FORT LEE, Va. (June 4, 2015) -- The strength of social media also is its greatest detriment, according to public affairs and force protection experts here who look out for the well-being of the Army Family.
“There is no filter between the user and visitor,” a spokesperson from the Directorate of Plans, Training, Mobilization and Security noted. “That is why sites like Facebook are so popular … they offer unfettered communication and the ability to openly share photos, videos and other media. However, that’s the downside as well. A lot of things being posted have the potential of putting individuals or those associated with them in danger or in trouble with their employer.”
“Many individuals in the military community view social media as an extension of their freedom of speech,” added a representative from PAO. “They overlook the fact it’s subject to Department of Defense standards of conduct guidelines and unauthorized practices outlined in the Uniformed Code of Military Justice. Unfortunately, that has resulted in some embarrassing incidents over the last few years for service members and the Army itself.”
A Web search using the words “Soldiers receive threats through social media” or “social media hurts career” provides plenty of evidence to back those observations. A couple of recent news articles titled “Social media misuse punishable under UCMJ” (www.army.mil/article/73367/Social_media_misuse_punishable_under_UCMJ/) and “Military addresses double-edged sword of troops on social media” (www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2012/05/21/153003267/military-addresses-double-edged-sword-of-troops-on-social-media) also offer valuable insights about the issue.
With the perils of social media in mind, the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate and DPTMS asked the Traveller to publish some of the key standards of conduct guidelines for information sharing sites. The points cited in this article are from an April 2015 information paper authored by the OSJA and several fact sheets provided by the post force protection division. The quoted comments are from the “social media misuse” article referenced in the last paragraph.
Five articles in the UCMJ deal specifically with inappropriate behavior in public. They are Articles 88, 89, 91, 133 and 134. They cover contempt toward officials, disrespect toward superiors, insubordinate conduct toward superiors and conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman (in the case of social media it would be something along the lines of posting an obscene photo or linking to inappropriate material). Article 134 covers offenses such as disloyal statements and anything prejudicial to the good order and discipline of the service.
“Probably the most common example of an inappropriate post is a service member talking negatively about a superior,” said a representative of the Online and Social Media Division, Office of the Chief of Public Affairs, in the 2012 Army News article. “Some Soldiers think once they go home and put on civilian clothes they are free to vent on social media platforms. That’s just not the case. You don’t stop being a Soldier at the end of the duty day.”
It is important for all military members to know that even when they log on to a personal social media platform, they still represent their respective service and there’s a fine line between simply offering comment and coming across as retaliatory, ethnically insensitive or an extremist.
“The best way to think about it is, if you wouldn’t say it in formation or to your leader’s face, don’t say it online,” said the SMD representative.
“Consider also how the post is going to be interpreted by the general public,” he continued. “Is it something a Soldier should not say or do? Does it comport with the Army values? Would it be of a nature to bring ‘discredit upon myself, my unit or the Army?’ Is it worth that risk?”
Behaving disrespectfully and damaging the reputation of the U.S. military on Facebook or YouTube is no different than acting inappropriately in the local shopping mall, the Army official noted. Service members are expected to conduct themselves appropriately no matter where they are, including social media platforms. “The bottom line is anyone connected with government service should be careful about what they post online because once it’s out there, it’s out there.”
Operational security is another important consideration.
“(Every government employee) using social media needs to remember the enemy is watching and collecting bits of data,” the DPTMS spokesperson said. “Releasing sensitive information on social media platforms can put service members and their families in harm’s way. You have to be careful.”
Recent threat advisories from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Army Criminal Investigation Division and others in the homeland security business include warnings about “homegrown violent extremists” using personal forums like Facebook and Twitter to incite fear with threats of violence.
“Army CID encourages social media users to regularly check security settings in order to minimize unwanted access, and to avoid posts (on personal sites) that reveal the individual’s affiliation with the military,” said the DPTMS representative. “Emphasizing these safeguards among the lower ranks is particularly important because they don’t appear to be getting the message based on the Facebook and YouTube posts we frequently see today. Leaders need to stress how important this is for the protection of our Army Family.”
Other safeguards include the following:
• Never post home or unit address information, phone numbers, email addresses or vehicle identification data. Screen photos for street signs and house numbers.
• Only post vacation/trip photos after returning home.
• Be wary of friend requests from strangers and those claiming to be “acquaintances from long ago.”
• Do not use “geo-tagging” apps that help adversaries pinpoint the location of the social media or cellphone user.
“Don’t forget to share these tips with your family, friends and neighbors,” the DPTMS representative said. “Youths in particular don’t have a good feel for what should and shouldn’t be posted online. That’s why it’s important to regularly monitor their social media activity to make sure it’s not divulging anything that would put them or other members of your family in danger.”
Government-affiliated social media users also should be wary of actions that might implicate Army endorsement of a commercial product or a controversial issue.
Use of information sharing sites during work hours is another area of concern noted in the OSJA information paper, which advises all government employees to “make an honest effort” to restrict social media activity to the scope of their regular duties.
Those requiring clarification of social media standards of conduct can contact an OSJA ethics counselor at (804) 734-1533. The Army Social Media Handbook (www.lee.army.mil/pao/public.affairs.office.aspx, click on “social media” tab) offers valuable information as well, particularly for page developers and first-time users.