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What's Appropriate on Social Media? DOD Spells It Out in New Guidance

The Pentagon's first department-wide policy for official accounts also requires reporting fake accounts.

The Department of Defense released its first-ever policy on Monday detailing how military and civilian personnel should use official social media accounts to further the department’s missions, mandating that imposter accounts be reported to that social media platform.

“Users, malign actors and adversaries on social media platforms may attempt to impersonate DOD employees and service members to disrupt online activity, distract audiences from official accounts, discredit DOD information or manipulate audiences through disinformation campaigns,” the policy states. “PA offices managing an [External Official Presence] must address fake or imposter accounts.”

The policy provides guidelines for official DOD social media use overall—including points about social media account records management—and measures to take so that personal social media accounts are not confused or misrepresented as official accounts. 

“It’s long overdue,” Andy Oare, director of digital media for the Office of the Secretary of Defense said. “There have been efforts in the past to do this, but in an organization of this size and magnitude, you need to fully coordinate and ensure all viewpoints are heard and represented.” 

Oare noted that the new policy will be continuously updated as social media evolves.

The new policy applies to personnel from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the joint staff, as well as military departments, combatant commands and other DOD offices and agencies. It does not apply to social media accounts related to marketing for Military Service recruitment. In some cases, the new policy will overrule existing social media policies.

Some of the military services have previously published social media guidelines, but this is “the department’s first instruction that provided Pentagon-level, department-wide guidance that specifically addresses the use of social media.” However, while DOD previously issued guidelines on “secure and appropriate use of social media,” Monday’s guidelines address the use of social media for public affairs. 

The new policy details the roles and responsibilities of DOD officials to enforce these new standards. It can be broken down into several categories: professionalism, proprietary, acumen, establishment need and transparency. 

Specifically, social media accounts and content should meet defined objectives, and personnel should exercise professional and ethical standards, as well as provide inspiring and engaging content. The policy goes into detail about types of appropriate and inappropriate content. It also emphasizes that posts should be “accurate, appropriate, timely, in the appropriate tone and approved for public release.” 

Public affairs officers running the social media accounts are asked to stay on top of new social media trends and best practices as well as to complete certain security training. The policy also establishes rules for creating new social media accounts and details situations in which content will be removed, which will be publicly acknowledged to provide more transparency.

The DOD’s new policy states that, “[i]f social media is mismanaged or mishandled, the U.S. government's reputation with the American public; relationships with interagency, international, state, local and tribal entities; military operations; and reputation for a high ethical and professional standard may be compromised.”

“Our aim is not to be prescriptive or restrictive, but rather to lay out some commonsense rules that simply have not been formally articulated at this level,” Oare added.  “In a digital world where lines of truth and authenticity are so often blurred, it’s important that institutions like us have trusted, verifiable and reliable presences.”