On December 31, the United Strategic Air Command dropped a bomb on the entire world.
No, not an actual bomb, of course; just a verbal one. But the shock waves were felt everywhere.
SAC, which oversees America’s nuclear and missile arsenal, boasted in a tweet that it’s ready if ever needed “to drop something much, much bigger” than the Times Square ball at midnight on December 31.
The tweet was accompanied by a video of B-2 bombers dropping two 30,000-pound conventional weapons known as “bunker busters” at a test range, according to CNN, which aired the video.
Many people did not think it was humorous. They were horrified that an arm of the military entrusted with weapons of catastrophic capabilities would treat the matter so lightly.
The fallout was immediate and negative. “I think it’s very tacky,” Arizona Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told CNN. “We don’t need to be acting this way.”
Former Office of Government Ethics director Walter Shaub, Jr., was somewhat less restrained, asking, “What kind of maniacs are running this country?”
By early Monday evening, the unified command of four military branches had removed the tweet. SAC replaced it with an apology: “Our previous NYE tweet was in poor taste & does not reflect our values. We apologize. We are dedicated to the security of America & allies.”
No one was harmed by the tweet, and it’s easy to forgive an error in judgment like this, especially considering the necessary work that the military does in providing for national defense.
As one person put it, “Thank you to the US Military for keeping us safe. We love you. Twitter, on the other hand…”
And that, in fact, is more of an issue here than SAC’s forgettable faux pas.
The message was not issued in print or in a broadcast, nor even in an email; it was put out on Twitter. Whereas other modes of communication are more likely to undergo a vetting and checking process before being made public, tweets are typically sent out on a whim, without thought or discussion. That spontaneity may add to their popularity, but it also contains much peril.
Twitter and other social media networks have been heavily and rightly criticized for propagating all the sins of unfettered speech in our time. They serve as a platform for racism, anti-Semitism and vicious outpourings of every form of bigotry; arenas for angry venting on virtually any subject of public or personal concern; and are a bottomless source of misinformation, disinformation, lies and, yes, fake news. People feel free to say whatever they want, no matter how offensive or mindless — things they would never say to anybody’s face or in their own name.
The public outcry against these abuses has led to governmental pressure on the networks to regulate themselves and eliminate as much of the toxicity they disseminate as possible, or face legislative retribution. The companies involved have responded with measures to ban the worst offenders, but such efforts inevitably run up against the concern for freedom of speech, and the demarcation line between free speech and incitement and filth remains elusive.
The SAC incident was of another type, part of the “tweet creep” that has, in recent years, seen not only ordinary people but responsible officials all the way up to heads of state opening social media accounts to communicate instantaneously with millions of “followers.”
Some 153 of the 193 member states of the United Nations use Twitter, as do the heads of 125 countries and 139 other leading politicians, according to a study conducted in 2013.
So, the question asked this week, “Why does SAC even need a Twitter account?” is hardly a question. It’s now taken for granted that this is what everybody does, and the folks in uniform responsible for taking care of those frightening weapons are just like everybody else and want to get in on the supposed fun.
The SAC tweet is just one vivid example of what can go wrong with careless communication of this sort.
An ultimate in equality of expression, everybody — from ordinary chums to heads of state — has access, and all are limited to the same 280 characters (though in practice about half that number is used).
Such brevity is fine when you want to say something meaningless, but when it comes to things that matter, the danger inherent in short, whimsical message-making is evident.
To borrow an adage from the U.S. military itself, “loose lips sink ships.” That phrase, used during World War II as a reminder to U.S. soldiers and civilians alike, warned against careless talk about military matters that might be useful to enemy spies, and warned against spreading rumors harmful to morale. Since then, it has been applied to any careless talk that could cause harm.
Perhaps it’s time that public officials begin to rethink the use of social media and establish some guidelines, before any more verbal bombs are dropped.