JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas --
It all begins with a duck-face, a peace sign and a selfie.
From there, a photo taken in front of the dining facility at Forward Operating Base Wherever is posted to Airman Duck-face's Facebook wall. It is shared by crazy Aunt Jane, who passes it along to Cousin Joey. Joey is friends with a bunch of people and is obsessed with getting at least 1,000 "Likes" so he shares, tags and sends the photo to everyone he has ever cyber-known. One of his followers is trolling the internet from an unknown location in the same country as Airman Duck-face. Lucky for him, this Airman does not understand the capabilities of her camera or the power of social media. With a couple clicks of his mouse, the terrorist has the exact geographic coordinates of the dining facility at FOB Wherever.
During lunch the next day, an incident accounts for the worst loss of life in a single attack since the beginning of the War on Terror and crazy Aunt Jane and Cousin Joey begin to mourn.
Although the previous scenario was fictitious, it is based on a very real possibility that exists with available technology in cameras and smartphones.
This chilling possibility became a reality in 2004 as an explosion in Iraq tore a foot-wide hole in the thick concrete floor of the mess hall and sprayed shrapnel into a line where American soldiers, civilian contractors and Iraqi troops were waiting to be served lunch. As a New York Times story stated, "...it is not clear...whether insurgents somehow obtained coordinates of the dining tent." The attack wounded 72 and killed 22 people, including 18 Americans.
It is unknown if this attack was the result of social media leaks, but there are ways to help prevent future attacks. Understanding the power of digital devices and social media is one way; learning the roles and responsibilities of Airmen is another.
According to the Air Force Social Media Guide, there are a couple things Airmen should remember when communicating online using social media: you're responsible for what you say and consider how your words and actions can be interpreted.
The guide states: "You are personally responsible for what you say and post on social networking services and any other medium."
A photo taken for fun and intended for a select audience can quickly spread and become a viral service or even national embarrassment. Once posted to the internet, that post is a permanent record. It's a good rule of thumb that Airmen should be able to explain their posts to their commanders.
The guide also states: "Consider how a post can be interpreted by the public. Be cautious about crossing the line between funny and distasteful. If you have doubts about whether you should post something, err on the side of caution."
There have been many examples of indiscretion recently. Disrespect to a Prisoner of War/Missing In Action logo as well as a post complaining about performing honor guard duties in bad weather are two recent examples. These issues quickly gained national attention once posted to the Web and presented the service members, their peers and leaders and their services in a negative light.
Once Airmen understand their role in social media, the next step is to understand the capabilities of their digital devices. In the scenario mentioned earlier, the capability in question is called geotagging.
Geotagging is defined in the AFSMG as adding "geographical identification data to photos, videos, websites and text messages through location-based applications. This technology helps people find images and information based on a location from a mobile device or desktop computer."
Depending on the device, geotagging may be turned on automatically. It can usually be easily disabled in the settings of the device whether it is a smartphone or digital camera. Be sure that applications do not have access to your location and that your GPS settings and location services are turned off. For more information on your device and its capabilities, be sure to check the user manual associated with that device.
Airmen have a great story to tell-the Air Force story. Social media can be a fantastic medium to tell that story but Airmen must remember to always keep operations security and military bearing at the forefront of every decision. It is imperative every Airman understand his or her role in social media and how to use the unique features of their digital devices. Remember, it only takes one duck-face selfie to spark a national incident, mission failure or loss of life.
For more information on an Airmen's role in social media, check out the Air Force Social Media Guide located at http://www.af.mil/Portals/1/documents/SocialMediaGuide2013.pdf