US Military Tries to Wrap Arms Around Social Media

A series of locally produced public affairs articles by the DoD have tried to encourage troops to use ‘better judgment’ when it comes to social media — following a spate of ‘scandals’ in which US troops have brought less than positive attention to the military. One was an old photo of an Airman ‘kissing’ a POW/MIA painting; another, an Airman who flaunted avoiding saluting during retreat. Others have included irreverent photos of training for Honor Guard details — which included the sensitive images of flag-draped caskets.

The articles have taken the same general, and generally unhelpful, tone: ‘Please be careful’ — but offering little else in terms of specific guidance. In fact, the authors — generally young military Public Affairs officers — often venture into the untenable. Quoting a local Med Group First Sergeant, one said:

Before posting something, think, ‘Would my base commander approve of this post if it made it onto [a television channel]?’

The brackets probably originally said “CNN,” as a First Sergeant would probably be old enough to remember what used to be called the “CNN test” (in earlier generations, it was the NYT or Washington Post test).  While that might be a worthy test for conduct of a questionable character, recent events have shown us nothing if not that honorable character, too, can “fail” such a test simply because of publicity, perception, and changing social mores.

Later, in a list of “what not to post”, the same PA officer wrote [emphasis added]:

– Gossip and anything that may be considered offensive
– Any information that would infringe upon the personal rights of others
– Anything that would discredit the Armed Forces

Is the military really going to go after its troops for “gossiping” on social media?

Similarly, what might be considered “offensive” or “discrediting” could be subjective. Is the military really prepared to field thousands of complaints about service members using profanity in Facebook updates?  Who will get the job of watching pages like Maintainer Humor — 39,000+ “likes” and a recent feature on the Air Force Times — which contain typical military (sometimes arguably offensive) humor?

For the second bullet, its unclear how social media could “infringe upon a personal right” of anyone, outside of posting otherwise private information.

Referencing AFI 1-1, another Air Force PA rep said

Every Airman should be acutely aware of this AFI and its contents. When everything is laid out in front of you, there are no excuses about not knowing what you can and cannot do on social media.

It’s unclear to what specifics she is referring, since AFI 1-1 broadly says Airman are responsible for what they say and write, and they should not do anything offensive. Importantly, anyone can consider anything offensive — so that’s hardly guidance on “what you can and cannot do.”

Contrary to the PA officer’s dismissive “no excuses”, it’s not that easy. What if an Airman writes “Jesus is the only way to heaven” on Facebook or a website? Someone might find that “offensive” — and, indeed, it is offensive to religions who believe otherwise.

Does that make it actionable in the military?  Are Airmen categorically prohibited from expressing their religious views?

What if a cadet writes a Bible verse on a whiteboard?

Ultimately, the PA officers missed the root cause of the recent “scandals” involving “social media.”  It wasn’t the medium — social media — it was the conduct.  The “offense” wasn’t over a picture; it was on the perceived inappropriate conduct the picture documented.

In other words, the military doesn’t need PA officers telling Airmen not to document their inappropriate behavior.  Better would be leaders telling Airmen not to behave inappropriately to begin with (something about which senior leaders are even now taking intentional steps).

It’s not about social media.  It’s about character.

Clearly, there is more to the nexus of “social media” and US military troops than simply avoiding offense. A moral character is to be expected, to be sure. But moral character can include the exercise of human liberties and rights protected under the US Constitution — at least, until the military creates rules explicitly limiting those liberties, as it possibly can but has yet to do.

In the meantime, surely military regulations are based upon standards, not the whims of others…