Law in the Internet Society
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Social Media and the Military

-- By BradEhrlichman - 24 Jan 2010


On August 3, 2009, the United States Marine Corp banned the use of social media sites by its corpsmen. According to the Corp, the ban is necessary because “these internet sites ... are a proven haven for malicious actors and content and are particularly high risk due to information exposure, user generated content and targeting by adversaries.” On May 8, 2009, the Army lifted its ban on accessing social media sites through military networks. The Army’s decision, however, seems based more on the strategic recruiting value of social media sites, than solicitude for the privacy and freedom of its soldiers. In fact, the order lifting the ban stated “the intent of senior Army leaders to leverage social media as a medium to allow soldiers to ‘tell the Army story’ and to facilitate the dissemination of strategic, unclassified information.” Further clarifying the Army’s intent to leverage social media sites as propaganda are requirements that blog posts be vetted by a supervising officer and provisions for shutting down blogs failing to meet this mandate. The continuing debate over whether – and to what extent – soldiers should have access to social media sites is framed by the military’s concern for the protection of classified information on the one hand, and soldiers’ yearning for communication, self-expression and privacy, on the other.

The Military's Fight Against Social Media

There can be no straight-faced denial that the military is empowered to ban soldiers from accessing social media sites, or that it may allow access on proscribed terms. Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution vests Congress with far-ranging war powers. The Supreme Court is particularly deferential to Congress’ war powers – including the power to “make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval forces” – even upholding the confinement of Japanese-American in camps during World War II. Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944). Likewise, the Supreme Court has refused to hear challenges to the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which seemingly entails a more strident repudiation of privacy and freedom than banning access to social media. Thus, any challenge to military policies banning or proscribing access to social media must be founded on policy, and not legal, arguments. This is especially true given the rationality of the military’s position. Undoubtedly, social media may be used to divulge – either intentionally or unintentionally – classified information. It would be impractical and likely impossible for the military to monitor all of its soldiers’ use of social media to insure that no such breach occurs. Even if such monitoring were feasible, the military assuredly could decide that it represents an unwise dedication of resources and manpower. Given the disastrous and potentially fatal consequences of a soldier posting classified information on a social media site or blog, any court would likely find the restriction on privacy and freedom occasioned by banning or restricting their use to be more than balanced out by the governmental concerns at stake.

A Return Volley: The Value of Social Media to the Military

As stated, arguments supporting soldiers’ access to social media sites should be framed on policy, not legal, grounds. This paper suggests two such grounds: the development of a modern-day, oral history of war; and, normalizing soldiers’ experiences abroad, especially through the maintenance of regularized communication with friends and family.

A Homeric Tradition

Through blogs, website posts and conversations conducted via social media sites, soldiers can be seen as continuing to practice the handing down of oral histories of battles and armies that has occurred throughout human history and produced some of mankind’s greatest achievements. The Iliad, the Epic of Gilgamesh, even the Old Testament may be seen as the results of this oral tradition. Blogs and website posts are little more than the modern day equivalents of blind poets and wandering historians. The preservation of this history may have numerous benefits for the military. First, it freezes a ground-level account of battles, morale and tactics that may be profitably studied. Second, it establishes a human connection between a war, its soldiers, and their countrymen. Citizens hear not just about casualties and territories, but gain exposure to unadulterated accounts of the actual battlefield and the men on it. In fact, the military has seemingly embraced the value of contemporaneously recording the accounts of soldiers and wars, as demonstrated by its increasing willingness to embed journalists and newscasters. Permitting soldiers to post about their experiences on blogs and social media sites, while still maintaining discretion to vet such posts and blogs, allows the military “to dominate the information environment,” while still preserving vital histories and fostering connections between soldiers and citizens.

Home Sweet Home

Further, allowing soldiers reasonable access to social media would ease their transition to foreign service, allow for more fluid contact with their friends and relatives at home and demonstrate abiding respect for their privacy and autonomy. Considering the ever-increasing rates of PTSD among soldiers, and the stress caused by exposure to increasingly foreign lands and cultures, there is much to be said for facilitating the maintenance of soldiers’ comfortable routines while they serve abroad. Given the large number of Americans aged 18-34 who use Facebook and other social media sites, as well as the ability of those sites to allow soldiers to engage with friends and family back home, allowing soldiers continued access to those sites would likely soothe some of the many traumas involved in foreign service.


In conclusion, the debate whether to allow soldiers access to social media sites prompts persuasive arguments from both sides. Given the vital security concerns at play, especially in light of the Ft. Hood massacre, the military must provide for some oversight and limitations on soldiers’ access to social media sites and blogging. Ultimately, the best strategy – especially given the costs of monitoring – might be the institution of severe and effectively disseminated penalties for distributing confidential information. In that way, the above-mentioned benefits still accrue, while the military’s security concerns are allayed through law’s deterrent effect. ]

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