Military Guidance on Politics, Facebook Muddied by Commentary

Update: Based on new information, some conclusions in this article have been updated here.

Every now and then members of the military post official articles that might best be understood as “public service announcements” for their fellow troops.  They often cover high interest issues (like politics, social media, and religion, see below) or regulations that are the topic du jour.  Unfortunately, because these articles carry no weight (unless they are written by a senior Air Force leader issuing official guidance), they can often add confusion to the issue they mean to clarify — especially if they’re wrong. 

For example, a Public Affairs troop recently wrote “Rock the vote, but beware of guidelines,” which was a combination of encouraging voting while cautioning on the restrictions on political activity: 

As political campaigns heat up across the U.S., Airmen, family members and Department of Defense civilians are encouraged to be a part of the political process…

[However,] service members are prohibited from using their position or status as a member of the armed forces to endorse a political candidate. This includes participation in partisan activities in uniform or in any way representing the Air Force.

That is clear enough, and clearly repeats explicit Department of Defense instructions.  But then the article dips into vague and subjective “analysis:”

In the social media age, it can be easy to accidentally violate regulations that prevent federal employees from distributing literature or soliciting support for a candidate. Simply suggesting that someone “like” a candidate’s Facebook page could lead to disciplinary action if the initiator can easily be identified as an active-duty member, officials said.

Who are the “officials” quoted?  The article doesn’t say, nor does any military regulation say anything about soliciting Facebook “likes” even for a political candidate (which explains why the article doesn’t cite such a regulation).  (Incidentally, this issue isn’t new.)  While it is theoretically possible, it would be highly situation-dependent (and very unlikely, because it would require a military leader to conclude that a Facebook “like” constituted political activity).  Thus, by publishing (controversial) speculation unsupported by actual policies, the article undermines its own purpose and confuses the very issue it seemingly intended to clarify.

Likewise, another Public Affairs office wrote “Be careful what you post; it could hurt your career,” apparently trying to caution members of the military in what they might say on social media:

There are now strict policies in place to regulate social media and whatever is posted online can land service members in deep trouble…

This sentence is the perfect lead-in to a citation of these “strict policies” that are “now…in place.”  Unfortunately, the article never cites any policies — probably because, as noted here a few times, there aren’t any ‘strict policies,’ though some services have social media “guidelines.”  The article does, however, give a few vague, unclear examples of violating…something:

An example occurred last year when a staff sergeant assigned to the 62nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron received an Article 15, got a stripe taken away, had to pay $500, and received a reprimand for posting inappropriate comments on Facebook.

Sure, posting “inappropriate comments” is probably a bad thing — but anybody who’s been on Facebook knows the definition of “inappropriate” is quite subjective — and the article provides no specifics or official guidance from which to learn, since no military regulation specifically governs Facebook.  That turns the example into gossip, not education.

Another example that appeared on national media was Marine sergeant who affiliated himself with the tea-party and criticized President Barack Obama on his private Facebook page. His security clearance was suspended and he now faces an other-than-honorable discharge.

That’s interesting, because the Marines already pulled their own PSA referencing this issue because the incident in question is still under appeal — meaning drawing conclusions from it is premature.

Finally, the article’s coup de grace [emphasis added]:

It’s important to remember that we all raised our right hand and recited an oath, where we said we will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over us. Therefore, there are certain comments we shouldn’t announce publicly.

There are also limitations when it comes to political, religious and ideological views.

First, that’s the enlisted oath.  Officers do not swear/affirm anything to the President — only the Constitution.  Second, just like “inappropriate comments,” “certain comments” is insufficiently specific to be actionable — meaning the article is little more than water cooler talk.

Third, despite the broad assertion, the article never explains what “limitations” there are on “religious and ideological views” in the US military.  Like the prior article, that’s because there may be some “limitations,” but they are extremely situation dependent.  That’s why, apart from policies on hate groups, there are no specific military regulations that address “limitations” on “religious and ideological views.”  It is irresponsible to leave military members with the impression they are limited in their religious views as clearly as they are, for example, their political activities — about which there are dedicated military regulations.

Some of these topics are very vague or confusing to military members — as evidenced by those who have been “caught up” in them, potentially unwittingly. Even congressmen and the US Marines have called for military regulations to be updated to “catch up” to the social media age.  (That update will likely be difficult — who wants to be the one who writes the chapter on what is, or is not, punishable by military members on Facebook?)  Well-intentioned but ill-informed official military articles — which have apparently not been reviewed by line commanders or JAGs — don’t alleviate that confusion, they add to it.  This includes misleading civilians to think troops are “limited” in their “religious views,” for example.  If there’s any doubt as to the confusion some of these articles sow, read the comments submitted on the official site.

Of course, leadership by internet commentary probably isn’t an approved command tool anyway.  It would just be helpful if there was a stronger filter on articles that appear to be statements of official policy — when, upon closer examination, they clearly cannot be.

Update: Based on new information, some conclusions in this article have been updated here.