FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. – Since the beginning of the pandemic, social gatherings have become limited and/or restricted, and social media usage has increased exponentially. Popular public cyber-forums like Facebook and Twitter have become the go-to outlet for public interaction and frequent discourse about politics, the handling of COVID-19, and other hot-button topics.
It is important for military personnel to remember that when they’re logged on to a social media platform, they still represent their respective branch of service and must abide by the Uniform Code of Military Justice at all times, even when off-duty.
Commenting, posting and linking to material that violates the UCMJ or basic rules of military conduct is prohibited, along with talking negatively about supervisors or releasing sensitive information.
The Army encourages troops to practice a three-step process when engaging online. Military personnel should:
· Think about what message is being communicated and who could potentially view it.
· Type messages that are consistent with Army Values (Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity and Personal Courage.)
· Post if the message demonstrates dignity and respect for self and others.
The Army divides its official social media usage guidance into the categories – conduct, political and security – explained in the following paragraphs.
Online misconduct is a term that describes unacceptable or improper behavior through the use of technology.
The Army considers online misconduct as “the use of electronic communication to inflict harm. Examples include – but are not limited to – harassment, bullying, hazing, stalking, discrimination, retaliation or any other types of illegal activity that undermine dignity and respect.”
While there is no federal criminal statute called “online bullying,” misuse of online communications, sending harassing or intimidating communications and images, or other online misconduct may violate existing federal laws. Failure to adhere to the Army’s rules for online behavior is a punishable offense under the UCMJ.
The Army encourages members of its community to report incidents through their chain of command or family support services for resolution. Additional avenues for reporting and information include the Equal Opportunity office for military and civilians, the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program, the Inspector General and law enforcement offices.
The Army reminds Soldiers they are free to express their opinions of the political process online and offline, as long as they are consistent with the Army Values and expressed as an individual apart from the military.
Soldiers should keep in mind restrictions on participation in political activity and DOD support to political campaigns. When posting any political content, service members:
· Cannot participate in any interview or discussion as an advocate for or against a party, candidate or cause.
· Can generally express their personal views on public issues or political candidates via social media platforms much the same as they would be permitted to write a letter to the editor of a newspaper.
· Cannot participate in partisan political activity.
· Can “follow,” “friend” or “like” a political party or candidate running for partisan office.
· Cannot post links or comments to “share” or “retweet” from a Facebook page or Twitter account of a political party or candidate running for partisan office. Such activity is deemed to constitute participation in political activities.
· Cannot communicate contemptuous words against the president, vice president, secretaries of defense or any military branch, or governor and legislature of any state in which he or she is located or performing duty. It is particularly against federal law for commissioned officers to communicate in this manner.
Service members also should avoid commenting, posting or linking to material which violates the UCMJ. Examples of such conduct include showing contempt for public officials, releasing sensitive information or posting “unprofessional material that is prejudicial to good order and discipline under the UCMJ.”
The Army reminds Soldiers to keep operations security in mind whenever using or consuming social media. OPSEC is the process by which the DOD protects unclassified information that can be used against the country. Its purpose is to prevent potential adversaries from discovering critical information.
OPSEC experts urge Soldiers to disable “geotagging” features on their devices. Geotagging is the process of adding geographical identification to photographs, videos, websites and SMS messages. The Army equates it to adding a 10-digit grid coordinate to everything posted on the Internet. Some electronic devices, such as phones and cameras, automatically embed geotags into pictures.
Army officials remind Soldiers that when uploaded to the internet, the information is retrievable.
According to official guidance, even one Soldier exposing his or her location can affect the entire mission. The Army instructs deployed Soldiers and those conducting operations in classified areas not to use location-based social networking services.
In the arena of OPSEC, DOD officials offer a list of “do’s and don’ts for social media.” The “do’s” include the following:
· Talk to your family about OPSEC, so they know what can and cannot be posted.
· Turn off geotagging and location-based social networking on phones and digital cameras.
· Maximize your security settings on social platforms and include two-step verification, if available.
· Closely review photos or videos before posting to ensure sensitive or personal information is not released (e.g., troop locations, equipment, tactical unit details and numbers of personnel).
The “don’ts” include the following:
· Use copyrighted media.
· Post details about your assigned unit’s mission or security procedures.
· Announce locations and times of your unit deployments.
· Release information about the death of a service member before the next of kin is notified and the information is released by the DOD.
· Post images of damaged equipment and gear.
· Share large personnel transactions (e.g., pay information, power of attorney, wills, or deployment information).
· Post unit morale or personnel problems.
Community members are encouraged to review the Army Social Media Roundup presentation at www.slideshare.net/USArmySocialMedia/social-media-roundupgeotagging-safety, and Fort Lee’s social media policy at home.army.mil/lee/index.php/about/policies-and-regulations (Personal Conduct tab).