Social media can be a lifeline for U.S. service members missing home — but that also sets the stage for scandalous behavior.
A string of photo-sharing posts over the past two weeks has brought dishonor to the uniform and created a barrage of controversy for the military. Observers say that should compel the Department of Defense to revisit its social media policies.
The latest outcry: An Army private in Colorado who posted a photo of herself on Instagram claiming she was ducking the day’s flag salute by “hiding” in her car.
The photo of Pfc. Tariqka Sheffey also went viral Tuesday on Facebook and led officials at Fort Carson to investigate Wednesday.
A Facebook page called “Military Social Media Idiots” was promptly set up to highlight service members who appear to be embarrassing the armed forces.
The page’s creator, a self-described Army veteran using the name Smoke, told NBC News that the page should provoke military leaders to respond “either through more discipline or better training.”
The creator, who declined to be identified, added that “99.9% of servicemen and women wear the uniform proudly, but it only takes a few idiots to screw up the public perception of the services. In the time of increasing budget cuts, and the fact that thousands of American troops are still fighting and dying in Afghanistan, we have been our own worst enemy.”
If Sheffey did skip the salute, she could get a court martial for insubordination or failure to obey regulations, and go to prison for up to two years if convicted, The Gazette newspaper reported.
Besides the picture of Sheffey, the Facebook page also features purported soldiers referencing gangs and using offensive language in social media posts while wearing their uniforms.
“The recent examples, unfortunately, cast a poor light on our entire military.”
The page also references two other high-profile cases this month.
A staff sergeant at Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane, Wash., was photographed pretending to tongue-kiss the silhouette of the POW-MIA symbol. The picture of Staff Sgt. Cherish Byers was reportedly taken three years ago, but only went viral on Facebook this month. Air Force officials called it “poor judgment” and said they were investigating.
A few days later, the Wisconsin National Guard said it was suspending a member from honor guard duty after she posted a picture on Instagram of a group of soldiers striking comedic poses around an empty, flag-draped coffin.
“We put the FUN in funeral — your fearless honor guard from various states,” read the caption, which was posted on the account of Spc. Terry Harrison.
Pentagon officials said Harrison was indefinitely suspended from funeral duty pending an investigation.
The widespread use of Facebook, Twitter and other social media by the Department of Defense only started in February 2010, after a ban was lifted on work computers across the armed forces. Despite concerns of cyber attacks, officials have wanted to show the military’s tech-savvier side and tap into social media’s growth.
There are positives: Service members can connect with family members via social media. Military leaders are using Twitter and Facebook to get feedback and communicate with their troops.
A proposed ban that would have required Marines to roll down their sleeves starting March 9 was overturned when Gen. James Amos, Commandant of the Marine Corps, announced a reversal on Facebook this week.
The return to “sleeves up” — a fashion statement favored by Marines — garnered the most “overwhelmingly positive reaction” of any of the branch’s social media posts, a Marines spokesman told The Wall Street Journal.
Some social media stunts can go over well with top brass. A 2010 video of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan dancing to a Lady Gaga song was praised by the Army for its “good sense of humor.”
The U.S. military didn't immediately respond to a request for comment about its social media policies.
Lindy Kyzer, who was the U.S. Army’s social media manager from 2008 to 2010, acknowledged that social media has been a double-edged sword for the armed forces.
While there are no social media regulations telling service members “don’t be an idiot,” Kyzer said, they should realize that what they do affects their futures.
“The recent examples, unfortunately, cast a poor light on our entire military, although the majority of soldiers would never think to do things so foolish,” Kyzer wrote in an email to NBC News. “Our society has become a ‘take me or leave me’ population, fueled by a narcissism made popular on social media sites.”
Kyzer said military leadership must assume blame in these latest blunders because of their “failure to instill in service members a respect for the uniform they wear and the role they hold.”