On September 1, the United States Air Force Academy announced a partnership between its athletics department and a private technology company aimed at building academy athletes’ “personal brands.” The same announcement notes that the private company ordinarily aims to “maximize” athletes’ “endorsement value.”
When I contacted USAFA’s athletics department, a spokesperson told me that the deal received legal review, and that Air Force athletes are not permitted to “have endorsements” as federal employees. However, a brief review of social media suggests that the Air Force Academy might enforce this policy loosely, if at all.
For example, one Falcon athlete catalogs her daily activities as a cadet on YouTube. Additional videos the author has posted include “WHAT TO PACK FOR BASIC TRAINING,” “Being a Recruited Athlete at USAFA” (which has since been renamed), and various titles pertaining to academy training. Collectively, her videos have garnered hundreds of thousands of views.
Although it is unclear how much revenue from advertising the athlete earns through YouTube, her profit-seeking motive is clear. She provides over a dozen affiliate marketing links below her videos, from which she stands to benefit personally and financially. Some of these links target incoming academy candidates, a transaction functionally identical to a recruiter accepting a “kickback” from a local bank in exchange for “recommending” their direct deposit account to a recruit. She also advertises her availability for “business inquiries.” Her linked Instagram account provides similar affiliate links and discount codes. Many other high-profile academy cadets and recent graduates engage in similar ventures.
As an institution that lauds itself for inculcating values, such as integrity and public service, the Air Force Academy should tread carefully as it implements this new program. Hundreds, if not thousands, of servicemembers from all over the military pursue similar ventures to that of the Falcon athlete mentioned above. Some have acquired millions of followers on the back of their service-related content.
The US military’s senior leadership must take notice. There is a regulatory framework in place that should govern the use of these accounts, but it has not been enforced as such. The result has been a positive feedback loop in which servicemember content creators in search of ethical boundaries mirror other influencers who have been rewarded, rather than reprimanded, for profiteering. Isolated cases of social media misuse can appear mundane, but the aggregate effect will be a diminution of honor, selfless service, and duty as core tenets of military service.
What Rules Apply?
The Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch preclude servicemembers from using “public office for . . . private gain, for the endorsement of any product, service or enterprise, or for the private gain of friends, relatives, or persons with whom the employee is affiliated in a nongovernmental capacity.” The standards direct employees to “act impartially and not give preferential treatment to any private organization or individual,” and proscribe the receipt of compensation from any source other than the government “for teaching, speaking or writing that relates to the employee’s official duties,” except for limited circumstances. If in doubt, employees are provided a broad telos: they shall “endeavor to avoid any actions creating the appearance that they are violating . . . ethical standards (emphasis added).”
For the purposes of the ethics rules, “employee” means any officer or employee of a federal agency, which includes officers but not enlisted members of the uniformed services. DoD has extended the applicability of ethics standards pertaining to unethical uses of public office to active duty enlisted servicemembers, as well as cadets at service academies.
Some have suggested that servicemembers do not run afoul of ethics rules so long as they avoid endorsing products in uniform. Although applying the rule only in instances when a military uniform is worn would be convenient for influencers, it plainly misreads the rule. Any use of public office for private gain is prohibited. At a minimum, this includes leveraging one’s name, image, and likeness as a servicemember, or any unique access that federal employment provides, in exchange for personal financial gain from non-federal entities. This does not mean that servicemembers cannot profit from telling their military story, it merely limits them from doing so while still on active duty.
Will the Air Force Academy’s program facilitate violations of these rules? In brief, yes, unless additional precautionary measures are taken. But the scope of the danger lies in the extent to which the move will further normalize, by providing high-level imprimatur, servicemembers’ unethical profiteering ventures across all branches and echelons of the military.
If the Air Force Academy continues to allow (and hereinafter enable) its cadets to leverage public office for private gain, albeit through a corporate intermediary, that decision will betray the institution’s true values, will be extremely challenging to walk back, and will have a ripple effect across the military as a whole.
Risk #1: Conflicts of interest will degrade public trust.
The modern digital social media landscape, coupled with incoherent and outdated agency regulations governing social media, will further the normalization of profiteering off of one’s name, image, and likeness as a servicemember. This stands to degrade public trust, as do instances in which profit-seeking ventures detract from perceptions that a servicemember is putting forth a good faith effort to perform his or her duties with the best interest of the federal government in mind.
A brief scan of social media immediately reveals an Air Force airman peddling dietary supplements and energy drinks through his Instagram account and a major who serves as a “rep” for an apparel brand. An Army career counselor posts (in uniform), “Have you reenlisted yet?” while promoting herself as a “brand ambassador.”
One Army drill instructor leverages her platform and access to garner millions of views on YouTube, where she also promotes her own private business ventures. Her videos often appropriate the images and likenesses of basic trainees with whom she is charged. In this novel form of abuse of power, the basic trainees amount to the drill instructor’s unpaid background actors, who lack a meaningful ability to consent to such use.
Abuses are pervasive among officers as well. A Navy public affairs officer uses her official account to promote her private account at nearly every opportunity, and uses her private account to promote sponsored content and her own business ventures. Any separation between the two accounts is, at best, notional. An Army officer promotes his own book on Instagram alongside official DoD imagery of a dignified transfer and myriad images of his work as a company commander. Another Army commander promotes products, services, and her own YouTube channel with images in uniform and descriptions of her professional trajectory in the Army. All of these examples dilute the collective aspiration to “selfless service” for which DoD component branches and the vast majority of their servicemen and women seek to be known.
In a more opaque example, but one that senior leaders must educate themselves on, an Army recruiter operates an official Instagram account for professional military purposes only. The account has tens of thousands of followers. In furtherance of recruiting objectives, the recruiter promotes dozens of servicemembers, as well as their accomplishments. He also “tags” the accounts of several of the featured servicemembers, providing a direct link to their for-profit ventures, complete with affiliate links and product and service advertisements.
Several of these servicemembers outrank the recruiter. Some have actively solicited his high-profile promotion of their private accounts. In promoting those accounts, he has functionally used his official military platform to endorse and amplify the private business ventures of officers who are senior to him. Where these endorsements have occurred at the request of senior officers (or noncommissioned officers), the transactions amount to wanton abuses of power. Other official recruiting accounts participate in similar promotions, often solicited, of servicemembers as both servicemembers and private business entities.
DoD regulations have failed to address this business model, even though federal ethics rules clearly preclude it. A simple banner stating that “likes =/= endorsement” does not cure the fact that a federal employee is actively promoting the private businesses of senior officers, sometimes at their own request.
Risk #2: For-profit content creators have an incentive not to align messages with their federal employer.
NYU Stern School of Business professor Scott Galloway suggests that the value proposition of authenticity lies in providing insight into something that people are not ordinarily allowed to see. Additional contributing factors include humor and controversy. Professor Galloway also jokes that “anything that legal approves . . . can never go viral.”
If Galloway’s hypothesis has any truth to it, then the stated values of DoD components and the self-interest of servicemember content creators may be diametrically opposed. On one hand, each service has a history of maintaining (or, at least, attempting to maintain) a cultivated brand and cohesive brand strategy. On the other, servicemembers who provide unique access and controversial opinions receive much more attention in the modern social media landscape than do authorized official channels.
Stated differently, component branches of the armed forces and individual servicemembers have dissimilar incentives in the social media sphere. The former benefit only through promotion of messages that further institutional objectives, while the latter may benefit financially by extending influence through any means possible. Such means often include messages that run counter to institutional objectives.
A quick look at social media further validates Galloway’s hypothesis. Popular titles from servicemember influencers include “THE LIES MILITARY RECRUITERS TELLS YOU,” “A Day In The Life Of a [sic] Active Duty Army Captain,” “The Untold Truth About Life in the Air Force,” and in the case of one Army officer, “Me pooping.” These titles guarantee the viewer uncompromising authenticity, a lack of curation, and the absence of institutional review. Furthermore, they bait the eyes of potential recruits, future servicemembers, and their families.
Consider the example of one Army sergeant first class and Green Beret assigned to US Army Recruiting Command. The sergeant first class uses his official Instagram account and various video game streaming applications to promote his own brand of merchandise, including a sticker that depicts a cartoon version of himself, wearing his green beret, binge drinking alcoholic beverages with a junior soldier. Although the content of his merchandise changes regularly, he also sold a shirt that read “Just dont be a f***in bitch.” He sells a shirt adorned with his own green-beret laden face, titled “Opsec,” a women’s version he calls “Opsec but as a female,” and another that proclaims “I (heart) Hot Moms.” He also promotes his merchandise through a podcast, a cult-like video game server, and a for-profit Facebook gaming stream.
Perhaps enlightened by his superior’s conduct, the junior soldier depicted in the sticker also operates a social media page that features official DoD imagery as a private business, promoting merchandise that includes a “f*** your feelings” shirt. This soldier is but one of several combat camera operators who use federal equipment, time, and access to promote non-federal entities.
These merchandising efforts may be maximally authentic, and perhaps lucrative for that very reason. However, they are also run counter to the Army Values and, in the case of the sergeant first class, make a mockery of the Special Forces Creed (“I serve quietly, not seeking recognition or accolades”).
As authentic service-related content enables servicemembers to maximize the reach of their messages, their desirability in the marketplace for brand “ambassadors” surges. The result is a landscape in which servicemembers’ abilities to generate revenue aligns with their leveraging of the respect and admiration afforded their profession. Occasionally, it also tracks with their willingness and ability to conform to an edgy persona that runs counter to common perceptions of servicemembers and the armed forces.
Authentic content creators can, and often do, provide immense benefit to the federal institutions with which they are affiliated. When they provide such benefit, they should be evaluated and promoted accordingly. However, where servicemembers earn a federal paycheck, there is no correlative right to use their status or access as federal employees to promote non-federal products and services. Such outside activities tear at the integrity of public service, and have been prohibited by law for that reason.
Civil-military relations can be delicate at best, and require dedicated stewardship by those entrusted to serve in the armed forces. This is particularly true of officers, but also for any servicemember who leverages the magnificently amplified podium that is modern digital social media.
The current pattern of non-enforcement suggests that senior military leaders, few of whom are as familiar with TikTok, YouTube, Twitter, or Instagram as their subordinates, do not understand that misuse is occurring. Isolated instances of abuse within a formation may also be perceived as too insignificant to warrant enforcement. However, a collective norm of non-enforcement will give rise to a pathologically unhealthy system.
Matt Fitzgerald is a graduate of Vanderbilt Law School. He previously served as the Chairman of the Honor Committee at the United States Military Academy at West Point. All errors and omissions are those of the author.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, United States Army Recruiting Command, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Solen Feyissa