Use of social media comes with responsibilities
Actions online can have consequences offline
By Jason Kelly
Fort Meade Emerging Media Manager
That is the message from both military social media and legal subject matter experts for service members and civilians who use social media.
While the military permits service members to use social media, their participation is not without limitations.
"A service member must understand that when you're on social media platforms, you still represent the United States," said Staff Sgt. Dale Sweetnam, noncommissioned officer in charge for the Army's Online and Social Media Division, Office of the Chief of Public Affairs. "As a service member using social media, you should conduct yourself in a manner that is reflective of the values associated with military service."
Negative comments by service members about supervisors or the release of sensitive information online are punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, just as they are offline.
Gary Stein is an example of that reality. The U.S. Marine Corps discharged Stein, a sergeant with I Marine Expeditionary Force, with an "other than honorable discharge" in April after he posted critical content about President Barack Obama on Facebook.
"Your recourse is not to go to Facebook and post about it," said Capt. Lance Clark, Fort Meade's chief of Military Justice. "Your recourse is to go to [your] command and say, 'I'm unhappy with what this person did or something that I perceive to be wrong.' "
Before posting online, Clark recommends social media users ask themselves, "Would I be embarrassed if my mom read this ... or would I be concerned about getting in trouble if my first sergeant saw this, my sergeant major or my commander saw this?"
In recent weeks, both the Garrison Command Group and Fort Meade Public Affairs Office have received complaints from Fort Meade social media users regarding negative comments posted by other users.
The comments were not posted on any of Fort Meade's official social media sites and, therefore, not subject to the installation's user agreements. The comments were reportedly posted within private Facebook groups, which are not operated by the garrison.
The following are Fort Meade's official Facebook pages: PAO (facebook.com/ftmeade), the Directorate of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation (facebook.com/ftmeademwr), Fort Meade Police (facebook.com/fggmpd), Fort Meade Fire Prevention Office (facebook.com/prevention45), Fort Meade Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers (Facebook.com/ftmeadeboss), and Fort Meade Survivor Outreach Services (http://ow.ly/btTq4).
The Fort Meade Public Affairs Office routinely monitors the installation's social media websites and, if necessary, removes content that violates social media user agreements (facebook.com/ftmeade/info), said Philip H. Jones, chief of Command Information.
Page administrators also attempt to contact a user to explain why his or her post was removed. However, it is not always possible to do so, Jones said, because of privacy settings that limit who may send private messages.
Repeat offenders can be banned from posting on a Fort Meade page based on the violation such as "comments that are abusive, hateful or intended to defame anyone or any organization," according to the user agreement.
Defamatory comments "are assertions of untrue facts that put [someone] in a bad light," said Clark, who used the example of stating that someone is a thief "because you're asserting that they actually stole things."
While civilians are not subject to the UCMJ, they still can be held accountable.
Furthermore, a service member can potentially face "collateral consequences" for a family member's actions, said Clark. For example, service members have been barred from residing on post because they could not control their children who violated post policies.
Like most social networking sites, Facebook's community standards prohibit certain content and actions including violence and threats, indications of self-harm, bullying, harassment and hate speech.
Facebook recommends its 901 million, monthly active users send a message to the person responsible for abusive content, unfriend or block the person, and use privacy settings. Users on Facebook can report suspected violations, including content they cannot see, by visiting facebook.com/help/tools.
"The important thing to remember is that there is a right way to use social media and a wrong way," Sweetnam said.
The military offers several resources to promote social media awareness. The Army posts social media presentations and the latest edition of its Social Media Handbook at slideshare.net/usarmysocialmedia.
The Fort Meade Public Affairs Office also offers social media awareness training for units, family readiness groups and other Fort Meade organizations.
Editor's note: For more information or to request training, contact Jason Kelly, Fort Meade Emerging Media manager, at 301-677-1109 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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