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Facebook face-off

Services squabble over future of social media

Dec. 8, 2009 - 01:43PM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 8, 2009 - 01:43PM  |  
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Master Sgt. C.J. Grisham sits at the nexus of a much wider debate over the future of social media in uniform. Even as Grisham's command wrestles with how to handle an outspoken soldier, the brass battles over a set of new regs that will govern how troops connect online.

In the six years Grisham has been blogging, social media have matured from the novelty of troops blogging their way through distant battlefields to the ubiquity of even the most senior leaders tweeting their way through the halls of power.

"The military is still struggling to figure out what to do with those people," says Noah Shachtman, editor of Wired magazine's award-winning Danger Room blog, which focuses on military issues. "It will be interesting to see if the much-promised new policy will preserve their right to speak or put them under tighter control."

In the meantime, Shachtman says, there's been a chilling effect on straight-shooting bloggers.

"There's been a real shrinkage of deployed bloggers writing honestly," says Shachtman, who just returned from a two-month tour reporting in Afghanistan. "I don't know how many have been shut down, but I do know there have been quite a few who have said it's not worth dealing with all the hassles."

The military blogging community, he says, has largely matched the military's mostly conservative make up. That was fine when George W. Bush was president but may be creating problems with Obama in the White House.

"There's a lot of military bloggers like C.J. who could be really vocal politically but were maybe seen as supporting the mission. But now that their politics don't match the commander in chief's, it's made the picture much more complicated," Shachtman said.

Michael J. Lebowitz agrees. "In between the time when Obama was elected and the spring, there was a real lull in these kinds of cases," says Lebowitz, a lawyer in the Virginia Army National Guard. A former Pathfinder in the 101st Airborne Division who helped capture foreign fighters in Iraq, Lebowitz is also a civilian attorney and has worked on dozens of cases involving military freedom of expression.

"Unfortunately, it's definitely picking up again. I'm getting about three calls a week now. The commands are really focusing their attention on bloggers and military expression," he said.

The services have been schizophrenic in their response to a generation of troops who are often quick to tap Twitter feeds and Facebook. The Army encourages soldiers to blog, even on government computers, but individual commands run hot and cold. The Air Force and Navy are mixed as well, while the Marine Corps enforces a blockade against all social media on its networks.

The Pentagon has been trying to reboot its regs on Web 2.0 usage and provide some consistency but has been mired in internal debate. Release of those regs has been pushed back repeatedly over the summer and now isn't expected until the new year.

Keeping it safe

Meanwhile, internal debate continues among the military's top IT managers over how to practice safe social networking, given that hackers constantly prowl for access to military networks.

"This has been a huge issue with the G6s [the military's computer czars]," said a Pentagon official familiar with the debate, describing concerns that hackers could use social networking sites as back doors.

Outlining the debate in a recent post titled "Why I Twitter," Air Force Gen. Craig McKinley had one message for the security hawks: "Figure it out. These tools are too important to lock away." Commander of the Air National Guard Bureau, McKinley said he hands out Twitter tweets to his troops like commander's coins. "For the new generation, a tweet is the electronic equivalent of that coin — publicly recognizing their achievements in front of people who matter to them," he wrote.

J.P. Borda, who runs Milblogging.com, a site that indexes 2,500 military blogs, wonders whether such actions will further delay or tweak the new policy.

"What are the implications going to be for DoD professionals who tweet?" asks Borda, a sergeant in the Army Reserve who has 65,000 Twitter followers. (Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has only 9,000.)

"I wouldn't have any filters," said Lt. Gen. Benjamin Freakley, the Army's top recruiting officer, when asked what limits should be imposed on military bloggers. (The venue? Grisham's "You Served" Internet talk show.)

"It is a misnomer that just because you go into the military, you lose your freedom of speech," says Lebowitz. The Uniform Code of Military Justice, however, does spell out certain restrictions. Of course, anything classified is off limits, but it's usually other issues that will get folks in trouble. Among them: Invoking their rank or position, as if they're representing the military instead of their own opinions; and discrediting the armed forces or prejudicing good order and discipline. Commissioned officers are also barred from using "contemptuous words" against the President, Congress and several other civilian leaders.

As one senior Pentagon official put it, even when blogging, troops "do not lose their inherent right to [complain], they should just be smart about it."

"What I tell people," Freakley said, "is: If we're going to trust these men and women to put a gun in their hand and send them overseas and make life-and-death decisions, why can't we trust them with social media to do the right thing? Will every story be a pretty story? No, but every aspect of the Army isn't pretty. We've got a few black eyes. But we've also got a whole lot more good going on than bad."

Grisham couldn't agree more.

Related reading

The rise and fall of a military blogger

Facebook face-off: Services squabble over future of social media

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