AFSA Guidance on the Personal Use of Social Media

I just saw this guidance on the personal use of social media from the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the professional association of the United States Foreign Service. The organization has close to 16,000 dues-paying members and represents over 28,000 active and retired Foreign Service employees of the Department of State, Agency for International Development (AID), Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS), Foreign Commercial Service (FCS), and International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB). I believe this is the first guidance issued by AFSA on this subject. Republished below in full:

We are fortunate to live in a world where innovative technology allows us to communicate in new and wondrous ways.  Social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and blogs now allow us to communicate instantaneously with potentially thousands of “fans” and “followers.”  Just as the State Department and the other foreign affairs agencies have embraced these new communication tools, many of our members are using innovative ways to connect with audiences in their private and professional capacities.

AFSA supports the use of social media.  But any form of communication – via social media, telephone, e-mail, or just old-fashioned conversations – is governed by social norms and etiquette, and requires good judgment and common sense. Anyone who has ever said something they wish they hadn’t, tried to recall an e-mail sent in haste, or deleted a comment on Facebook understands the impact that the spoken and written word can have in our personal and professional lives. Electronic media – particularly anything broadcast over the internet – presents its own unique perils and challenges.  As the saying goes, “What happens on the internet, stays on the internet.”

AFSA is currently examining the evolving issue of the use of social media by Foreign Service employees.  In the meantime, we offer these words of advice to any of our members who are currently or planning to use social media, particularly blogs:

Read the Existing Regulations.  The current regulations regarding the use of social media can be found in 5 FAM 790 “Using Social Media (pdf).  Although we understand that some of these rules with their cross-references to other FAM cites are confusing, we strongly recommend that any AFSA member using social media – especially where the lines between professional, personal and private use may be blurred – read them and if you don’t understand something – ask.

Avoid Divulging Private and Confidential Information.  Here is where many people run afoul of the regulations.  Be sure not to divulge any information that includes confidential or personally identifiable information.  Examples of these include but are not limited to visa cases, information about other individuals, or classified information (for example, linking to WikiLeaks.)

Remember that you are a Foreign Service USG employee.  Even though you may have the required disclaimer on your blog, be aware that the public still may not differentiate between your official and private views.  You should be mindful of the weight of your expressed views as a U.S. government official, particularly when your blog uses the “hook” of your Foreign Service connections to attract readers.

Review Your Privacy Settings.  Make sure you are aware of the privacy settings of the social media platform you are using and how to adjust them.  Platforms such as Facebook often change these settings without informing users.  Periodic review of these settings is important, and we recommend having them set to the highest levels.  For blogs, you may even want to consider restricting access so that only your family, friends and colleagues have access.

Use Good Judgment.  We can’t emphasize this enough.  As we noted above, all forms of human communication require good judgment, tact, etc.  And what happens on the internet, stays on the internet.  When in doubt, leave it out.

Contact Us If You Have Problems.  If you are an AFSA member and are approached by management or Diplomatic Security regarding your use of social media, be sure to contact us so that we can assist you with any legal or other issues.

We hope the above information is useful.  We do want to hear from our members regarding this evolving issue.  If you have a concern or opinion regarding the use of social media, please let us know via www.afsa.org or call us at 202-338-4045.  For assistance with issues related to social media, please contact our labor management office at 202-647-8160 or e-mail AFSA’s lead attorney on the issue, Raeka Safai, at SafaiR@state.gov.

If you are a blogger in the FS community, I encourage you to take this opportunity to reach out to AFSA. Although “AFSA is currently examining the evolving issue of the use of social media by Foreign Service employees,” family members of Foreign Service employees are similarly affected.  AFSA should hear the voices of family members so they have a fuller view of this issue.  AFSA need to hear the stories and concerns of FSOs as well as family members so it can effectively craft a more comprehensive guidance in the future.

Domani Spero

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US Mission Afghanistan: Braces for More Protests, Encourages Amcits to Shelter in Place

The US Embassy in Kabul issued the following Emergency Message to U.S. citizens on February 23, 2012:

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul alerts U.S. citizens residing or traveling in Afghanistan that there is a strong likelihood of continued protests around the country on February 24, 2012. Over the past two days, demonstrations have occurred across Afghanistan and have occasionally turned violent, resulting in injuries and in some cases death. The protests are in reaction to the attempt by ISAF personnel to improperly dispose of Islamic religious materials, including Korans, at Bagram Airbase on February 20, 2012. In some instances, American and ISAF installations have been attacked.

According to media reports, at least one demonstration is planned for February 24, 2012 in Kabul city, and more are possible following the end of Friday prayers. Road closures are expected and it is possible the protests will become violent.

The Embassy strongly encourages all U.S. citizens in Kabul and throughout Afghanistan to shelter in place and avoid any unnecessary movement. We wish to remind U.S. citizens that past demonstrations in Afghanistan have escalated into violent attacks on Western targets of opportunity. U.S. citizens are therefore urged to avoid the areas of demonstrations if possible, and to exercise caution if within the vicinity of any demonstrations, spontaneous or planned.

U.S. citizens in Afghanistan should remain vigilant and avoid areas where Westerners congregate. Do not discuss travel plans or other personal matters with strangers, or in public. Be alert and aware of your surroundings, and always travel with mobile phones or appropriate communication equipment. The Embassy is carefully monitoring the situation and reviewing its security posture, and may send out additional emergency messages as the situation evolves.

On February 22, U.S. Embassy Kabul ‏ @USEmbassyKabul, tweeted:

On the same day, the State Department’s Mark Toner was asked during the DPB what does the lockdown of the embassy exactly entails.  Here is what Mr. Toner says:

MR. TONER: I mean, lockdown is a bit overly dramatic, I think. My understanding is that there was an announcement or a suspension, rather, of all travel of chief-of-mission personnel. And my understanding, too, is that movement was later suspended for employees in the southern part of Afghanistan as well. And this announcement was pushed out over the embassy website as well as via Twitter, and this restriction on travel is still in place.

On February 23, ‏ @USEmbassyKabul also tweeted, “We have expanded our movement restrictions to RC-North as well. Please be safe out there.” Now that’s dramatic, too.

Also on February 23, ISAF says that “an individual wearing an Afghan National Army uniform turned his weapon  against International Security Assistance Force service members in eastern Afghanistan today, killing two service members.”

The attacked reportedly occurred at a military base in Khogyani in eastern Nangarhar province, according to Mohammad Hassan, the district’s governor, cited by the AFP news agency.

The WSJ says that the Afghan soldier who killed the two service members escaped into a crowd of protesters demonstrating outside the base.

Can’t they just say an Afghan soldier killed two of our soldiers? I suppose not, they have to investigate if the individual wearing an Afghan National Army uniform is really a soldier or not, who just happens to be at a military base, with a gun that we may or may not have given him.

To our friends in Kabul, keep your head down and stay safe.

Domani Spero

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