The Pentagon Released Its First Ever Social Media Policy. Here's What You Need to Know

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It is important for military personnel to remember that when they’re logged on to a social media platform, they still represent their respective branch of service and must abide by the Uniform Code of Military Justice at all times, even when off duty.
It is important for military personnel to remember that when they’re logged on to a social media platform, they still represent their respective branch of service and must abide by the Uniform Code of Military Justice at all times, even when off duty. (Patrick Buffett/U.S. Army photo)

The Pentagon released its first ever force-wide social media policy on Monday evening, intending to make clear what online conduct is allowed for service members and Department of Defense employees. 

The 27-page policy covers both official and personal social media use.

Written with public affairs offices in mind, the policy lays out guidelines for service members with responsibility for official social media accounts, including what type of accounts are authorized to represent the Defense Department and risks associated with using one.

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The memorandum's final section also has instructions for DoD employees on personal social media use -- a contentious topic for the Pentagon, which has been hesitant to encroach on service members' First Amendment right to free speech, but has nonetheless felt pressure to establish guardrails for employees who have used their social platforms in ways that may misrepresent or embarrass the Defense Department.

And while the individual services already have standing policies in place for online conduct, the new memorandum isn't a definitive set of rules for service members on what they can and cannot do on social media.

"We don't want to be overly prescriptive on how people use social media," Andy Oare, director of digital media for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, told Military.com in an interview. "We want them to use it, but we want to just put in place some common sense principles for how to represent yourself correctly and how to represent the department."

Military.com spoke with Oare over the phone about the policy and some of the questions service members may have about how it could affect their personal social media use. Oare said that, while the policy is meant to address the current media landscape, it is a first step in tackling some of the larger questions revolving around social media use in the DoD.

"What we can't let happen is another five years or 10 years pass before iterating on this because it is such an evolving space that we're going to need to stay active in making sure that it is up to date with the times," Oare said. "It's my hope that the department builds on this and identifies areas where there needs to be more clarification."

Some parts of the policy haven't been settled yet. For example, some service members who use platforms like TikTok or YouTube while in uniform may receive monetary compensation just for the number of views they receive on a video. While Oare did not have a yes or no answer on whether service members were allowed to receive this non-sponsored compensation, he did note that the Pentagon is working through questions like these.

There has also been online debate about including rank in personal social media, but the Pentagon did not answer Military.com's inquiry about the practice. 

Andrew Frazzano, a Pentagon public affairs policy specialist, told Military.com over email that the DoD's social media policy is based on legal memorandums already in place and recommended that service members seek guidance from their local legal office if there is concern they may encounter an ethical issue regarding social media.

One prominent ethical issue service members encounter on social media is political content. The military has generally instructed troops to avoid overtly political actions while in uniform, but that has not stopped service members from being vocal on social media -- or media in general -- and getting in trouble for criticizing officials in their chain of command. Former Marine officer Stuart Scheller criticized the Biden administration's withdrawal from Afghanistan on social media and was court-martialed for his refusal to cease posting new critical videos.

While the policy about how troops handle their personal criticisms has not changed, the new social media policy offers stipulations on official accounts -- called external official presences or EOPs -- stating that "engaging in political activity on official DoD social media and EOP platforms is prohibited." The policy adds that service members "may not engage in political activity, on their personal social media, while in the Federal workplace or while on-duty including while teleworking."

Frazzano said that "while we acknowledge this topic in the social media policy to inform official accounts, personal political activity is addressed by the [Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness] and the [Department of Defense Standards of Conduct Office]." Oare deferred to the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from using government resources to engage in political activities.

Frazzano also deferred to the office of standards and conduct and the Office of General Counsel when asked whether a service member or DoD employee is allowed to sell content from adult-oriented social media sites like OnlyFans.

"We absolutely want people to use social media to connect with their friends and their family, to be informed … and enjoy the things social media has to offer," Oare told Military.com. "And hopefully, what this policy does is alleviate some pressure in doing that because it's a small step toward making more clear what you should and should not do to represent yourself in the department."

Below are responses from Oare to several questions from Military.com. Both questions and responses have been edited for clarity and succinctness.

Military.com: With this new policy, DoD personnel are prohibited from using their official position to endorse a non-federal entity, product, service or enterprise, or by taking action that implies DoD endorsement. Some troops who make videos on TikTok or YouTube receive sponsorship deals for things like energy drinks or hair ties, etc. Are they allowed to receive compensation from sponsors if their content includes them in uniform? What if they are in uniform sponsoring the product or service?

Oare: "We're still working through the details of these questions. What we definitely don't want them doing is saying, 'the DoD or the Air Force endorses Monster energy drink.' It's a different story if you're out there and you're talking about your daily life or you're talking about a product that you like. If you were up there organically and not receiving compensation saying, 'I had a great day or I had a crappy day' or talking about your normal daily life and not saying that you are a representative of the DoD or anything other than yourself -- that's fine."

[Note: Oare added that the services or commanders may have their own endorsement restrictions, however.]

Military.com: The Defense Department encourages its employees to include a disclaimer on their social media accounts that establishes the account as personal and not representative of the views or opinions of the Pentagon. What is the point of including the disclaimer? Is that just an added layer of distinction between official and personal accounts or does that absolve service members of certain comments?

Oare: "It's definitely in there to serve as an example. And I understand it's a little wonky sounding. But you see stuff like this in social media accounts all the time. … I think what we would encourage is a little bit more than just saying, 'These are my personal views,' and just putting a finer point on it. I don't think it's something that we're going to adjudicate, necessarily. If there's some effort to make a disclaimer -- obviously, it varies by platform a lot and what the user experiences -- but I think if someone wanted to be really thorough, they would put something that detailed in their personal profile. But it's an example, not a requirement."

Military.com: Is that more to protect the DoD or is it more to protect the service member?

Oare: "I think it honestly protects both. It protects the person because I think there has been a lot of misinformation and disinformation and blurring of lines between official and personal -- a lot of political statements, obviously, from people on both sides that I think sometimes can be misconstrued as representative of an organization. But I think what we're seeing is like even things that you think are innocuous, can be misinterpreted, especially if you are in uniform … and we want to make sure those people are just being extra careful."

Military.com: There are several anonymous accounts that portray themselves to be members of the military and they have a relatively large following and might espouse some extremist or misinformed viewpoints. Does the social media policy do anything to address those accounts?

Oare: "What we're trying to do is rein in people speaking on behalf of the department or people speaking for others that don't necessarily want to be spoken for. And if that's an anonymous account, I think there's an implication there that it is not official and therefore would not be in violation of this particular policy." Oare referred to the Hatch Act again here.

-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at drew.lawrence@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.

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