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Fort Carson's soldier's selfie spawns Facebook page on military social media missteps

February 28, 2014 Updated: March 3, 2014 at 11:19 am
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Pfc. Tariqka Sheffey is far from alone among soldiers who post pictures online that they - and their commanders - may regret.

Fort Carson's Sheffey, who caused an Internet hurricane this week by posting a "selfie" on a website with the claim that she was hiding in her car to avoid saluting the flag, is likely the best known at the moment. But a Facebook group may change that. Military Social Media Idiots, which has more than 15,000 followers, features soldiers in, and notably out, of uniform.

The group was formed Monday when Sheffey's picture went viral, and she's the first addition to the group's timeline. But dozens of selfies later, the site has gathered a platoon of others in Sheffey's boot steps.

Fort Carson soldier's selfie could land her 2 years in prison

From the dawn of the Internet age, the military has counseled troops on the dangers of exposing themselves to online scrutiny. But, while efforts have largely succeeded in protecting security and keeping secrets safe, stopping stupid posts has been a tougher fight.

Thanks to the First Amendment, soldiers, in most cases, have a right to lack judgement online, experts say.

"Where it becomes dicey is if they identify themselves as members of the service or say or do things that discredit the service or represent a threat to good order and discipline," said Eugene Fidell, who lectures on military law at Yale University. "I do not think it is a threat to good order and discipline if some feckless GI is slightly mischievous."

Sheffey's selfie drew attention at the highest levels of the military.

The public attention to the case wasn't slowing days later. A story on Sheffey's case at gazette.com drew more than 18,000 Facebook shares.

Fort Carson officials on Friday said they continue to investigate the incident.

They also were pondering ways to train soldiers to use common sense online.

But no matter the training, stopping social media gaffes is tougher than stopping an overseas insurgency, said Mike Perini, a Woodland Park public relations expert and veteran who helped form one of the first military social media policies as public affairs boss at U.S. Northern Command.

"You're not able to stop it," he said.

The Heritage Foundation's James Jay Carafano wrote a book on the impact of social media on modern war. He said Sheffey's selfie is of little importance in the big picture of American military might.

"Some of this stuff is just being stupid," he said. "Where you worry about it is when it bleeds over into something that has operational significance."

The Army is painfully familiar with how much damage a private with an Internet connection can inflict. Pfc. Bradley Manning, now known as Chelsea Elizabeth Manning, is serving a 35-year sentence for espionage after a conviction for leaking thousands of intelligence documents as part of the WikiLeaks scandal.

Carafano said lesser incidents such as the one at Fort Carson should be used to teach larger lessons about security and online behavior.

"Incidents like this when someone does something incredibly bone-headed and stupid that winds up on social media - it turns into a teachable moment," he said.

At the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, career center director Bev Kratzer is working to teach students about how a microsecond of online ignorance can affect job prospects.

Posting misguided selfies and other online antics aren't uncommon, she said.

A quick perusal of the Military Social Media Idiots shows everything from shirtless self-portraits to soldiers posting obscenity-laden rants about wearing their uniform caps backward.

The rebellion of youth can be seen as hip and trendy when it is kept between friends, Kratzer said.

"I would say that they think it is the norm, and they don't understand the complications in their soon-to-be professional life," Kratzer said.

Youthful misdeeds don't fade into history in the electronic age, she said.

"You take it down as soon as you possibly can, but of course it never goes away," she said.

Those guilty of online pratfalls need to clean up what they can and admit to their mistakes when asked by employers who comb search engines for embarrassing posts.

"Like any mistake, in an interview, you have to be willing to explain it," she said.

So what should the Army do about Sheffey's selfie?

Fort Carson officials have an array of discipline available, from pushups to prison.

Fidell said commanders need to treat the case as what it is - a private dodging a salute - and let a barking sergeant counsel her on better future behavior.

"Frankly, I think this a case where a word to the wise is the best course," Fidell said. "The last thing the service needs is to create a martyr. My avuncular advice to whoever is calling the shots at Fort Carson is to calm down."

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