We Interrupt Our Regularly Scheduled Programming…

…to mention this thoughtful post by one of my favorite FS community bloggers, Diplopundit. It’s a bit long, and I don’t agree with it altogether, but it makes some excellent points, in my humble opinion. A few excerpts, in italics, with my comments.

I don’t think it has anything to do with what you write per se, it has everything to do with fear and the lack of control. Fear from management that your blog has a ready, captive audience and fear that you might write something out of turn.

Absolutely.

I would add my theory that this fear results from State having been consistently behind the curve on internet-related and social media matters pretty much ever since email was invented. Like any cranky, old, inflexible person who hasn’t take the time to learn a new technology, they blame all problems on the technology itself. It’s been going on as long as I can remember–and I’ve been an FS family member for over twenty years now. Lord, it’s getting old.

And they’ve always tried to kill flies with hammers. It wasn’t long ago that my husband actually had two separate computers in his office: one for work and one for the internet, so that he couldn’t possibly download any viruses or spyware. I am not making this up. The two computers had to be physically separated. To this day, he is not allowed to download anything onto his office Blackberry, to bring any work back and forth to the office on a thumb drive, or to otherwise do any of the things that people do every day in the real world so that technology can be more of a help than a hindrance.

It’s just embarrassing.

Thus, FSOs are trusted with classified materials but cannot be trusted to know what they can/cannot write publicly online. Spouses and partners (aka: Eligible Family Members or EFMs) on the other hand should be seen but not read because they ought not have opinions about anything whatsoever, being just spouses and all with no logons (no logons = not real people).

Excellent point. As for employees, either you trust them once they are cleared, or you don’t. As for spouses, not only do we not have our own logons, but to date, State has not even trusted spouses with their own INTERNET site on which they can access all the resources that State is constantly insisting are available to them when they patently are not. I mean, God forbid, on a password-protected internet site, we might tell each other what’s really going on at various posts. Oh wait: we’re already doing that, on pretty much every other internet outlet you can think of. Including blogs. In fact, spouses are out so far ahead of State when it comes to internet and social media it just isn’t even funny. No wonder it makes some people nervous.

EFMs must not blog about how every transfer is like a reinvention of wheels at the Big House because it would make the HR Bureau look bad. They should not blog that their spouse’s HR Technician kept messing up their Travel Orders because it makes the HR staff look incompetent (and some of them are). They should blog zilch /nada about housing, because hey, it’s free housing and the leaking roof should not be a big deal!

From what I’ve seen, 99 percent of the negative remarks that family members make about State on their blogs are not news to anyone. I have a category on my blog called Drexel Hell, applying to any post in which I complain about my 20-year old, stodgy, beat-up furniture. Hello–is there a single person in the FS who doesn’t know about this already? And post housing? Please.  Show me anyone, inside or outside the FS, who loves living in a concrete-block house with barbed wire and broken glass surrounding it, never mind third world plumbing, scary and unreliable electricity, etc. That’s why these are called hardship posts. They involve hardships. Writing frankly and honestly about this stuff is a public service, not a scandal.

Somewhere there’s a fill in the blank form about what EFMs should not blog about, but it’s a secret until they call you or your spouse for that Talk.

The most important point of all.

I am now overseas again, voluntarily,  after seven years in the States, and for that reason, am particularly aware of the bargain that we EFMs strike when we consent to leave the U.S. and live as subjects of the entity called the State Department for a few years. Yes, we are American citizens, with the all the rights and privileges thereof. But when we become diplomatic dependents, the understanding is that State will take care of us, but there are going to be some ground rules.

I thought very carefully about this before agreeing to bid on another overseas post, and I’m OK with it. I get that I don’t have the same freedom to act and speak that I do when I am in my home country, and that’s the price I pay for being able to live overseas with diplomatic immunity. For my own blog, I have chosen to remain more or less anonymous.

Either you are a diplomat or you aren’t, and I don’t think you can reasonably claim the privileges without agreeing to abide by the rules. But there’s an important point to be made about rules. They need to be spelled out, or they aren’t really rules. They are arbitrary decisions. The rules on blogging, especially for family members, have not been spelled out. And that’s just not a fair way to treat people who haul their behinds all over the world for you (not to mention putting up with ugly furniture).

I have seen some family member blogs, I will admit, that I felt were a bit too open with information. I am pretty sure those people simply lacked experience living overseas and needed guidance. You might call it common sense, but actually, I can see that if you have never lived overseas before, or if you have never lived in a high-threat security or crime post, you might not have a good sense of what should or should not be posted. Americans are very open people, and in the internet age, more open than ever. We are not naturally inclined to be secretive or even, really, discreet. You have to work with that.

Whenever we get to a new post, for example, we get a security briefing. That’s because Diplomatic Security “does” security. They understand it. We respect their knowledge. If the RSO says don’t go to that part of town, we don’t go. (Or if we do go, we understand that we are doing it at our own risk.) If you have never lived in a high-threat crime post, this guidance can be extremely useful. I know it was to me, when we were first posted overseas. But DS, and State in general, don’t seem to understand blogging very well, and seem, lately, to be resorting to intimidation rather than guidance in too many cases.

We need someone who “does” social media at State. An office that is staffed by people who actually blog, use Facebook, tweet, etc. And we need practical, common-sense guidelines written by people who understand that the blogging train has already left the station and they’d better learn to drive it. Finally, that guidance needs to be written up in plain language for both officers and family members, and made available to both. I know I would read it.

I saved this post as a draft, and then came back later (after a diplomatic reception) to finish it up. I went back to Diplopundit’s article, and read a comment exchange that is absolutely typical. Someone at State posted about this wonderful “Social Media Hub” on the highly ironically named “Open Net” that will apparently answer all our questions about blogging. Diplopundit’s response:

I am, of course aware of the Social Media Hub, some of my best friends have contributed to it. And since I, obviously are not part of the Federal Government, and have no access to it, it is entirely possible that I have no idea what I’m talking about on what support you provide to your employees. Since EFM-bloggers who have suffered various degrees of harassment, also are not Feds and have limited or no access to your Social Media Hub, how do you propose to help them?

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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7 comments

  1. I remember when the internet was actually put on State pcs. I also had two computers in my office, one so I could connect with the real world and one for State matters only. Want to know how much time was wasted maintaining two systems and going back and forth between the two? Neither do I.

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  2. Hear, Hear. As I former EFM, I could not agree with you more.

    State needs a Social Media office if it is concerned about the possible negative effects of blogging, otherwise, we EFMs need to either be read-in on some rules, or allowed to go our own way. I am all for the latter, of course, since State has done its best to ignore us over the years anyway. Why should it start concerning itself now?

    As to diplomats blogging, State does hold the paycheck leash on them. If you want the job, it comes with a few restrictions on personal freedom, such as you have to advocate for the government even if you don’t agree with the current administration. It is part of the job.

    I do hope that everyone in the FS world now has the judgement to understand some of the security and other concerns that we face in today’s world, and post things on line that are appropriate. Meanwhile, 12 or so years after the fact, I am thinking of getting out the photos of the car-bomb-in-front-of-our-house and posting them on-line. Just a reminder that sometimes we need those 12 foot walls.

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  3. […] Although there aren’t many guidelines for blogging, I’ve developed a few I try to abide by: play nice and follow good OpSec (operational security): no addresses or names, no details on events until after they have happened, broad information after that, no route information, no pictures that identify buildings,– basically everything to make my blog boring and nondescript. Then I can write about my observations and encounters and share them without looking over my shoulder, so to speak. I particularly enjoyed how Well That Was Different broke it down. […]

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  4. Oh, and as the spouse of an IT guy, until there are firewalls and ways to truly prevent security breaches that come with things attached to innocent activity there will be a need for two computers.

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  5. […] Alec Ross.  I was thinking of Alec Ross. I don’t know how much they liked him over there.  When I told a blog pal I am writing some suggestions for Mr. Ross, she snorted and asked where was Mr. Ross when so and so’s blog was waterboarded behind closed doors on C. Street?  I have no answer, of course.  We’re not chatty or friends or anything like that and we don’t know where he was during the blogs’ waterboarding.  But I must say, that since we’ve been talking “rat poison” he has been the only one to reach out to us to solicit suggestions. There are already suggestions from an FSO here, and from spouses here and here. […]

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