15 February 2012

Social Media First-Aid Kits for Mil-Families

Soldiers and families should be issued Social Media First-Aid Kits, along with checklists and battle-drills to execute when the Internet explodes in their faces.

After all:
  • We train soldiers basic life-saving procedures: Stop the bleeding, treat for shock, call for evacuation.
  • We train soldiers to engage newspaper, television, and radio journalists: Tell the truth; avoid operational or classified details; always assume that everything you say will appear in print, or on the air, or on the Internet.
  • We even teach our soldiers and families to prepare for the worst: Write last wills and testaments, document powers-of-attorneys, designate insurance beneficiaries.
No one, however, tells soldiers and families what to do if the Internet blows up in their directions. Take, for example, the recent experience of a young, pregnant, and geographically isolated military wife and blogger, who, along with her U.S. Army recruiter husband, published some controversial statements about the U.S. Army National Guard. (The incident was previously mentioned on the Red Bull Rising blog here.)

The couple's comments quickly went viral. Commenters to the blog post escalated from taking issue with her and her husband's opinions, to personal attacks and ridicule. Some went so far as to imply physical or emotional threat, by exposing the couple to potential exploitation, harassment, and assault. How? By making personal data and photos published on Facebook available to the Internet hordes.

The couple first locked down the comments section of the blog, and later removed all personal photos and previous entries on the blog. Finally, the blog was deleted altogether.

Notably, the soldier's local command team—a captain and a sergeant first class—took the heroic step of placing itself between the couple and the Internet. The leaders published a public response to the controversy, along with their own contact information, including telephone numbers and e-mail addresses. They probably took more than a little heat for that, both from their own command and the raging public, but it was the right thing to do at a time when there were no easy answers or Army battle-drills.

"I am responsible for everything my unit does and fails to do ... even on the Internet."

*****

What goes for "Army wives gone wild" also goes for those who receive news of a loved one's death or injury. When bad news happens to private citizens, the last things on their minds should be updating their Facebook statuses.

That's why someone needs to do it for them.

While preparing for my own deployment as a citizen-soldier, it was part of my job to advise my commander on the advantages and disadvantages of online media. In my personal time, I also began experimenting with blogging and social media, including the Red Bulll Rising blog. Almost by accident, I found I could collect private details online about a fellow soldier's grieving family and friends, and the circumstance of his injury and death, even prior to the news becoming public.

That scared me silly. Back in the day, working in a pre-Internet newsroom, I would've at least had to pick up a telephone to write a death notice or obituary. Today, all I had to do was hear a rumor and check out the Internet.

Without telling people why at the time, I attempted to scare as many of my friends, family, and fellow-soldiers as I could with that insight, too.

Bottom line: We need to help our families prepare for the worst, and that includes how to care for our online identities if we're injured or killed.

Here a few tips and techniques for soldiers and families to consider:
  • Ensure that your online posts, comments, audio, photo, and video recordings do nothing to bring discredit on you, your family, your unit, or the branch of service in which you serve.
  • If and when the unthinkable happens—you're wounded, killed, or otherwise unable to defend yourself and your family online—the digital executor should disable, delete, memorialize, or otherwise make your accounts temporarily, permanently, or partially unavailable.

    Note that, if you do not give a trusted someone explicit instructions and full access privileges to your accounts, online services like Facebook and Twitter may require a death certificate, obituary, and proof of relationship to the deceased.

    Click here for how to deactivate, delete, or memorialize a Facebook account.

    Click here for how to report a deceased user to Twitter.
  • In addition to a digital executor, designate in writing a spokesperson, who, in the event of your injury or death, will represent the family to the media. Bonus tip: That person doesn't have to be a family member. They'll have enough to deal with if you get killed. Your unit's or installation's public affairs office may be able to provide guidance and assistance.
  • Discuss and document your/your family's wishes regarding media presence at your funeral.
  • Discuss and document with your family whether or not you feel a memorial online presence is appropriate.

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