By Brett Gillin
The proliferation of social media has done a lot more than allow people to share pictures of their lunches, cute cat videos, and random viral charity causes. When it comes to the men and women in the armed forces, it is often the only way they are able to stay in touch with friends and family back home. But there is a much darker side of social media and “over sharing,” especially when it comes to those who’ve sworn to protect our freedoms. Namely, anything they do can be posted and interpreted on social media. This is not only becoming a public relations problem with the armed forces, it’s actually becoming a weapon that enemies of the United States are using to rally supporters against America.
It’s irresponsible to come out completely against the use of social media by the men and women in the armed forces. During a recent smatterings of scandals that the medium has produced, the idea of banning the use of Facebook by soldiers was proposed, adopted, and then reversed a few weeks before the ban could go into effect. As NBC News pointed out in this article, military leaders know that along with the fact that social media keeps soldiers in touch with friends and family, these mediums also allow commanding officers to interact with troops, getting suggestions and getting a feel for what they’re thinking.
Even aside from the peer to peer interactions of social media, places like Twitter and Facebook can help raise public perception of the military. Take, for example, when viral videos of soldiers doing the Harlem Shake, participating in the Ice Bucket Challenge, or randomly helping children in the countries they’re deployed in hit the web. These types of videos help not only “humanize” the troops, but they serve as a reminder that they’re our mothers and fathers, our brothers and sisters, and they can be silly just like us.
It’s when that silliness crosses the line into stupidity, ignorance, or even hatred that social media becomes a bad thing for our soldiers, and a possible weapon for our enemies. Take, for example, the video that surfaced on Twitter, YouTube and other sites back in 2012 showing U.S. Marines urinating on what appears to be dead Taliban soldiers. Social media enabled this video to spread instantly throughout the world, and sparked an unbelievable level of outrage across the world.
These types of posts don’t even need to be so extreme to leave a poor impression of the United States soldier. Over the last few years, posts ranging from a group of soldiers posing around an empty, flag-draped coffin with a “Put the FUN back in funeral” caption, to a soldier taking a selfie in her car claiming she wanted to get out of a flag salute, surface and shed a negative light on the armed forces. They’ve become so prevalent that there is a Facebook page dedicated to pointing out these types of photos, along with posts with racial or cultural insensitivities. There is rarely a shortage of these types of posts.
In fact, as Stripes points out in this article, the reason the Facebook page, called Military Social Media Idiots, was started is not to simply shame military members who post inappropriate things on social media. Their stated mission is “to expose servicemembers who post these kinds of images and comments so that the offenders will get punished and others will be deterred from such activity.” The administrator of the page told Stripes “I’m going to put a stop to this one way or another.”
However, as this article in NBC News points out, “99% of servicemen and women wear the uniform proudly, but it only takes a few idiots to screw up public perception of the services. In the time of increasing budget cuts, and the fact that thousands of American troops are still fighting and dying… we have been our own worst enemy.”
When these types of posts go viral, they are quickly used as recruiting tools against the U.S. armed forces. It’s easy for enemies of the United States to show a video of U.S. soldiers urinating on people, spewing racist and insensitive things about cultures of people, or disrespecting their religions. Those posts then become “proof” that the propaganda is true: that the U.S. is looking to wipe out Islam or Afghanistan, or whatever point the enemies of the United States are trying to make to their audience.
As the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium points out in this article, terrorist groups throughout the world are now using social media as their number one recruitment tool. The New York Daily News speaks about how ISIS has all but mastered social media, and is using it to evolve their recruiting worldwide.
As of today, most of these poorly-thought-out social media posts are met with “slap on the wrist” type discipline from the Armed Forces. For instance the soldiers posing around the coffin only got a suspension for their actions. The soldiers identified in the urination video received “non-judicial administrative punishments which among other things can include a reprimand, reductions in rank, forfeiting pay, extra duties or being restricted to a military base.”
Social media is not going away, and it seems like the military is going to continue allowing the men and women in service to post. The hope must be that the 99% of the soldiers doing themselves and the country proud can influence the minority that posts inflammatory, derogatory, and incendiary things that not only hurt the public image of the armed forces, but serve as fuel for the hatred of America.