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News | June 6, 2017

"Like, Comment, Retweet" DIA Officer Published Research on Social Media Implications

By CMDR Jonathan Blyth

The Department of Defense has had a long standing norm of nonpartisanship for those who serve in the military. The Department’s regulations provide guidelines on permissible forms of traditional political behavior and political expression for active duty personnel, but it’s a new digital world and DoD is noticeably silent on the increasingly important role of social media.

Defense Intelligence Agency Officer Col. Heidi Urben recently published a research article highlighting major findings in the relationship between the military, social media and political speech. This study is extremely relevant today because of the accessibility, volume and reach of political expression in social media.

Col. Urben surveyed more than 500 members of the military attending the United States Military Academy and National Defense University to establish the nature and extent of political expression by members of the military in the age of social media, and whether or not such expression is in keeping with the norm for members of the military in being apolitical and nonpartisan.

The survey concluded military members actively use social networking sites and did participate in multiple forms of political and partisan expression. One of the most commonly performed activities was the reposting and sharing articles on politics. Service members also “friended” or “followed” political figures on social media.

Past research on officers' political participation, with the exception of voting in elections, showed it to be fairly muted. However, Col. Urben’s survey showed in some measures, the levels in which members of the military currently express political positions to be considerably higher than levels of the general public who are less constrained to voice their opinions.

The research also showed that today a striking percentage of those surveyed - 50 percent in some cases - indicated their active duty military friends have engaged in insulting or rude comments directed at politicians and elected officials. On the positive side, the survey also showed the longer one serves in the military, the more the member is exposed to and adapts to the norms of the profession and the tenets of the nonpartisan military ethic.

These findings carry significant implications for civil-military relations, as suggests social media can facilitate a lack of respect and decorum within the active duty military and call into question the military’s overall deference to the principles of subordination to civilian authority. In 2015, The Gallup Poll showed 72 percent of Americans had a “great deal’ or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military. Civilian-Military experts believe the durability of such trust and confidence by the American people will begin to decline if the public begins to view the military as a politicized or partisan organization.

During his tenure as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin E. Dempsey emphasized that the breakdown of the nonpartisan ethic threatens to erode the trust between the military and the American people. “One of the things that marks us as a profession in a democracy is that it’s most important we remain apolitical,” stated Gen Dempsey. “That’s how we maintain our trust with the American people.”

The study identifies inconsistences in Department of Defense regulations and policies which should be addressed given how prolific social media usage is among members of the military. The guidelines of political expression on social media are quite permissive and may be erring on the side of the service members’ right of free speech rather than on side of the norms associated with an apolitical, nonpartisan military.

However, Col. Urben cautions members of the military active on social media not to ignore the Department of Defense’s limited guidelines. “Senior military leaders should be more vocal and consistent in talking about the importance of being apolitical and nonpartisan,” she concluded. “Violations of this norm threaten the level of trust and confidence in which the American public holds the military.” 

Read the entire report at the following link: