Soldiers who use social media must abide by the terms outlined in the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
“Commenting, posting or linking to material that violates the UCMJ or basic rules of Soldier conduct is prohibited,” said Staff Sgt. Dale Sweetnam of the Online and Social Media Division, Office of the Chief of Public Affairs. “Talking negatively about supervisors or releasing sensitive information is punishable under the UCMJ. It’s never appropriate to be disrespectful of superior officers or NCOs (noncommissioned officers), no matter if you’re in the company area or posting to Facebook at your desk at home.”
Five articles in the UCMJ deal specifically different aspects of inappropriate behavior in public. They are Articles 88, 89, 91, 133 and 134.
“It is important that all Soldiers know that once they log on to a social media platform, they still represent the Army,” Sweetnam said. “The best way to think about it is, if you wouldn’t say it in formation or to your leader’s face, don’t say it online.”
The specified articles cover contempt toward officials, disrespect toward superiors, insubordinate conduct toward superiors and conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman. Examples of this last include posting an obscene photo or linking to inappropriate material. Article 134 is a general article covering offenses such as disloyal statements and anything to the prejudice of good order.
“Probably the most common example of an inappropriate post is a Soldier talking negatively about a superior,” Sweetnam said. “Some Soldiers think that once they go home and put on civilian clothes they are free to vent on social media platforms. That’s just not the case. You don’t stop being a Soldier at the end of the duty day.”
But it’s not only about being respectful. Operational security is another consideration.
“Soldiers using social media need to know that the enemy is watching,” Sweetnam said. “Releasing sensitive information on social media platforms can put Soldiers and their families in harm’s way. You have to be careful. Acting disrespectful and damaging the reputation of the Army on Facebook is no different than acting inappropriately in the local shopping mall. Soldiers are expected to conduct themselves appropriately no matter where they are, including social media platforms.”
Determining how to punish or reprimand Soldiers for social media misuse is up to command leadership, he said.
“Every case is handled on an individual basis,” said Fort Benning’s Capt. Steve Szymanski, Senior Trial Counsel with the Criminal Law Division of the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate. “If a Soldier has committed a violation under the UCMJ, the punishment can range anywhere from a letter of reprimand to an Article 15 and up to a court-martial, depending on the severity of the violation.”
Social media has some unique aspects as compared with traditional interpersonal relations.
Though it may be more difficult for the command to monitor something posted on a website than something stated in the unit’s area of operations, Szymanski said, the effect of posting in the digital world can be far-reaching.
“Just because you delete it, doesn’t mean 1,000 people haven’t already seen it,” he said.
Szymanski suggested that Soldiers should pause and ask themselves three questions before posting something of a dubious nature.
“Would this be perceived by my commander and or the general public as something a Soldier should or should not do?”
“Does it comport with the Army Values?”
“Would it be of a nature to bring discredit upon myself, my unit or the Army?”
Soldiers are still free to express themselves through social media based on their First Amendment rights, Szymanski said. However, Soldiers should be aware that they are subject to the UCMJ at all times, and that ill-advised postings that violate the code can result in legal action.
“We are expected to be Soldiers 24/7, whether it is in formation, in the bars and restaurants off post, or on Twitter and Facebook,” he said. “We are expected to be Soldiers and we are held to the standards, without compromise. The bottom line is that Soldiers should be careful about what they post online because once it’s out there, it’s out there.”