Last weekend, news broke that the Marines were investigating a stomach-churning violation of trust in the ranks: personnel were found to have shared photos and personal information of female Marines and veterans, without their consent ― in a Facebook group with over 30,000 members. The photos have garnered 2,500 comments and ratings in what amounts to a breathtaking demonstration of entitlement, exercised in this case via technology. For a month, hundreds and possibly thousands of pictures of female service women have been posted and commented on. The comments are specific and contain details about residence, rank, and contact information. Some comments included encouragement of specific acts of violence against specific women. The private Facebook group is limited to male Marines, Navy Corpsman and British Royal Marines, according to Thomas Brennan, a Marine veteran and journalist who first reported on the photo-sharing scandal.
Against a backdrop of persistently high rates of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military, these postings indicate that the policies of zero tolerance have failed to be applied or enforced. There are no current consequences sufficient to deter harassment and misconduct within the armed forces. The Marines have been notified in the past about social media abuses and have been unable to contain them.
The mindset behind the actions of the Marines United group is disturbingly, and tiresomely, familiar. It required a belief, by the Facebook page originators and those who viewed the content, the the usual rules of military discipline, of loyalty to comrades, and even of Facebook, did not apply to them. This only happens when participants are secure in the knowledge that they either won’t be caught or that any consequences will be trivial. These entitled and privileged group members believe that they are above civil society and military conduct laws.
“The mindset behind the actions of the Marines United group is disturbingly, and tiresomely, familiar.”
And why shouldn’t they believe they are above the law? After all, the commander in chief of the armed forces has proudly shared his explicit and degrading judgments about women for years. Trump’s long record of objectification of women needs little introduction. The president has bragged about his own penchant for sexual assault; he has profited from the objectification of women via his past ownership of the Miss Universe franchise; and to bring objectification home, he said he would date his own daughter based on her attractiveness. Trump has suffered no consequences for his public objectification and harassment of women.
If the military’s current rate of prosecution continues, we can expect that few cases will make it to court. According to Protect Our Defenders, a non-profit organization dedicated to the support of military victims, of the cases in 2015 where the military could take action, only 20 percent were prosecuted and 9 percent were convicted. The lack of deterrence based on past reports of social media abuses demonstrate that the prosecution and sanctions have been insufficient.
The Marines have specific evidence of exactly who started the page, who accessed the photos, and who commented on them. Enforcement of the military code of justice against each active or reserve duty member who participated whether by posting, commenting, or failing to notify the authorities should be undertaken. Anything less than a 100 percent prosecution rate on this scandal will give the impression that some are permitted to harass other service members.
“The photos have garnered 2,500 comments and ratings in what amounts to a breathtaking demonstration of entitlement.”
Permanent meaningful action needs to be taken against each of the people involved who have been found in violation of the military code. For active military members, specific sanctions can be employed ranging from demotion to discharge. For those Facebook members who are no longer with or are outside the military, they should have a lifetime prohibition on U.S. federal contracts. Prosecutors should provide victims with a network analysis so that they can elect, if they wish, to know who viewed the pictures. The use of this evidence can be used in civil court by victims seeking remedies to the non-consensual photo-sharing abuse.
The Marines United Facebook scandal vividly demonstrates that some believe they are above the law when it comes to the harassment of women. Let’s hope that the military leadership is willing to prove them wrong.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.