PEORIA, Ill. --
February 2014 showed the Internet's ability to alter the course of careers and lives. Between a prisoner of war/missing in action symbol being disrespected, mistreatment of a flagged casket, and incriminating selfies, social media caused a paradigm shift in just days.
Supervisors must now prevent it from happening again. They have to teach Airmen to protect themselves from what they may not know.
All the issues faced in February could have been prevented by using a public affairs concept called "SAPP."
SAPP is an acronym for "security, accuracy, propriety, policy." Official products released to the public must meet those four standards. If they do not, they are not supposed to see the light of day.
If Airmen understand and apply that concept as a standard procedure, both on-duty and off, perhaps an instant can be prevented from ruining a lifetime.
First comes security. The second step is accuracy.
"Accuracy and transparency are essential components of a successful social media program," said Capt. Victoria Hight, the deputy chief of Air Force social media. "With that, it's important to be honest and accurate. Don't make anything up and stay in your lane of expertise."
The consequences of inaccuracy can be far reaching.
The Associated Press, a wire service that provides news to more than 1,400 newspapers, announced Nov. 14, 2008 that it would refuse to accept photos from the Department of Defense because of manipulated photographs given to them by the Army.
The first photograph was a deceased soldier's face pasted onto another soldier's body for an official photograph. The Army chief of media relations division said that it was done because the soldier's unit did not have an official photo of him to use at his memorial service.
The second photograph showed an image of Army Gen. Ann E. Dunwoody sitting at a desk, cropped and pasted over a flag in an attempt to create an official photograph. The Army claimed the portrait did not violate policy because it did not "misrepresent the facts or change the circumstances of an event."
The Associated Press disagreed, and the Department of Defense's photography credibility was tarnished.
Those were probably cases of misguided good intentions. Then Tim Poe showed the world exactly what not to do.
In 2012 former Army Sgt. Tim Poe made headlines when he auditioned for NBC's "America's Got Talent" and received all three of the talent show judges' approvals by performing a country music song.
Before his performance, Poe explained to the judges that he developed a stutter after suffering a rocket-propelled grenade blast to the head that broke his back while deployed to Afghanistan. Poe told the judges said he didn't have any experience singing until his speech therapist recommended singing in the shower to help with his stutter. It was a heartfelt success story and a stunning performance. The show even displayed a photo of him during a deployment in helmet and flack vest carrying an M4 carbine.
America soon found out none of it was true.
According to research done by Stolen Valor, a Facebook community aimed to expose false military claims, Poe only served in Afghanistan for one month and left because of an ear infection. Several of Poe's fellow soldiers also said his story is a fake. Poe's own squad leader said Poe never saw direct enemy contact.
The list goes on. A former band member came forward to say they had performed together for six years. Poe's former wife said she had never heard him stutter.
Even the Minnesota National Guard came out saying that military records indicate the grenade incident never happened, and that Poe was never awarded the Purple Heart for any combat injuries whatsoever.
And the photo of a deployed Sgt. Poe? It was actually a photo an Army staff sergeant named Norman Bone, who was not happy about his picture being used falsely.
It is no coincidence that the Air Force core values begins with "integrity first." It is not just a slogan about accuracy. It is a character trait.
"We define integrity as doing the right then when no one is looking. That means obeying Air Force regulations and instructions while communicating on social media, especially not posting inappropriate images that discredit yourself, the uniform or the Air Force," said Hight.
Given these examples, how do Airmen uphold accuracy on social media? The Air Force Public Affairs Agency publishes the Air Force Social Media Guide that provides guidance for Airmen, families and leaders. It is even available for free download at www.af.mil.
Integrity is especially important to have in the world of social media, where everyone is looking. It is the catalyst for trust, and trust is something we need from the people we serve in order for our mission to survive. Without their support, we're grounded.
Groups like Stolen Valor and Military Social Media Idiots exist to expose truth and unprofessionalism. We already know the world is watching us through the Web. How do we keep the spotlight off us?
First, Airmen can stay in their own lane of traffic when it comes to discussions. Rumors start when people talk about things that they have no expertise or firsthand knowledge of. It is always good to point out when your opinion is an opinion and not fact or the official position of the Air Force.
When you are getting ready to say or post something, always use your best judgment. Once it hits the Web, you cannot take it back and it will be your responsibility forever. The delete button does not work on the Internet.
If you do see inaccuracies on the Internet, you can calmly reply with facts. The Internet is wild with adversarial opinions. Never argue, but instead respectfully correct misrepresentation instead.
It is also important not to impersonate someone you are not when using social media. It is easy to find videos and stories online of military imposters. They get humiliated for the world to see when caught by real members of the armed forces. Imagine how much more the embarrassment would be if a real Airman was caught pretending to be someone he was not.
When you use social media, just operate with the idea that the truth cannot be hidden.
Whether now or later, there will be consequences for having your name associated with an inaccurate post or photo. Be safe rather than sorry and do not put it on the internet!
(Information was used from the LA Times, Fox News, and CNN.)
Editor's note: "Becoming a social media SAPP" is a four-part commentary series written to help Airmen use social media safely.