US Army Formally Defines “Online Misconduct”

In its continuing effort to deal with the ubiquitous presence of social media, the US Army recently published an ALARACT (All Army Activities) message (PDF) defining what constitutes actionable “misconduct”:

Online misconduct, it says, is “the use of electronic communication to inflict harm. Examples include, but are not limited to: harassment, bullying, hazing, stalking, discrimination, retaliation, or any other types of misconduct that undermine dignity and respect.”

The Army’s efforts are admirable, but it remains to be seen whether the changes can be fairly implemented without the appearance of selective enforcement — or how the new efforts to “monitor” social media will be viewed among privacy and liberty advocates. Notably, the Army aimed its sights not at just those who misbehave online, but also those who don’t misbehave but somehow “condone” such action [emphasis added]: 

Soldiers or civilian employees who participate in or condone misconduct, whether offline or online, may be subject to criminal, disciplinary, and/or administrative action.

All of the services have already held that troops are responsible for their online conduct. The problem comes in the military knowing about that conduct. Because it is virtually impossible for the military to know about every service member’s online posts, the regulation is essentially only enforced by complaints, meaning the regulation is less a tool for maintaining military professionalism and more a weapon for those who want to get troops in trouble.

For example, someone could complain to the miltary about a Soldier’s use of profanity toward them on Facebook. Given these rules, the complaint would potentially generate an investigation and, at a minimum, “feedback” if not official sanction. It is likely, however, the Soldier could provide examples of hundreds of other troops who posted similarly who were not punished. While the failure to punish others does not absolve an accused, it could raise valid concerns about fairness and justice in system that prides itself on equity and meritocracy.

Social media monitoring has also already raised concerns of viewpoint discrimination by the military. For example, troops have been sanctioned for statements in opposition to the acceptance of homosexuality simply because of their viewpoint, as evidenced by the fact those who have posted statements in support of the acceptance of homosexuality have not been sanctioned.  (Or the case of Joey Vicente, a US Army Soldier who defended transgenderism using offensive language.)

For reasons of military necessity, the DoD obviously needs to protect “good order and discipline.” But it simlarly acknowledges the rights of troops to have beliefs and opinions, as well as the right to express those opinions — even if, in some cases, they may be offensive to others. (The military prides itself in diversity, remember.) Also, contrary to popular belief, Soldiers don’t behave the same when they’re off-duty as they do when they’re on-duty — despite assertions by some that troops are “on duty” 24/7. By focusing on social media, the military is going after the medium, rather than the message or the behavior itself — a point made almost every time the military goes after social media.

While the update to regulations is likely aimed at very specific behavior (ie, the growing concern about “online bullying”), expanding the Army’s oversight of its troops could have consequences that haven’t been fully thought out.