The Air Force’s top enlisted leader opens up about her recent Facebook firestorms

"That was my blind spot and I owned it."

The Air Force’s top enlisted leader gave her side on a series of social media comments that ignited a wave of rage-filled posts directed at her from airmen on Facebook and Reddit.

Specifically, Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force JoAnne Bass apologized for posting an article on her Facebook page late last month that appeared to judge an Air Force pararescueman unfairly.

However, she said the number of insulting, disrespectful comments that cropped up against her and the airmen involved was unwarranted, inappropriate, and could even pose a national security risk.

“As we focus on our culture, particularly concerning respect, I ask that every Airman think about what they post, comment on, share and allow themselves be influenced by,” the chief said in an email to Task & Purpose. “We are living in an era of information warfare, where the second and third-order effects of actions online can have lasting repercussions offline. We need every airmen to understand that, and the role they have in it.” 

The Air Force’s top enlisted leader opens up about her recent Facebook firestorms
Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass (U.S. Air Force/Eric Dietrich)

A culture of respect seemed very far away late last month, when Bass shared a post on her official Facebook page highlighting an airman’s efforts to help out other single parents at Luke Air Force Base.

A mother of two, Bass thanked Senior Airman Jamie Samuels in the post “for making a difference,” sharing an article Samuels wrote last year about the struggle of “wearing many hats” as an airman and mother.

All seemed well, but the article hit a landmine Bass overlooked. In it, Samuels criticized her ex-husband, an Air Force pararescueman (a special warfare role also known as a PJ), for ignoring his “dad hat.”

“My daughter’s father is Pararescue, meaning he’s deployed or TDY most of the year but took on extra assignments,” Samuels wrote in the article, which has since been removed from Facebook and from the website Aerotech News, where it was first posted in 2020. 

“That left me a new mom of a preemie, who had three-plus weekly appointments all two hours away,” Samuels said.

Bass said she related to Samuels’ struggle as a parent in the military, and the post was meant to highlight the positive work she was doing. However, soon she heard feedback from followers who said Samuels had not been fair to the PJ.

“Chief Bass, I don’t think you would have pleasure in meeting Airman Samuels,” wrote an airman who claimed in his Facebook comment to have been the PJ’s supervisor at one point. “Her ‘absent’ husband did everything to care for their daughter with all his heart, soul, and mind … He actually fought for their marriage but was served with divorce papers while TDY and was absolutely heartbroken.”

Other comments led to a groundswell of attacks on Bass for defaming the PJ, a fellow airman, by sharing a one-sided perspective on him. PJs are by their nature always training or deployed, which makes it difficult to maintain a family life, they said.

“She publicly assassinated the husband’s character on social media,” said one Reddit user. “Unacceptable actions from an official social media account.”

“He could be out in the sandbox literally saving lives, and we are trashing him back home without even getting two sides to the story,” wrote another.

Pretty soon, the intent of the original post was lost in the negative reactions to it. Within hours, Bass and her social media team took the article out of her post. Then they took the post down entirely when comments spiraled into more dirt-slinging.

“We took the post down last night because it was almost on the verge of providing threats, and we can’t do that,” Bass explained alongside Chief Master Sergeant Mike Perry, the Air Force First Sergeant Special Duty Manager, in a Q&A that was live-streamed on Bass’ Facebook page on Feb. 1. “Sharing details about somebody’s past, bullying people online, harassing people is highly inappropriate … we have to be better than that.”

In the Q&A, Bass apologized for glossing over the PJ’s perspective when she posted the original article. 

“That was my blind spot and I owned it … because I didn’t see how that commentary could be taken from a father or a husband’s point of view,” she said.

But the social media horse had already left the barn, and there was a tidal wave of memes on the Air Force Reddit page criticizing Bass and comparing her unfavorably to her male predecessor Kaleth Wright (who airmen had dubbed “Enlisted Jesus”) and to other senior enlisted leaders in the Air Force.

Bass even became the topic of a rant by Angry Cops, a popular YouTube channel run by a police officer and Army drill sergeant who sympathized with the PJ.

“[Bass] just skull-dragged his reputation through the mud by re-posting an article that she never fucking verified?” he asked. “Where is your social media team on this? Did you read the article before you posted it? … You have an airman shitting on another airman and you thought that would be motivational?”

This isn’t the first time Bass has found herself in hot water on social media. A similar incident occurred in October when the chief told an airman she would call him on the phone after the airman asked on Facebook whether her last name was pronounced like the species of fish or the musical instrument (the correct pronunciation is like the fish).

“My team has SSgt Bank’s info … as well as his crew,” Bass said on Facebook at the time. “I’m sure there’s a solid explanation. Right?!?”

The Facebook world split into two camps: some accused Bass of being a tyrant cracking down on an innocent airman asking a fair question, while others praised her for roasting an insubordinate internet troll, one of many who got a kick out of asking Bass how to pronounce her last name.

“[W]e learned that the comment was truly never about my name,” Bass explained in an email to Task & Purpose on Friday. “Instead it was meant to be an inside joke among the people involved. When several other airmen began sharing the same comment, over and over again, on separate posts, it then became disrespectful.”

Back in October, Bass described the situation slightly differently.

“Teammates — I just had a good conversation with SSgt Banks,” she wrote on Facebook. “His question was simple and honest, but having him and a group of people ask it repeatedly across multiple posts was trolling.”

Four months later, trolling and toxic comments were still out in force, and they were part of the reason why the chief decided to take down the post about Samuels. During the Q&A, she explained that she and her team have a unique perspective on the toxic comments because they can see them “at scale.”

“The actions we’ve seen on many social media sites, in the form of disrespect, harassment, bullying, inappropriate behavior, to include threats, are simply not okay,” she said in her email to Task & Purpose. “It goes against everything we stand up for. Respect is non-negotiable and applies to every airman, whether on-duty, off-duty, in uniform, out of uniform, online and offline.”

Airmen can still be critical of the Air Force, Bass said, but they have to be respectful and offer solutions.

 “You can provide helpful criticism on where we can go in the United States Air Force, 100%,” the chief said. “But it’s easy to criticize for the negative. It’s also just as easy to have some solutions … My dad said ‘if you don’t have anything good to say, just don’t say it.’ But you can tilt it in a way that it can be helpful for the force to make some good with it.”

In the Q&A and her email to Task & Purpose, Bass reiterated her apology for sharing the Samuels article. Some of the angry commenters said she had minimized her mistake by calling it a blind spot.

“It’s not my intent to minimize the situation,” she told Task & Purpose. “I own it, and saw it as a blind spot. When I initially read the commentary, I focused solely on the positive and saw it as one airman’s journey of perseverance and resilience. After re-reading it, I understood how it impacted another airman. For that I am sorry, and apologized to the airmen directly impacted by this for the direction this post took.”

Bass called the airmen herself to apologize for the post and the fallout from it.

“It was pretty important to me to reach out and speak to both airmen,” she told Task & Purpose. “We had a discussion concerning the turn of events and I wanted to ensure they knew how sorry I was for our part in what transpired.”

Still, she wasn’t going to stop using social media as a way to connect to airmen and to share the good work done by people in the Air Force.

“I made a conscious decision that we’re not going to veer away from social media, as challenging as it can be, and as frustrating as it can be” she said during the Q&A last week.

In the past, Bass has used social media to hear about issues in the service, such as sexual harassment and airmen being punished for their mental health conditions. When asked if she had any lessons learned or takeaways from these two negative social media experiences, Bass said the episodes “highlighted that we have ignored the digital environment for far too long.”

“If we want to strengthen the culture in our organization, and ensure all airmen are valued and respected, we have to pay attention to both our online and offline environments,” she said. “We need to remember that we are airmen, 24/7.”

Basically, people shouldn’t be dicks on social media, even if they make a mistake.

“Social media doesn’t often give us the whole story, which can lead to very strong reactions from people who feel wholly justified in their beliefs,” the chief said. “This can change the original intent of a post in a matter of minutes, and that is exactly what happened. This shows just how important it is to promote a culture of respect, both on and offline.”

Featured Image: Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass takes a selfie with Airmen after an all-call during a base visit Jan. 8, 2021, on Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. (Air Force photo / Airman 1st Class Faith Schaefer)

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David Roza

David Rozacovers the Air Force and anything Star Wars-related. He joined Task & Purpose in 2019, after covering local news in Maine and then FDA policy in Washington D.C. He loves hearing the stories of individual airmen and their families, and he also holds the unpopular opinion that Imperial stormtroopers are actually excellent marksmen. david.roza@taskandpurpose.com Contact the author here.

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