A few years ago, I happened to be scrolling through my Facebook account and came across a comment made by an Air Force staff sergeant that I had saved in my friends list.
It appeared she was on a rant about some rapper stomping on the U.S. flag as part of his new video.
What I found most disappointing about the post was that she was apparently NOT upset about the actions of this rapper, but of all the people who seemed to have a problem with what the rapper was doing to the flag. Her rant was filled with explicit, racially-charged and offensive language that in many cultures, especially the Air Force, would be considered inappropriate and unprofessional.
So, I went to the private message window and asked her to consider revising or removing the post. The staff sergeant quickly responded to my private message by stating she didn’t feel her comment was in violation of any rules, and it was within her right to post her thoughts on her page. Of course I responded by referencing AFI 1-1 par., 2.15 as it relates to military members use of social media. She replied by stating she didn’t have time to read the paragraph and her father, a retired command sergeant major, read the post, and he didn’t have a problem with what she said in her post. Finally, I asked if her first sergeant or commander had read the post and if so, what their thoughts were. I received nothing but silence after my message to her.
Airmen are always on the record. Airmen are asked to make statements about an event, issue or topic. News stories are filled with instances of once great leaders falling from grace because of a comment made off the record. One would think on the record only means something said verbally or written publically from an official position, but there is also the realm of social media.
Airmen are always on the clock; being out of the work center is not a license to “turn-it-up.”
Behaviors in the office will be judged by a few coworkers and possibly a supervisor. I assert behaviors outside of the work center are on display and judged by literally thousands of people. Public perception is the reality to the public. Contrary to what coworkers, supervisors and leaders know about the airmen on the job, just one questionably written post, video clip or picture could potentially tarnish the airmen’s otherwise stellar image. Airmen should not let virtual truths shape their known realities or determine their fitness for future military service.
The internet is filled with clips of leaders caught partying like rock stars on and off duty, in or out of their official capacities, and in and out of uniform. However, social media platforms have also undoubtedly facilitated the Airman’s ability to create and sustain meaningful relationships both locally and abroad. Airmen must actively manage their social media presence by knowing their audience and whom they represent (i.e., military community, family, friends, affiliated organizations, etc.), the intent of the conveyed message and how the message will be interpreted.
Airmen are always on the red carpet. It is the public we serve, and our service stories are influenced by public opinion, good or bad. Our industry is subject to public scrutiny, shaped by media coverage, and the behaviors of all Airmen, not just a few. In our attempts to attract audiences or boost our number of “likes,” our Airmen may potentially push the envelope of acceptable behavior too far, and the public will be waiting to pounce. Of course there is and will continue to be the other side to a story (i.e., what happened before or after the post, pic or video etc.); no one will know or ever care to know the rest of the story.
The Airmen’s values should remind them of what is truly at stake, to avoid adverse publicity or unfavorable perceptions. Negative perceptions are almost impossible to overcome in the near or mid-term, so Airmen must know the rules of using social media. There are better ways to celebrate and communicate feelings, thoughts, and ideas; however, Airmen must remember that everyone is watching. Airmen are entitled and encouraged to champion or proclaim their levels of national pride, patriotism, raise awareness, or take a stand, but the proclamation should not come at the cost of their career, military image, reputation, or good order.
So what happened to the raging staff sergeant? I was “unfriended” and couldn’t be happier. I was told years ago that if my words or posts were not something my parents would be proud to read or my leaders could defend against the major media agencies on my behalf; I probably shouldn’t write, say, or post it. What we do or say as airmen is part of a permanent virtual record to be recovered, accessible, traceable and useable by anyone at their discretion. Airmen must exercise caution when posting on social media because it represents more than just the airmen.
Remember, if you post it, you own it and if you’re in it, you’re in on it — own the decisions you’ve made.