In April, the State Department issued a cable reminding employees that they “should be aware of their responsibilities and the potential consequences to official Department business of personal social media activity and communications that occur on digital platforms (such as WhatsApp, texts, emails, and instant messages). Consequences to Department business can include the disruption of Department operations and impairment of working relationships.”
The cable notes that “Employees must comply with all applicable Department rules related to activity on personal social media and digital platforms, including Hatch Act limitations and the Department’s guidance on political activities.”
Employees are reminded that if they “engage in public communications on matters of Departmental concern (as outlined in 3 FAM 4173) through their personal social media accounts must seek advance review. The Bureau of Global Public Affairs conducts this review for employees assigned domestically. Employees assigned abroad must seek review from their Chief of Mission and should abide by post’s media policy.”
Employees are advised that they “may not use personal social media accounts for official communications and must not claim to represent the Department, the U.S. government, or U.S. government policies on personal social media accounts (10 FAM 181-182).”
The cable warns that “Failure to follow Department policies on personal social media and communications through digital platforms may result in a proposal for disciplinary action, up to and including separation.”
The ALDAC also notes that the guidance “is not meant to infringe or restrict employees’ freedom of expression; it is a reminder that employees should be mindful of how their social media use may interfere with the Department’s ability to effectively and efficiently carry out its mission and responsibilities.”
Under “Communicate Responsibly” the guidance says in part:
Social media activity or messaging on digital platforms that results in disruption to the efficiency of the service or workplace may impact an employee’s assignment, security clearance, performance evaluation, or otherwise have professional repercussions, including disciplinary action. Likewise, when an employee who uses official Department equipment, like their work computer or cell phone, to make or post communication that has a derogatory effect on the mission or workplace, the employee may be subject to disciplinary action. Some examples of potentially disruptive activity or messaging may include:
· Making unfavorable or disparaging comments about one’s colleagues or supervisors;
· Referring to a host country or its living conditions in disparaging terms;
· Posting about activities that are illegal or otherwise proscribed in a host country;
· Making jokes about topics that are culturally sensitive in a host country;
· Making comments disparaging to another individual based on race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or national origin; or
· Posting comments that are critical of or reflect negatively on a mission or a mission’s programs.
Under “Security Issues”, the guidance says:
15. In addition to the prohibition on disclosing sensitive, classified, and other protected nonpublic information discussed above, employees abroad may not transmit, publish, or stream live video or photographs from inside Post or Chief of Mission facilities without clearance from the Regional Security Officer (RSO), per established procedures for approved public events.
16. Engaging in online and digital activities can be a security risk. Posting information to personal social media accounts, or in messaging groups in any capacity or format, could allow ill-intentioned actors to leverage employees’ information for malicious purposes, including coercion, intimidation, or embarrassment. It could also potentially expose employees to counterintelligence operations.
17. Department employees are encouraged to implement the strongest privacy and security settings offered for their personal social media accounts and to exercise caution when sharing information in messaging groups in order to prevent malicious actors from viewing or accessing their personal information. This does not ensure, however, that any information posted on these forums or others will either remain private or prevent others from seeking to gain leverage or influence over Department employees. More information and tips on securing personal social media accounts are available in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS), Directorate of Cyber and Technology’s (CTS) Cybersecurity Awareness Social Media Guide.
Below is the section for “The Hatch Act and Political Activities”:
20. Department employees are generally permitted to express opinions about political topics on personal social media accounts so long as they do not:
· Claim to represent the Department or U.S. government when expressing those views;
· Disclose sensitive or classified information;
· Address matters of Departmental concern (or the employee seeks the appropriate advance review if they do); or
· Express themselves in a manner inconsistent with applicable Department rules, including the Hatch Act or the Department’s guidance on political activities (see Refs B and C for further information).
(Note to self: Search for B) 19 STATE 65258 (Political Activities Guidance) and C) 20 STATE 71636 (2020 Hatch Act/Political Activities).
No doubt this reminder was prompted by this case and this other one where career State Department employees gave the agency a headache for what they wrote and/or broadcast on social media. Guidance like this may dissuade some employees from being vocal about their opinions on social media even in private accounts. However, given the current polarization in this country, it is also possible that some employees will not be discouraged, and will be ready and prepared for the official push back.