Facebook Effect: Corporal May Face Sanction over Ron Paul Rally

Update: US Rep Mike Hoffman (R-CO) has said troops need to be reminded of the rules involving political participation.  As noted below, there were already some official military articles on the subject.

US Army Corporal Jesse Thorsen made a name for himself Tuesday night, for better or worse.  He appeared on CNN and onstage endorsing the political candidacy of Ron Paul while he was wearing his Army fatigues.

Unlike the mystical machinations of Chris Rodda, in which she says military officers violate regulations when they express their faith on the internet, there is actually an explicit Department of Defense Directive on this type of conduct (barring an unknown mitigating factor on the Corporal’s part).  From DoDD 1344.10 (Political Activities by Members of the Armed Forces, found here), an active duty military member “shall not” 

participate in partisan political…rallies, conventions (including making speeches in the course thereof),…without respect to uniform or inference or appearance of official sponsorship, approval, or endorsement. Participation includes more than mere attendance as a spectator.

This was even the topic of a recent article on official AF.mil

Though Paul supporters have generally disagreed, this has nothing to do with Thorsen’s beliefs — theological, ideological, or political.  It is merely about his actions and the restrictions of military regulations.  Based on his interview and actions on stage, Thorsen was clearly more than a spectator (YouTube video).  He appears to be an activated reservist, and he has reportedly worn his uniform to prior Paul events, though it seems this was the first one on national TV.  Apparently, he was even used to bolster Paul’s credentials:

at a post-caucus rally, Paul identified Thorsen as a 10-year soldier who “has been with us in our campaign for a few years,” and invited Thorsen on stage to tell the crowd why he supports Paul’s foreign policy plans.

There is room for discussion when the rules are not as explicit as some might imply.  For example, the DoDD also says US servicemembers cannot

publish[] partisan political articles, letters, or endorsements signed or written by the member that solicit[] votes for or against a partisan political party, candidate, or cause.

To most, that may seem reasonable, until you think about that one dreaded word:  Facebook.  What should happen if a member of the military writes a Facebook status or post about a political candidate or cause?  What if their profile picture was of them in uniform, and their employer was clearly the US military?

What if they “friend” a political candidate’s page or political action committee?

In many places, US military regulations and policies have not cleanly caught up to the social media age.  With a few exceptions, most people who claim some military experience have agreed Thorsen was likely in violation of military regulations, though an investigation might reveal some as-yet unknown mitigating factor.

On the other hand, those same people would likely not think twice about a Soldier’s post about a political candidate, even though the same regulation arguably restricts it.  Part of the reason is the issue of political sensitivity is taught (if imperfectly) even as early as some basic training programs.  There are no equivalent military training programs about Facebook (or Twitter, or Google+, etc).

At the same time, some would argue social media is encouraging increased participation in events like these political events.

The military will likely face issues of the Facebook effect in the future.  While the US military has largely encouraged its troops to engage in social media (even opening up official systems to allow their use), the possibility of sweeping restrictions over public controversies is not unrealistic in the face of a public scandal.

As has been said here many times before, the US military has rules, and they need to be followed.  That isn’t to say one cannot attempt to change rules viewed as in error — but simply ignoring them (or not knowing what they are) is not acceptable.

Know what is required of you, and live a life above reproach.