DOD social media policy set to return to limbo

Deployed troops using Facebook and Twitter might suffer loss of access

The Defense Department last year laid out the rules for the military's use of social media with a set of guidelines that are set to expire on March 1.

The coming expiration means the social-media framework in DOD could soon become contentious again. The use of social media spawned myriad debates and disagreements over who should have access to social media -- if anybody -- and what rules should govern their postings. \

With no formal announcement of a follow-on policy, some are wondering if the expiration could curb access to popular websites.

As recently as July 2009, the Pentagon was considering uniformly banning access to sites like Facebook and YouTube, citing security risks. Some parts of the military did block access, at least for some period of time. But in February 2010 the DOD directive-type memo was released detailing guidelines for usage.

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There are conflicting reports as to what the next step will be come March 1, and the DOD so far has not responded to Federal Computer Week's requests for comment.

Noel Dickover, an IT consultant who has worked as a contractor for the DOD CIO, said in a GovLoop blog that “the stated plan to replace this policy with a long-term instruction has been shelved indefinitely, and all resources associated with this effort have been terminated.” He also expressed concern that access to YouTube and other sites could be blocked, as has been the case in the past amid security concerns and debate over social media access policy.

However, a Pentagon spokesman today told Danger Room that troops would not be banned from social media access and said a new, more permanent policy would be put in place in March, pending review by Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn and a Pentagon policy office.

“Social media tools are pervasive in the 21st century communications environment, and the department intends to fully utilize those capabilities,” said DOD spokesman Bryan Whitman.

That pervasive use of social media could shape subtle changes in DOD’s official policy, and is already driving changes within DOD and even beyond.

The DOD's two top social media officials have left its communications office, and Danger Room reported that they will not be replaced, effectively doing away with dedicated social media leadership for the military. Instead, effective social media use, now a part of everyday communications operations, will be the responsibility of all DOD public affairs personnel.

“It’s important for people in press operations, community and public outreach and communications and planning to be able to know how to use and access Facebook, Twitter and the other social media tools, rather than just have a single unit or single person do nothing but social media,” said Douglas Wilson, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs. “I was increasingly concerned our approach to social media was a stovepiped professional area.”

While DOD public affairs may have a handle on its social media use, the rest of the military – particularly deployed troops using Facebook and Twitter to communicate with folks back home – may be caught in the lurch if policies falter.

Without a consistent DOD-wide policy, social media access could revert to varying by organization, which was the case before the February 2010 memo. If that happened, it could clash with Lynn’s stipulation that social media is “integral to operations across the Department of Defense,” and undoubtedly create more controversy.

Such a move also may be unlikely to completely curb military social media use – and the accompanying potential security risks.

“Employees were using social media before the guidelines were issued, and I suspect they will use them after they expire, if they expire,” said Mark Drapeau, director of public sector social engagement at Microsoft and former associate research fellow at National Defense University. “It's just a little more murky.”

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a former staff writer for FCW and Defense Systems.


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