On Social Media
By Colonel Tod Strickland Commandant, CACSC - January 19, 2022
Reading Time: 12 min
Social media is a part of most people’s daily existence, and its use by military members (of all ranks and experience levels) can sometimes cause drama. “Junior officer flame outs” or troops representing in a less than preferred way have led some to eschew use of the platforms or to direct its use in strictly limited forms. This is both sad and wrong; we disengage from it to our disadvantage. Leaving not only deprives us of an extremely valuable leadership tool, but also does nothing to improve on our existing practices. Clearly, first principles that serve to guide how we use the tools are required. Addressing why we should be using them, and what we wish to achieve, is however a necessary first step.
Social media offers numerous advantages to leaders and their institutions. It provides for rapid transmission of messages across the entirety of an organization without the filters that are sometimes provided by the chains-of-command or their various staffs. It can flatten our normal hierarchical structure, and allows for direct engagement without the obstacles of rank and geography. It forms a ready channel to ask questions, get answers, and raise problems that might not otherwise see the light of day.
Going further, social media is an amazing tool for professional discourse and self-development, creating engagement venues with other military professionals from across the globe. This allows for broad exchange of ideas and best practices, as well as the harnessing of the experience of others. Additionally, it allows a leader to set the example and shape the culture within their unit or corps by connecting directly with other professionals. However, before engaging and experimenting with the medium, there are some things that might be prudent to consider.
First, you need to examine why you are on social media in the first place. What do you hope to achieve? Who are you looking to talk to? Who do you hope is listening to you? Like most military operations, it is imperative that you keep your aim in central focus, and select it well. Second, you need to get familiar with the numerous platforms that are available to you and select those that best meet your needs. Each platform caters to different communications techniques and different goal sets. If you have set the conditions, then you can move on and experiment with the platform you have chosen. My own experience has shown that it is better to read/listen before engaging with full force. It is not too far a stretch to argue that using social media can be like riding a motorcycle; fun, stimulating, and occasionally dangerous.
Certainly, using social media can create a risk exposure for a military professional, and it falls to each of us to examine whether we believe the risk is worth the reward. With that in mind, the following maxims have evolved over time to guide my social media practice. They will not prevent you from making mistakes, but they do point to some of the pitfalls that many have found through practice.
1. You post it, you own it. Recognize that if what you have posted causes offence or crosses a line, it is yours, and you should expect fall-out from multiple quarters. See maxim 19.
2. Think, Write, Read, Think, Decide, Read, Post. Consider what you are saying from multiple perspectives and ensure you are actually saying what you want to say. Speed is not your friend. Take the time to contemplate what you have written and ensure it is truthful, accurate, and meets your aim. Re-read it and make sure there are no distracting typos. If you think it is still worth posting, go ahead.
3. When in Doubt, Think Again. If you have doubts about whether to post something, you are probably right to rewrite it. If you cannot rework your post, see maxim 13.
4. Civility Always. Your language needs to be sufficiently sophisticated for your audience to grasp your meaning. Your tone needs to keep them on side. Be civil, every time.
5. No Sarcasm or Snarky Tone. While you might think you are being clever, at least one other person will think you are being rude. Avoid a friction point by not attempting to be sarcastic.
6. Sense of Humour Does Not Always Transmit. There is no humour font on social media, and more than one joke has fallen flat in the telling. Look at your humour use carefully and ensure that what you are putting out there is actually funny, and is not mean or hateful.
7. Lose the Emotion. Social media is not the place to vent emotion. See the famous “Leave Britney Alone” rant https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WqSTXuJeTks. This is not going to represent the institution or yourself well. Be professional.
8. No Texting/Posting While Under the Influence. You should not publicly comment about something on social media. Put your device down, maybe drink some water and go to sleep.
9. There is No Anonymity. While you might think that you are unknown, and that no one is reading, someone knows who you are and someone is reading what you post. Further, if you post something that goes viral, people will specifically seek you out. Make the assumption that you are known, post accordingly even if you are not using your actual name. See Maxim 1.
10. You Are Always Representing. Now, this is not specifically policy, and you can always make an argument that you never identified yourself as a member of the CAF. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it will not matter, but that one time you post something inappropriate, someone will figure out you are in the military, and the system will examine the situation. You need to adopt the idea that known or not, you are a member of the military and your online conduct needs to reflect that reality.
11. Consider OPSEC. This should be second nature. Do NOT comment on ongoing or planned activities, be careful of your photos, and always consider whether an adversary could benefit from your post. When in doubt, talk to an authority.
12. Consider PERSEC. This is harder, because just the act of engaging is putting your personal information into the digital realm. You need to consider what information you are releasing, how it could be used, and whether it is worth the risk. Think about it!
13. Deleting is Your Friend. Accept that you are likely to make a mistake. Your first step should be to consider deleting the post immediately. Trust me on this. You do not need to alienate or offend parts of the Army in an attempt to make a bad post better.
14. Nothing Political. Ever. This is going to be a challenge for many in our current, supercharged political atmosphere, but you gain nothing by posting a political comment or meme. You actually stand to lose considerably by alienating parts of your audience. This is as relevant at the municipal level as it is at the Federal level. Just leave it alone.
15. Once Posted, It Lasts Forever. Recognize that whatever your rank now, it is possible it will not be your rank in the future. You need to post with this fact in mind. Twenty-five-year-old me made some pretty dumb mistakes, that if posted on the internet would have been embarrassing. Do yourself a favour and enable yourself to outlive your errors by recognizing that once something is put on line, it can always be found. Post accordingly.
16. Your Bosses Will Read It. So Will Your Troops. The fact of the matter is that bosses and subordinates will be a source of anger and frustration for you at some point or another. Airing these frustrations on line though is a recipe for disaster. If you are going to comment on something your boss or your troops have done, make it a source of pride. Note, it is a dangerous and slippery slope to even create the perception that you are judging (or have judged) your superiors on line. See Maxims 2 & 13.
17. It is Now On the Record. If you put it out there, someone can always challenge you on it. Make sure what you are saying is true, fair, and necessary, and there will likely be limited problems. However, if a line gets crossed, expect blowback.
18. Own Your Mistakes and Inform Appropriately. Some media platforms make it very hard to correct errors. In this case, you likely need to delete. If your post is likely to (or has) caused offence, take responsibility for it. Correct the error where possible, and inform your boss. Surprise is a principle of war, but it is not a good one to use with social media and superiors.
19. Do Not Engage with Trolls. Admittedly, part of the issue here is that trolls do not readily identify themselves as such, but when they do, they should be avoided. Trolls have a knack for bringing out emotion and frustration – neither of which helps you get your message across. Picket and bypass!
20. Be Careful When Engaging With Journalists. What can start off as a civil engagement with a member of the media can suddenly see you sliding into territory you did not intend to visit. Be wary of commenting on news sites or on the personal accounts of media representatives. Media engagements demand that one gets advice from Public Affairs staff. Engagement in the digital realm demands the same level of preparedness.
21. Help and Police One Another. The bottom line is that this whole topic is an area that most have limited expertise in. However, there are best practices and we can all benefit from advice and counsel from our peers – even when they tell us we are approaching a line.
22. Always True. Do not post rumours, and check your facts. It takes a long time to build credibility, and it can be destroyed all too quickly. If you cannot demonstrate something is true, see Maxim 1.
Social media is not a fad. It is a dynamic realm that continues to evolve and change. How we use it as military professionals, regardless of rank, helps shape both it and our culture. It is a powerful tool that offers incredible power. So, remember the old adage from Spiderman – with great power comes great responsibility. Use it wisely.
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