it:

The fact that people can’t access social media through the defence network has meant that because it is invisible through your work computer it is not always there and therefore it is easy to malign and demonise rather than leverage and explore it.

I’ll tell you a big cultural thing – which will take defence a long time to get over – which is the fact that digital communications is frowned upon in the messes and the ward rooms across defence, so where the military officers are. I came from a military base just before this interview, there was no mobile phone signal, and there was no Wi-Fi in the public areas.

There is the culture at lunch, at dinner, you will read the national newspapers, and the local newspaper if it’s there, but checking a mobile phone you’ll get thrown out of the mess, if there’s a signal.

The wider implication of these findings are twofold. First, such a culture of risk aversion may in fact be reinforcing a fear of social media within the defence community. Second, it is not only at odds with the reality of the risks that emerge from social media, but also at odds with the everyday, mundane social media use among Armed Forces personnel.

These points are important when considered in light of our finding that risk is predominantly believed to emanate from individual service personnel and their families. If, as suggested above, military personnel and their families are located within an environment that does not adequately acknowledge and endorse their everyday social media use, then the mechanisms by which they can be encouraged to use social media responsibly are significantly undermined.

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