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Humor or harassment? Marine Corps leadership targets salty Facebook sites

May. 20, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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The trouble for Lance Cpl. H started when she checked her Facebook account one day last year to find nearly 50 new friend requests from male Marines she didn't know.

The trouble for Lance Cpl. H started when she checked her Facebook account one day last year to find nearly 50 new friend requests from male Marines she didn't know.

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The trouble for Lance Cpl. H started when she checked her Facebook account one day last year to find nearly 50 new friend requests from male Marines she didn’t know. Her inbox started blowing up with messages, many of them overtly sexual, from users hitting on her or asking her for a date.

She was shocked and mystified until Marine friends told her a Facebook page had made her famous. An innocuous note from her personal page had been reposted without permission to the Marine humor page POG Boot F***s. Other photos and content from her account soon appeared on the site, and users — people whom she didn’t know — inundated these posts with derogatory comments about her appearance and insinuations that she was sleeping with a higher-up in her shop. Later, images of her smiling for the camera with fellow female Marines would appear on an even more popular page, Just The Tip, Of The Spear, where each post would generate a new wave of offensive comments and unwanted attention.

Some might dismiss this sort of Facebook harassment as a minor inconvenience, but in the small Marine Corps community, its effects were multiplied. Speaking under condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, Lance Cpl. H said she has seen her reputation tarnished, been alienated by fellow Marines and received verbal threats for standing up for herself online. She fears her career will suffer because of what has been said about her on Facebook.

“I have random people hitting on me during work, my off-hours and all in between because of it,” she wrote via email from her duty station in Japan. “Every time I get posted, more males message me or add me on Facebook and it does bother me. It’s cyber sexual harassment.”

When Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., wrote to the secretary of defense and the commandant earlier this month alleging sexual harassment and misogyny among Marines was running rampant and unchecked on Facebook, a piece of Marine Corps insider culture made national headlines. Marine leadership is now cracking down on active-duty users of the sites with renewed vigor, and there are signs they will continue to turn up the heat. Meanwhile, a significant portion of the Marine Corps and veteran population can’t see what the big deal is. What are the boundaries of rough Marine Corps humor, and should Marine leaders do more — could they do more —to make their troops toe the line?

JTTOTS, and PBF, until it was shut down last week, were among the most popular of a quickly growing number of pages producing humorous images and commentary that appeal to Marines. (The name Just The Tip, Of The Spear combines a popular Marine mantra with a sexual reference.) Like most of these sites, they are run by anonymous administrators and their viewership is in the tens of thousands. The sites are especially popular with infantry Marines and former grunts; a popular trope is to post photographs or memes depicting so-called “POGs,” a derisive term used to describe “persons other than grunts” and mock them. Many posts show Marines who are passed out drunk or caught doing something silly or foolish. Much of the humor is aggressively sexual and/or violent, and a category of pages is devoted to denigrating Marine women, often with the derogatory term “Wookies,” and saying they belong in the kitchen making “sammiches,” a term for sandwiches that appears constantly in sexist jokes.

Notably, not everyone has the same reaction to being featured on one of the many humor pages made for and about Marines. A post on JTTOTS featured a blurry photo of a junior Marine in civilian clothes with a goofy smile. Between comments busting his chops, the Marine added his own take.

“Haha I’m a good sport,” he wrote. “And I’m drunk.”

Not everyone is amused, however. A civilian woman, who declined to be named, said she and her teenage daughter received death threats and constant harassment after she tried to defend a female Marine who had been pinioned on the site.

A particularly shocking image recently posted to JTTOTS and later deleted showed two female Marines in camouflage utilities, each sporting a black eye.

“Should have made that sandwich,” read a speech bubble photoshopped onto the image.

“And what do we call a woman with one black eye?” a user quipped. “That’s right, a fast learner.”

While administrators for the former PBF and F’n Wook pages did not respond to inquiries from Marine Corps Times, administrators with JTTOTS responded to emailed questions. They declined to say how many people moderate the page or whether they were active duty or veterans, men or women. But they said the page had rekindled some of the camaraderie Marines and veterans were missing, and its viral popularity since it began in 2011 proves that they provide something the community values.

“I think we have the type of humor and community that people that enlisted deal with every day,” the admins said. “It isn’t politically correct or anything even remotely in that ballpark, but that is what you get with a bunch of people that spend months and months dealing with some of the worst stuff in the world. War creates a pretty twisted sense of humor.”

'Promoting women's inferiority'

Speier’s letter, sent May 8 to Commandant Gen. Jim Amos, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Principal Deputy Inspector General Lynne Halbrooks, focused on the depiction of women on the Facebook pages and called for a response with a plan of action by the end of the month.

“Many of the pictures imply women only advance professionally by performing sexual favors, and otherwise promote the idea that women are inferior, and only useful as sexual objects and sandwich makers,” Speier wrote. “... The military cannot eradicate its (sexual assault problem) without fundamentally changing its approach, including its tolerance of participation in these kinds of websites.”

After the letter became public, Facebook shut down one of the sites, “F’n Wook,” telling USA Today it was because its administrators had bogus profiles.

Speier’s staff confirmed to Marine Corps Times that Capitol Police are investigating retaliatory threats made against her and pages such as “The Jackie Speier Wook Politician Appreciation Society,” formed in the wake of the F’n Wook shutdown.

Speier’s letter also revealed that the Marine Corps inspector general had been quietly monitoring the F’n Wook page for three years prior to her intervention.

In fact, as the Marine Corps’ outgoing senior equal-opportunity adviser Master Gunnery Sgt. Robert Raines said, the Facebook problem is on the radar of a spectrum of departments, from criminal investigation to legal. But leaders responsible for the Corps’ order and discipline are balking when confronted with the wild rodeo that is the Internet.

“The policy of the Marine Corps is that all Marines be treated with the utmost dignity and respect, and that also bleeds over into the cyber world,” Raines said. “Unfortunately, because of the First Amendment rights to be a part of whatever group, we can’t necessarily dictate to Marines what Internet sites and things like that that they can and cannot visit.”

At Marine Corps Base Hawaii, equal opportunity adviser Gunnery Sgt. Curtis Bradley posted a memo naming PBF and JTTOTS specifically and putting Marines on notice that they could be jeopardizing their careers by posting there.

“The two sites are currently being reviewed for activity with active-duty personnel, and I can foresee some type of word coming out regarding social networking sites,” he said in the memo. “If I were to put this in military terminology, I would say that everyone is hitting the target in regards to all of the requirements, but to continue hitting dead center, please assist us in ensuring that these types of violations will not be tolerated.”

Bradley declined to discuss his approach, though his memo was eventually reposted to JTTOTS, where it was ridiculed.

Raines said he encourages Marine Corps unit leaders and commanders to educate Marines about appropriate online behavior, then refer specific complaints about cyber bullying, hazing or harassment to military investigators so they can identify the parties involved. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service, installation Criminal Investigation divisions and Marine Corps information technology specialists can be called on to contribute in such an investigation.

The Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management Branch is involved in coordinating these efforts because the Marine Corps considers such actions to be a form of workplace harassment.

But Raines acknowledged that it can be time-consuming and difficult to prove that an offending online profile belongs to an active-duty Marine, or that an identified Marine is responsible for a particular posting. “It’s a lot of gray area that we unfortunately have to operate in,” he said.

Users of the Facebook pages in question have complained that their free speech rights are being infringed by the new scrutiny and closure of pages, but Dr. Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, said there is plenty of precedent for employers to monitor the public online behavior of their employees, in and out of the workplace.

“When I talk with free speech lawyers on these issues, the issue is not so much, is your free speech protected; the issue is, does this infringe on the rights of others,” he said.

It’s also clear that not all Marine Corps units and commands are aware of the systems being implemented to deal with Facebook issues. Lance Cpl. H said her superiors in Okinawa eventually found out about her recurring troubles with being featured on the sites and expressed frustration about her situation, but they just told her to ignore the posts and comments and didn’t pursue further action.

“Most just laugh at it and tell you to toughen up. I think it’s because the website doesn’t target just one person, it targets a lot,” she said. “But when it goes after the females, it just is much worse.”

And some of the punishments that are taking place aren’t exactly intimidating. Forced to write an apology for adding a female Marine as a friend in order to share her personal photos on JTTOTS, one lance corporal whited out the names and posted the letter in defiance.

In the past six months, Raines said, the Corps had fielded roughly a half-dozen reports of inappropriate behavior on these “Marine humor” Facebook sites. When allegations are confirmed, he said, offending Marines have faced reprisal in the form of non-judicial punishment or captain’s mast. While in theory a pattern of offensive behavior could lead to court-martial, Raines said, no case has made it that far.

“I wouldn’t call it a trend yet, but it’s definitely something that’s trending toward another issue that DoD will probably have to get its arms around in any way that we can,” he said. But, as officials try to hold individual Marines accountable on the Internet, “unfortunately, that leaves the Marine Corps at a great disadvantage.”

While the community standards of Facebook prohibit bullying, harassment and hate speech, and provide a way for individual users to report offensive comments, a spokesman for the company declined to discuss how administrators determine which posts fall in those categories. When Facebook deleted POG Boot F***s on May 14, he said the page had been removed because it violated terms of service, but declined to elaborate.

Crossing the line

As for JTTOTS, one of the most popular Marine sites with more than 50,000 followers, its administrators say it hasn’t crossed any lines, even if some of its users get carried away. As to complaints of harassment and threats from women featured on the site, they said they weren’t responsible for the content in question.

“If some commenters have made threats, then that is obviously something that is beyond our control and not something that we want to see,” they said. “Being harder on female Marines isn’t something that we feel like we do — if anything the posts about female Marines are a lot fewer and further between than the posts about male Marines. Most of the complaints that we get about that kind of thing usually aren’t even from female Marines.”

The admins said they do remove content that users complain about, particularly if a Marine got in trouble because of it. And they said there are a few topics that are out of bounds even for them.

“Wounded vets, kids, and rape,” they said. “None of those things are funny.”

The recent Facebook crackdown is unlikely to deter enterprises like Just The Tip, Of The Spear, though. In preparation for a potential site shutdown due to a violation of terms, the administrators created an independent website this month to house the same content and started selling merchandise featuring an altered take on the eagle, globe and anchor. The page also posted a warning to followers, anticipating additional scrutiny.

“Just a heads up, make sure you’re using your civilian email to send sh*t in to us,” administrators wrote. “The man can track your .mil address.”

That means Marine Corps leadership has more work ahead of it, too. In light of the ongoing crackdown on sexual assault in the ranks — and the recent battle to combat hazing after a after a Marine’s suicide in Afghanistan was tied to harassment from other Marines — the burgeoning popularity of these sites and the allegations of cyber bullying and harassment have the potential to create another black eye for the Corps.

Marine leaders have shown they are willing to go after Facebook offenders in certain circumstances; in early 2012, Sgt. Gary Stein received a disciplinary discharge after posting insults about President Obama on a political Facebook group he started. And with new Defense Department guidance announcing that troops will undergo workplace inspections to eradicate images and materials demeaning to women, it’s likely that Marines will be called on next to clean up their acts online.

Army Maj. Gen Gary Patton told USA Today he hopes the work site cleanup effort is complete by July.

“That type of stuff is despicable,” he said. “That’s exactly the type of offensive and degrading materials that are unacceptable in a unit that prides itself on our professional values and on unit cohesion.”

For Lance Cpl. H, much of the damage is done. She wonders if she will ever regain trust in her fellow Marines, since so many of them turned on her online.

“We are all military or former military,” she said. “If deployed, we fight side by side. Why would I trust my life with somebody who likes to destroy the reputation of females?”

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