Social Media and Electronic Communication

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Rocco J. Carbone, III, Deputy Staff Judge Advocate
  • 108th Wing

Online conduct has real-world consequences. Recently, the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force published an Air Force Guidance Memorandum about the personal use of social media and electronic communications. 

These resources outline the Air Force’s expectations of all its component members, i.e., active duty, Reserve and National Guard. This article outlines helpful points for Airmen to keep in mind when using social media and communicating electronically.

So, what are we talking about when we use the phrases “social media” and “electronic communications”? 

Social media is defined as a “social platform or site used to share information, communicate, or build relationships.” Electronic communication is even more broadly defined as the transfer “of information” by “computer, phone, or other electronic devices.” These definitions cover most online platforms, and almost everything one sends out electronically. While the scope is broad, the expectations and responsibilities are no different than how members should conduct themselves in person and on a day-to-day basis. With this in mind, Air Force Instruction 1-1 provides several points of guidance for how members should conduct themselves online: 

  • Classified, FOUO, and official DoD information are prohibited from being posted on social media sites or transmitted through non-DoD email accounts without authority.
  • Members have an obligation to maintain appropriate communication and conduct between other members, including civilians, whether communicating through a social network or other forms of electronic communication.
  • Members must avoid offensive and/or inappropriate behavior online that can bring discredit upon the Air Force, the member, or that is harmful to good order and discipline, respect for authority, unit cohesion, morale, mission accomplishment, or the public trust and confidence in the Air Force.
  • Members may not place comments or opinions on blogs that can reasonably be anticipated to harm morale, good order and discipline, are service discrediting, or would degrade the public’s confidence in the Air Force. 
  • When a member expresses personal opinions on social media, and can be identified as an Airman, the member should make clear that he or she is speaking on his or her own behalf rather than the Air Force’s behalf.
  • A member’s social network “friends” and “followers” can affect determinations in background investigations and reinvestigations with security clearances
  • A member’s violation of federal or state law through inappropriate online activity subjects the member to discipline. 

The recent Air Force Guidance Memorandum reaffirms these points from AFI 1-1, and makes clear that the responsibilities of members include treating others with “dignity, fairness, and respect at all times.” 

In conclusion, a member’s social media presence and online communication is a representation of both the member and the Air Force. Being disrespectful online or in electronic communications to others may get a member in trouble with both command and one’s fellow Airmen. 

The best legal advice is usually the simplest: If you had to explain what you were posting online or communicating electronically to your First Sergeant or your mother, would you post it? If the answer is “No,” well, don’t do it.