When No News Is Bad News

Posted November 5th, 2010 at 4:24 pm (UTC-4)
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“Battlefield Blackout” and the Silence of Facebook

Anyone with family or friends in the military knows how important electronic communications are.  Tweets and Facebook updates have, if not replaced, then overtaken the handwritten letters and box of cookies sent from home.  (Although we’ve never met anyone in the service who would turn their nose up to a home-made cookie.)

Military servicemen connecting with families online, courtesy FoxNews

In a must-read piece published Friday, the Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe notes that the immediacy of all those text messages and IM chats means information is flowing more freely than ever between those on the battle’s front lines, and those they’ve left at home.  That can be a good thing for the soldiers involved, but can also present serious security problems for military commanders.

Now it seems, it’s also an unexpected source of great stress for families.  That, after the jump.US military protocol now calls for electronic communications such as mobile phones and the Internet to be temporarily cut from units that experience fatalities.  The goal is to keep family from learning of a loved one’s death inadvertantly over Facebook or an accidental phone call.

However, given the constant stream of data going back and forth, Jaffe notes that those momentary blackouts have, in and of themselves, become cause for dread among military families:

“Today spouses and troops, based in even the most remote areas of Afghanistan, can trade messages and phone calls dozens of times a day. In good times, the minute-by-minute status updates provide peace of mind.

In moments of crisis, the connectivity can make the looming possibility of death seem almost suffocating. The spouses jump with each phone call. Ringing doorbells spark tremors of terror.”

In what could have been a dry examination of new technologies and old fears, Jaffe instead tells this complicated story through Emily Frank, who lost her husband Michael in Afghanistan earlier this year.

Frank’s tale is that of the heart-breaking loss of a loved one, but also the tangled ways information seeps out from battlefields to the home front.   Jaffe writes:

“Franks and husband, Michael, had already weathered a tough Iraq tour in 2008. She thought she knew what it was like to live with the anxiety of having a love one deployed in a dangerous place.

On June 7, she would learn how much had changed in just two years.”

It’s a remarkable story, and powerfully conveys how new technologies are rapidly changing modern warfare – and connected to the very old worries of those left behind.

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What’s Digital Frontiers?

What’s Digital Frontiers?

The Internet, mobile phones, tablet computers and other digital devices are transforming our lives in fundamental and often unpredictable ways. “Digital Frontiers” investigates how real world concepts like privacy, identity, security and freedom are evolving in the virtual world.

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