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Civil Engagement in the Digital Age

Updated: Jul 8, 2020

By Kevin Maguire

Uniformed personnel engaging with a civilian. (courtesy of DVIDS, image by Staff Sgt. Sam Northrup.)


In May, Paul J. Hendrick, Edward B. Lescher, and Matthew T. Peterson wrote about integrating Digital Civil Reconnaissance (DCR) into Civil Affairs Operations (CAO). They argue that DCR has the potential to conduct Civil Information Management (CIM) in denied areas. DCR is not the only Civil Affairs (CA) digital activity that has potential value [1]. Another core task of Civil Affairs Activities (CAA) is Civil Engagement (CE), which FM 3-57 defines as: 

…a deliberate or spontaneous activity or interaction between Civil Affairs forces and nonmilitary individuals or entities, designed to build relationships; reduce or eliminate civil interference and causes of instability; gather, confirm, or deny information; foster legitimacy, or promote cooperation and unified action [2,3].

CE is understood by many as an in-person activity, often through the “key leader engagement”(KLE). FM 3-57 states, however, that CE sometimes takes place via “other means of communication” [4]. It is increasingly difficult for CA personnel to communicate with potential partners in person. Reasons range from security constraints or requirements of a deployed environment, the challenges posed by the recent COVID-19 crisis, or simply an overload of operational requirements. These challenges make it an almost impossible endeavor to conduct regular engagements with all potential contacts. 

CA has adapted to the challenges of distance, using technologies such as cellular communications, email, app-based technologies like WhatsApp, social media, and other digital tools freely available for both DoD and civilian use. Web applications like WhatsApp or Zoom are becoming primary communications tools for many in the humanitarian and civil space. However, the use of digital communication tools by CA personnel is hampered by DoD’s aversion to new technologies. A new approach is needed to allow CA to take full advantage of today’s digital evolution.

Digital communication in the Developing World

Digital communications use is growing on a global scale. A 2019 report from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) showed significant growth of mobile-cellular and mobile broadband growth between 2005 and 2019. Beyond cell phone usage, internet penetration is growing as well. In the same time period, internet usage from 16.8% of the world’s population to 53.6%, growing on average by 10% per year [5]. Although less developed countries still lagged in internet penetration, the technology saw significant growth, and the use of communication platforms is still expected to trend higher [6]. While communications technology itself is essentially the same in each country, how technology is applied to daily life can vary considerably in developing countries.

CA professionals should anticipate this difference. Key preparation for CE should include an analysis of local digital communication as part of the PMESII framework [7,8]. In many places, the “internet” and digital communication can have many definitions for locals. The use of these new technologies may not follow lockstep with the western evolution of modern digital communication. In Iraq, for example, having a cell phone is not the sole example of cultural superiority. Having a number similar to that of a prominent national figure, on the other hand, carries even more weight than just having the cellphone itself [9]. In some locations, certain internet outlets or applications have become synonymous with the internet itself. Facebook’s venture, an initiative to bring the internet to developing countries, has been accused of restricting access to a pre-approved set of sites [10]. In other cases, locals may simply not know the full extent of the tools the digital age has provided them.

One essential aspect of digital CE is the public’s trust in specific communication platforms. Concern over misinformation through digital platforms is prevalent around the world [11]. International aid and local leadership may be wary of information presented via uncommon methods of communication. CA professionals risk upsetting key relationships restricted to digital systems not commonly used in the operating environment, especially those associated with the U.S. government. Facebook may retain popularity in the U.S. despite concerns of misinformation, but in a place like Sri Lanka, some attitudes toward platforms have far more dire implications. After terror attacks in 2019 in the capital of Columbo, Sri Lanka was quick to ban the applications, citing previous use of the platforms for fomenting ethnic conflict [12].

The DoD Approach to Civilian Communications

DoD’s policy on electronic communications technology is found in the Department of Defense Instruction (DoDI )8170.01. This policy limits the use of non-DoD controlled electronic messaging services for “supplemental communication only.” [13] The instruction is vague and counterproductive for CE; encouraging DoD personnel to only keep communications restricted to DoD networks. While PAO and OPSEC personnel are mentioned as the information stakeholders for non-DoD networks, CA, Psychological Operations, Information Operations, and other public-facing branches are omitted [14]. The DoD’s general response to subject emerging digital communications applications to a time-consuming policy approval process. This cautious approach limits opportunities for Civil Affairs to utilize digital CE technology improvements at the same pace as civilian counterparts.

Although the approach is a poor response to off-the-shelf technologies, there are valid concerns with digital communications security. In recent years, end-to-end encryption services are under increasing pressure by governments to reduce capabilities. In many countries in which CA operates, national governments already restrict data and cellular service use for security reasons. Governments also demand information on specific users, which they can use to exploit organizations and individuals that they perceive to be hostile. Improved surveillance technologies, once restricted to larger nations like the U.S or China, are being made available in many developing nations with a CA presence [15]. Governments in deployed locations use these technologies to inhibit or persecute partners, sometimes even putting CA units themselves at risk of compromise.


Threats to digital communication are not limited to developing countries. In the U.S., recent legislation being considered by Congress, known as the EARN IT act, is being pursued under the guise of aiding law enforcement to combat child sexual exploitation. Critics argue that the law could force U.S.-based companies to reduce encryption capabilities as well as the security of messaging services [16,17]. The global implications of reduced encryption capabilities or forced “backdoors” into security services threaten  essential CE communications. Additionally, many partners could turn to communication applications that already have significant security implications, such as China-based WeChat. Enabling U.S.-based encryption and security technology to remain protected is just as essential outside of the U.S. as within it.


A CA digital communications strategy

The future of digital CE will not be straightforward, but there are measures that leadership can take to put digital CE on firm ground. First, DoD’s digital communications policies should reflect a more proactive stance. Engagement and cooperation with technology communication companies must also increase from its current level to take advantage of technological improvements. The DoD writ large must embrace the fact that civilian communications technology as more than just a means of information exploitation or threat. Establishing alternative DoD-centric communications systems is counter-productive; DoD policy should instead establish a pipeline for approving the use of emerging communication technologies. 

Secondly, CA professionals at the operational and tactical level should be given more leeway to perform the job. Individual and collective training in CA units should incorporate analysis and use of digital communications as part of CE. Combat Training Centers (CTCs) must also adapt. CTCs often discourage the use of cell phones or associated technology due to OPSEC, electromagnetic signatures, and similar security reasons with few exceptions [18]. Issuing CTC-only cell phones to CA personnel (or granting cell usage exemptions) and permitting email for CE is not enough. Integrating digital messaging services like WhatsApp into the scenario is not only realistic but essential preparation for real-world operations. CA units must be evaluated on their ability to tap into these digital networks as part of unit certification. 

Finally, CA professionals at the team and below level must be constantly learning and incorporating new digital communications platforms. CA missions that will include multiple deployments and regular rotation of CA personnel should implement structured CE communications that fit the operating environment. This could include generic-team email addresses, cell contact numbers, platform IDs, and other means at the country or below level to ensure maximum coverage. Supporting elements must ensure CA personnel are able to acquire technologies necessary to conduct CE with partners and the populace as needed. CA professionals already leverage many of these technologies to conduct digital communication, and CA units preparing to deploy should include training and familiarization on specific digital technologies as part of deployment preparations. 


It is inevitable that CA personnel will use open-source digital platforms at some point when conducting CE. Across the global digital landscape, there is a vast array of digital platforms already being used for CE; DoD must catch up. No two operating environments use digital means the exact same way. There is a great deal of work on the CA Corps and the Army’s part to adapt policy toward civilian communications platforms for CE, starting with loosening restrictions on usage, integrating the systems into training, and configuring digital platform usage at the lowest level. But ultimately the most important factor is that CA personnel must continue CE when and wherever possible, whether online or in person.

[1] Hendrick, Paul, Edward Lescher, and Matthew Peterson. 2020. “Digital Civil Reconnaissance.” Eunomia Journal, May.

[2,3] United States, Headquarters, Department of the Army. FM 3-57, Civil Affairs Operations. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, April 2019, p. 1-4.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Measuring Digital Development: Facts and Figures 2019.” 2019. International Telecommunications Union.

[6] “Measuring Digital Development: Facts and Figures 2019.” 2019. International Telecommunications Union.

[7] PMESII is short for Political, Military, Economic, Social, Information, and Infrastructure. These are “systems” or variables used by the United States military to describe an operational environment. Civil Affairs forces regularly utilize PMESII analysis during operations. See Joint Publication (JP) 3-0  for more information:

[8] United States, Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Joint Publication 3-0, Joint Operations. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, January 2017, p. IV-3.

[9] Salim, Mustafa, and Tamer El-Ghobashy. 2018. “In Iraq, the Best Digits Cost a Mint.” The Washington Post, February 13, 2018.

[10] Hempel, Jessi. 2018. “What Happened to Facebook’s Grand Plan to Wire the World?” Wired, May 17, 2018.

[11] Muncaster, Phil. 2019. “Facebook Disrupts Misinformation Campaigns in Ukraine and Iraq.” Infosecurity Magazine, September 19, 2019.

[12] Stewart, Emily. 2019. “Can Facebook Be Trusted to Combat Misinformation? Sri Lanka’s Shutdown Suggests No.” Vox, April 23, 2019.

[13] United States, Office of the Chief Information Officer of the Department of Defense. DoD Instruction 8170.01, Online Information Management and Electronic Messaging. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, January 2, 2019, p. 18.

[14] United States, Office of the Chief Information Officer of the Department of Defense. DoD Instruction 8170.01, Online Information Management and Electronic Messaging. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, January 2, 2019, p. 19.

[15] Feldstein, Steven. 2019. “The Global Expansion  of AI Surveillance.”The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September.

[16] Pfefferkorn, Riana. 2020. “The EARN IT Act Is a Disaster amid the COVID-19 Crisis.” The Brookings Institution, Tech Stream, May.

[17] Cope, Sophia, Aaron Mackey, and Andrew Crocker. 2020. “The EARN IT Act Violates the Constitution.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation, March 31, 2020.

[18] Roach, Michael. 2017. “Invisible War: ‘Dagger’ Brigade’s Electronic Warfare Soldiers Prove Concept at NTC.” The United States Army. June 20, 2017.

About the Author

Major Kevin Maguire is an Army Reserve Civil Affairs Officer currently serving as the Delta Company Commander, 404th Civil Affairs Battalion (Airborne). He previously served as an active duty Civil Affairs Officer in the 95th Civil Affairs Brigade as a Civil Affairs Team Leader and Civil-Military Operations Cell Chief, as well as the Brigade S9 for 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division (Light). Major Maguire is also a Master of Public Administration Candidate at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University.

The views expressed are the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.



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