By Jason Kelly
U.S. Navy Digital Media Engagement Director
Back in 2008, political and media analysts dubbed that year’s presidential election the YouTube election since the candidates used the platform to post videos longer than traditional political ads.
Fast forward to 2016 where now a third of 18- to 29-year-olds say social media is their most helpful source for learning about this year’s presidential election, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center.
More social media opportunities exist now for Americans to share everything from their favorite cat photos to their personal opinions, including about this year’s presidential election.
So what do Sailors and Department of the Navy civilians need to know before they post, tweet and snap their political opinions? The information below doesn’t cover everything but, if in doubt, consult your command’s ethics representative.
Active-duty Sailors may generally express their personal views about public issues or political candidates using social media — just like they can write a letter to a newspaper’s editor. If the social media site or content identifies the Sailor as on active duty (or if they’re reasonably identifiable as an active-duty Sailor), then the content needs to clearly and prominently state that the views expressed are those of the individual only and not those of the Department of Defense (DoD). However, active-duty service members may not engage in any partisan political activity such as posting or making direct links to a political party, partisan political candidate, campaign, group or cause. That’s the equivalent of distributing literature on behalf of those entities or individuals, which is prohibited.
Active-duty Sailors can like or follow accounts of a political party or partisan candidate, campaign, group or cause. However, they cannot suggest that others like, friend or follow them or forward an invitation or solicitation.
Remember, active-duty service members are subject to additional restrictions based on the Joint Ethics Regulation, the Uniform Code of Military Justice and rules about the use of government resources and government communications systems, including email and internet.
What about Sailors who aren’t on active duty? They’re not subject to the above social media restrictions so long as they don’t reasonably create the perception or appearance of official sponsorship, approval or endorsement by the DoD.
Department of the Defense civilians.
DoD civilians need to consider the Hatch Act and DoD policy.
In general, federal employees may use social media and email and comply with the Hatch Act if they:
- Don’t engage in political activity while on duty or in the workplace, even if the employee is using their personal smartphone, tablet or laptop to do so. Federal employees are “on duty” when they’re in a pay status (including during telework hours) other than paid leave or are representing the government in an official capacity
- Don’t engage in political activity in an official capacity at any time
- Don’t solicit or receive political contributions at any time
Political activity refers to any activity directed at the success or failure of a political party or partisan political group or candidate in a partisan race.
Below is a list of some frequently asked questions. For additional FAQs, visit http://www.dod.mil/dodgc/defense_ethics/resource_library/hatch_act_and_social_media.pdf.
Q: May a federal employee engage in political activity on social media?
A: Yes, they may express their opinions about a partisan group or candidate in a partisan race by posting, liking, sharing, tweeting or retweeting, but there are a few limitations. The Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from:
- Engaging in any political activity via social media while on duty or in the workplace
- Referring to their official titles or positions while engaged in political activity at any time (note that including an employee’s official title or position on one’s social media profile, without more, is not an improper use of official authority)
- Suggesting or asking anyone to make political contributions at any time, including providing links to the political contribution page of any partisan group or candidate in a partisan race or liking, sharing or retweeting a solicitation from one of those entities and invitation to a political fundraising event. However, an employee may accept an invitation to a political fundraising event from such entities via social media.
Further restricted employees also may express their opinions about a partisan group or candidate in a partisan race by posting or sharing content, but there are a few limitations. In addition to the limitations above, the Hatch Act prohibits further restricted employees from:
- Posting or linking to campaign or other partisan material of a partisan group or candidate in a partisan race
- Sharing those entities’ social media sites or their content, including retweeting
Q: If a federal employee lists his or her official title or position on Facebook, may he or she also complete the “political views”?
A: Yes, identifying political party affiliation on a social media profile, which also contains one’s official title or position, without more, isn’t an improper use of official authority.
Q: May a federal employee display a political party or campaign logo or a candidate photograph as his profile picture?
A: Yes, but subject to the following limitations. Because a profile picture accompanies most actions on social media, a federal employee would not be permitted—while on duty or in the workplace—to post, share, tweet or retweet any social media content because each such action would show their support for a partisan group or candidate in a partisan race, even if the content of the action is not about those entities.
Q: May a federal employee – while on duty or in the work place – send or forward a partisan political email from his or her government email account or their personal email account to others?
A: No, they can’t send or forward a partisan political email from either their government email account or their personal email account (even using a personal device) while at work. A partisan political email is defined as one that is directed at the success or failure of a partisan group or candidate in a partisan race.
Again, the above information doesn’t cover every situation. If in doubt, consult your command’s ethics counselor.
Don’t forget the presidential election is November 8. For voting information, visit DoD’s Federal Voting Assistance Program’s website.