WASHINGTON — Skeptical Congress members on Tuesday pressed senior military leaders to take more aggressive action to prevent and punish inappropriate online activity by service members, including posts of “intimate” images on social media sites.
And the military officers said a weeks-old investigation into nude photo-sharing by Marines online now involves all the services and has expanded to other websites, including a Tumblr page that has pornographic photos of people in various military uniforms.
“It’s time to get serious about this,” Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., told the military officers during a hearing of the House Armed Services personnel subcommittee on Tuesday, where they outlined what is being done to improve social media policies.
Speier said a social media policy isn’t enough, because the problem is “cultural rot” that has spread and thrived within the military. “This is about service members deliberately trying to degrade, humiliate, and threaten fellow service members. They encouraged stalking, distributed stolen intimate photos, and have reduced their comrades to a collection of parts,” she said.
Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., the subcommittee chairman, said it’s clear that the social media policies haven’t been effective. And the panel asked that the military services come back in four months with an update on their progress.
The Navy and the Marine Corps told the panel they are considering new ways to punish inappropriate online activity by service members, including posts of “intimate” images on social media sites.
Marine Lt. Gen. Mark Brilakis, deputy commandant for manpower affairs, said they are weighing regulations to prohibit the knowing and wrongful disclosure of an intimate image. He said they are looking at expanded ways to discharge service members guilty of online misconduct.
Lawmakers also questioned whether the social media policies can be used to prosecute someone for what is considered revenge porn. That is when an intimate photo is taken and shared willingly with a partner or spouse, but later is distributed online by that partner without the subject’s permission. More than 30 states have revenge porn laws.
Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for personnel, said that in a previous case an airman was charged with revenge porn under the current Uniform Code of Military Justice.
The Tuesday hearing is the latest response to former and current female Marines reporting that their photographs and those of other women service members were posted online without their consent. The postings triggered investigations by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. So far, only women Marines have come forward as victims.
Last week, the Marines issued a longer and more detailed social media policy that lays out the professional and legal ramifications of online misconduct.
Maj. Gen. Jason Evans, director of Army personnel management, said his service updated social media regulations in 2015 to prevent unprofessional behavior. He said the Army policy prohibits online conduct that undermines “dignity and respect,” including hazing and bullying.
The photo-sharing scandal centered on nude and other intimate photos Marines and others shared on social media, including a private, men-only Facebook page called Marines United and a Google Drive linked to the page. Investigators also are looking into threatening and obscene comments posted alongside the photos.
The Facebook page has been taken down. The Google Drive link is also gone, although officials say the photos likely migrated to other sites.
As of late last week, at least 20 women victims have come forward.