Social media has had a lot of impacts on our society. One aspect of social media that society is still figuring out is at the intersection of individual freedom and their employer. The line gets blurry when you consider if the employee is part of the brand. If someone’s profile identifies them as working for Pepsi, does what they say online represent Pepsi? This is an important question when it comes to free speech. The Army has an extra complication in this environment.
Social media is a great thing for service members. It allows them to stay in touch with loved ones while deployed or at training. They can build and maintain large professional networks through social media. Finally, social media serves as a great recruiting tool. Last year’s starting quarterback posting about the amazing things they do in the military is far more powerful than any recruiting commercial. However, social media comes with significant challenges that are unique to the military.
Paramount among these challenges for the military is security. Fitness apps are a great social media tool that many service members use. In 2018 publicly available information about the run routes of service members exposed the location and layout of sensitive bases around the world (The Guardian, 2018). The Russians also discovered the geo-political effects of social media. Russia claimed to have no soldiers in Crimea. However, social media accounts linked to Russian soldiers were geolocated in Crimea. This was so embarrassing for Russia that their legislative body banded smartphones for soldiers (BBC, 2019). Another challenge unique to the military is concerning the chain of command.
A Soldier’s chain of command is the official channel for orders to come down, and Soldier issues to go up. However, the Soldier can use social media and skip their lower leaders and go straight to senior leaders. While there are some advantages of this process, there is one major disadvantage. This process cuts out the middle leaders. Senior leaders’ engagement of junior soldiers directly, sends the message that the immediate leaders are powerless. This may not be a big issue when sitting in a base in the U.S., but if this lack of power and trust shows up in training or the battlefield the outcomes are catastrophic.
The Army is trying to protect Soldiers’ freedom of speech, security, and the chain of command. They are constantly publishing, reviewing, and changing the policies for Soldiers’ online usage. My personal approach is to not do anything online. If a Soldier asks, my advice would be: do not do or say anything online that you would not do or say in uniform.
BBC. (20 February 2019). Russia bans smartphones for soldiers over social media fears. BBC. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-47302938)
The Guardian. (2018). Fitness tracking app Strava gives away location of secret US army bases. Guardian News & Media. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jan/28/fitness-tracking-app-gives-away-location-of-secret-us-army-bases