New Rules: US Troops Banned from Political Facebook Pages

If you’re a member of the US military and you’ve ever Facebook “Liked” President Barack Obama or Governor Mitt Romney, you’d better pay attention, because the Department of Defense just issued guidance that restricts that very thing.

Contrary to the conclusions of a prior article, the US DoD has just recently published official guidance on “political activities” in association with social media, and they’re fairly explicit.  The undated but very recently released “2012 Public Affairs Guidance for Political Campaigns and Elections” says:

  • You can express yourself on issues and candidates:

An [active duty] Service member may generally express his or her own personal views on public issues or political candidates via social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, or personal Blogs, much the same as they would be permitted to write a letter to the editor of a newspaper.

  • But, if you are “reasonably identifiable” as a member of the military, a disclaimer is required:

If a social media site/post identifies the member as on [active duty] (or if the member is otherwise reasonably identifiable as an [active duty] member), then the entry will clearly and prominently state that the views expressed are those of the individual only and not those of the Department of Defense.

In other words, if your Facebook page says “Works at US Army,” or your profile picture or other indicators make it a “reasonable” assumption you’re in the military, and you choose to comment on “public issues or political candidates,” you are required to have a disclaimer on your page.  Ever commented on a “public issue?”  Have a disclaimer?  You need one now.

  • Linking to a politically partisan website is expressly prohibited:

an [active duty] member may not post or make direct links to a political party, partisan political candidate, campaign, group, or cause…

This is apparently because it is the digital version of campaigning, which is prohibited “in real life:”

such activity is the equivalent of distributing literature on behalf of those entities or individuals, which is prohibited…

  • You are prohibited from commenting on political social media pages:

an [active duty] member may not post or comment on the Facebook pages or “tweet” at the Twitter accounts of a political party, partisan political candidate, campaign, group, or cause, as such activity would be engaging in partisan political activity through a medium sponsored or controlled by said entities.

So if you’ve ever commented on the President’s Facebook page, or Romney’s campaign page, the RNC or DNC, or any similar site, you may not be retroactively hunted down, but you’re explicitly banned from the same activity in the future.

Still, if you really want to,

  • You can “Like” political social media sites, so long as you don’t do anything else associated with those groups, including commenting or inviting others to “Like” it too:

An [active duty] member may become a “friend” of, or “like,” the Facebook page, or “follow” the Twitter account of a political party or partisan candidate, campaign, group, or cause. However, [active duty] members will refrain from engaging in activities with respect to those entities’ social media accounts that would constitute political activity.  This would include…suggesting that others “like,” “friend,” or “follow” the political party, partisan political candidate, campaign, group, or cause, or forwarding an invitation or solicitation from said entities to others.

Unfortunately, despite a valiant and largely successful effort to put forth clear and complete guidance, there’s still a little room for misunderstanding.  The restriction’s focus is on political parties and candidates; it makes no mention of sitting elected officials. It would seem that linking to official .gov sites for elected positions (like sitting members of the House or is permissible, particularly since those sites are not used for campaigning. On the other hand, they can still be politically partisan. So can you link to them or not…?

It may sound mundane until you realize how many people post things like “look what my Congressman is doing…” or even “President Obama said…” — both in positive and negative ways.

In another example, can you comment on the NRA’s page, or any other officially “non-partisan” group?  What if the non-partisan group takes a political position?

Also, the guidance can be somewhat mutually exclusive. You can express your opinion about a political candidate — but you can’t link to his website upon which you base your opinion, as is common in internet discussions, regardless of its relation to your position (whether you support or oppose it). (It is unlikely that a criticism of a candidate could be equated with “distributing literature on behalf” of the linked entities.) The latter prohibition seems a bit overly broad, but that breadth may be intentional.

It’s also worth noting these restrictions are independent of any privacy setting or similar restricted viewing.  Simply having the social media site is enough for the restrictions to apply.  (While Facebook and Twitter are used as common examples, the rules apply to any similar social media site.)

While this “Public Affairs Guidance” is apparently brand new and doesn’t take the usual form of a DoD Policy, it is the most explicit required guidance to date on how members of the military are to handle themselves on social media, at least with respect to politics.  (This stands in contrast to the “handbooks” previously noted that made suggestions about conduct on social media.)

Unlike the prior Air Force article, an Army article two days later entitled “You posted what on Facebook?” included citations to support the statements about restrictions on political activity.  (Of note, there is still no citation to support the prior article’s assertions of “limitations” on religious views.)  The earliest date for this new guidance seems to be connected to a June 19th memo from the Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.  Given the similar timing of the two Public Affairs articles from different services, it seems likely the lower level release of the guidance was very recent.