How Not to Behave on Social Media: A Guide for Mid-Grade and Senior Military Leaders, Part One of Several

Hello, fellow field grade officers and all you senior staff non-commissioned officers out there.

Generals and Admirals, Captains and Colonels, I hope you’re reading as well, along with your Sergeants Major, Chief Master Sergeants, and Command Master Chiefs.

It was a Friday, and being my 8th day of quarantine after returning from a year-long deployment, I was passing a bit of time by scrolling through my Twitter feed.

Lo and behold, a brand-name Sergeant Major was lecturing a junior officer on a Tweet where the young warrior was calling out a Command Sergeant Major (CSM) for a questionable reply he’d made to a young woman’s Tweet — a woman who clearly identified herself, in her Twitter bio, as being in ROTC.

The post in question?

A female officer candidate had posted a picture, six months ago, with the caption “Would you date her?” It’s clearly intended to be ironic, as the candidate herself confirmed — meant as a joke for her very small group of Twitter followers, most of them people in her age group.

To this rhetorical question the CSM had answered — “Yes.”

Here’s the first part about how not to behave on social media. If you’re a married officer or staff non-commissioned officer or , it’s simply not a good idea to weigh in on the date-worthiness of officer candidates. It’s just not. Even if you’re single, still a really bad idea.

If you have a flash of insight and realize that what you just posted was incredibly stupid, it’s OK to just delete your Tweet. Really, it is. Just remember that screenshots are a thing and the internet never forgets, but more on that later.

Here’s what not to do, especially if it’s almost midnight. Don’t send the young officer candidate a Direct Message saying, in a nutshell “I didn’t know you were an officer candidate, but you are an adult, I’m not a stalker, and I don’t want any drama, sooo…”

Because here’s the thing. Most people have friends, most people in the military on social media have at least a few friends and followers who have a little bit of rank and aren’t afraid to call out inappropriate behavior. And that’s what this is.

Is it a violation of a military order? Probably not. Does it pass any of the quick tests for ethics? “What would (insert religious figure here) do?” Not that. “Would you want this on the front page of the New York Times?” Hey, you deleted your Tweet so I’m assuming the answer is “no.”

But OK… let’s say you don’t realize what you did is inappropriate until someone calls you out for it. How should you respond?

It’s certainly OK to simply delete the Tweet, but remember what I said about screenshots. Also, remember what I said about not sending Direct Messages trying to explain your actions.

If you want to apologize, do it publicly. Screenshot your own Tweet, and write 280 characters stating that it was a bad idea, that you won’t be doing it again, and noting how others can learn from your mistake.

Let me point out again that there should be not attempt to explain your behavior — rationalizing is not apologizing — and there is no rationale that justifies this sort of behavior.

Here’s what you shouldn’t do. Don’t change your banner to say “Welcome to my timeline, stalker.” That’s a very bad look, especially if you have publicly identified yourself by your rank and full name previously. I followed you at some point based on that rank and full name, because I think it’s great, generally speaking, that there are so many senior enlisted leaders from the Army on Twitter.

I unfollowed the CSM in question immediately because of how he publicly reacted to the very legitimate criticism of a single instance of questionable online behavior. But there are still 702 people who are following him — everyone from two-star Generals to 2nd Lieutenants; other CSMs, Soldiers, and civilians — and he’s not setting a very good example at this point.

Now, let’s pause for a moment to see how some folks are doing Twitter well. Remember the beginning of this true story? A junior officer in another service called out the CSM’s behavior with a Tweet. That officer carefully blacked out all the identifying information in the screenshot, and his Tweet basically said in much fewer words what this article has said so far: “if you are a senior enlisted leader (say, a CSM), you shouldn’t be commenting on an officer candidate’s posts from last year about whether you would date them or not, just saying…” — Note that he called out the behavior — not the specific CSM.

Good on that guy. Saw a problem, called it out, kept everyone’s identities hidden, and it literally didn’t have to go any farther than that. Rewind really quick to the part above where I said “let’s say you don’t realize what you did is inappropriate until someone calls you out for it.”

Unfortunately, rather than simply deleting, or deleting with a public apology, our CSM goes the “welcome to my timeline, stalker” route. But it gets worse.

I mean, it really gets worse.

Another Sergeant Major, this time one who has a pretty big following and regularly interacts with Generals on his timeline, jumps on the case of our bold young officer who’s standing up for what’s right, and calling out what’s wrong — without doing any research into the backstory.

Again, with a bit of paraphrasing, he says “What an incredibly bad Tweet… This is an undeserved critique. I think there are other people you should go after instead… I’d hate to to think this will turn into a ‘he said, she said,’ but that’s what will probably happen.”

OK, first, it was a well-deserved critique. Second, if you as a Sergeant Major know of “other targets more worthy of the scrutiny” then you should probably be the one providing that scrutiny. Most importantly, “he said, she said,” is a hell of a loaded term, especially when (remember those screenshots?) it is, as another member of the Twitterati pointed out “less of a he said she said, and more of he did and she has proof…”

So, enter your narrator, stage left.

I took a look at the exchange, sent a quick note to the officer who posted the redacted screenshots asking politely if I could take a look at the originals, and specifically said that if he wasn’t comfortable sharing, that was OK too…

He shared them, I went to the CSM’s page, saw what I saw, and sent the Sergeant Major a note saying that maybe this was a good time to stop CSM-splaining and start mentoring his peer.

Then I soaked up the righteous anger of some other junior officers who called this all out for what it is — the unfortunate reaction of senior leaders to close ranks at the first sign one of their own might have screwed up and say “I’ve seen careers ruined this way” — and the fact that while one Sergeant Major weighed in, the way the Twitter algorithm works, and based on his follower-set, there’s a high probability that more than a few general officers and other E-9s saw this whole thing unfold and just quietly scrolled on past.

Paraphrasing moderately, the recurrent themes were, “What that CSM did was inappropriate. Sergeant Major, your opinion would be irrelevant if it weren’t for your rank, and position… I hope you haven’t been this dismissive of your soldiers in the past… We implore you to believe women when they say they are uncomfortable… What’s frustrating is when senior leaders do the very thing we heard them tell us not to do… We’re told not to be bystanders — ‘Call it out! Say something!’ — well, this officer did, and look what the response is…”

And that’s why I wrote this article. To highlight this problem. Not just that too many of the perpetrators of this sort of creepy behavior are my peers — white men in their 40s, in the field grade and senior staff noncommissioned officer ranks, but that too many of us “scroll by” questionable activity when we see it, and when our more enlightened junior officers and NCOs call it out, the first reaction is often to support the perpetrator, not their targets.

This sends a terrible message to our young leaders, and to our troops. We can and must to better.

I salute the brave voices who stood up in this case, and I ask you to keep standing up, to keep the faith with your peers and those you lead, and be the change you want to see in the DoD.

To those who scrolled by, I remind you again that the standard you scroll past is the standard you accept.

Author’s Notes:

  • I could have filled this with screenshots of the actual Tweets — I’ve chosen not to — at this point.
  • Likewise, the material in quotes is not verbatim quotes of the Tweets in question, but paraphrasing close enough to make the point, and distant enough that if you’re not familiar, you’ll have to work to find the originals.
  • The folks who did the right thing; the young officer who brought this to my attention, and the young women most directly and negatively impacted by the CSM’s behavior have reviewed the draft of this article and are comfortable with it being published.
  • Photo Credit, Robert Walls, 2011, https://robertwalls.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/twl4423.jpg

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Edward H. Carpenter

Author, businessman, athlete, Marine officer, and world traveler. Likes rugby, reading, scuba-diving, and volunteer teaching. Hates liver and sea urchins.