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Marine Corps Finds It Tough To Shut Down Sexist Facebook Groups

For veterans like Katherine Keleher, Facebook can be a nightmare.

When a photo of the 25-year-old former Marine was posted to "Just the Tip, of the Spear" last fall, she was so nervous she couldn't bear to look and asked a friend to check the page for her. The group's name, abbreviated JTTOTS, plays off of innuendo and the Marine Corps moniker as the Tip of the Spear.

"I freaked out; I wouldn't even look at first," Keleher said. "I have all of my social media set up so that it's private, and so I was really confused how in the world they got a photo of me. I was terrified of the comments I was going to be receiving."

A veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Keleher soon became intimately familiar with unofficial Marine Facebook pages like JTTOTS, which are forums for crude humor that often targets women. Female Marines are being openly harassed and denigrated on Facebook, in some cases by other active-duty Marines.

Photos of Keleher have been published to the JTTOTS page three times. The ensuing comments were overtly sexual and some threatened sexual violence, Keleher said.

In this July 2012 photo, Cpl. Katherine Keleher (right) poses with a woman she met while on patrol in Sangin, Afghanistan. This photo appeared last fall on the Facebook page called Just the Tip, of the Spear, where members posted comments ridiculing the former Marine. The group is one of several unofficial Marine Facebook pages that have been accused of denigrating female service members.
/ Courtesy of Katherine Keleher
Courtesy of Katherine Keleher
In this July 2012 photo, Cpl. Katherine Keleher (right) poses with a woman she met while on patrol in Sangin, Afghanistan. This photo appeared last fall on the Facebook page called Just the Tip, of the Spear, where members posted comments ridiculing the former Marine. The group is one of several unofficial Marine Facebook pages that have been accused of denigrating female service members.

"They posted pictures of me and they were commenting about wanting to rape me, or saying I looked like a man, or things of that nature," said Keleher, who served as a combat correspondent during her five years in the Marines.

The Marine Corps knows this is happening, and can do little to stop it. Military officials say they can't always identify those who post to the pages, and are at a loss when it comes to veterans and civilians harassing active-duty men and women in the armed forces.

These photos are often posted during "Wook Wednesday," a popular segment that features images of female service members. Some of the pictures are innocent; others are more risque. "Wook" is a derogatory term for a female Marine.

The comments go beyond the usual trolling one sees on Facebook and quickly devolve into mudslinging, sexist remarks and worse. The threads frequently feature posts and memes about rape.

In a recent post on JTTOTS, an active-duty Marine was featured in her uniform with another photo of her in an athletic top and bottom. Within an hour of the photos going up, a handful of memes had already been posted, many promoting sexual violence.

One of the responses featured a picture of a dolphin in a pool and the phrase "rape whistles don't work under water." These groups are public, and people who are unfortunate enough to have photos of them posted are put on display. They are exposed to anyone who visits the page.

Jason Lutcavage, a page administrator for POG Boot F - - - -, said his page and those like it are not forums for abuse and serve as a public space for infantry Marines to be themselves. POG means "person other than grunt," and infantry Marines are often referred to as grunts. "Boot" is a colloquialism for a junior service member.

"PBF was founded in late 2012 as a way for us to share our depraved humor with one another, make fun of POGs and just rib on one another in general," said Lutcavage, an infantry Marine and Afghanistan veteran who served from 2007-2011 and goes by the online handle "Lucky."

Several such pages have been banned from Facebook. JTTOTS says it has been banned 21 times. Next in line is PBF, which is now on its 20th iteration, F'N Wook is on its 14th, and Senior Lance Corporal is on its ninth. Each time these pages are removed from Facebook, they return within days with nearly as many members as before.

For example, JTTOTS was last shut down Sept. 28. Two days later, it was back and already had 19,081 likes. Many of the pages function like a network. After a page has been taken down for violating Facebook's terms of service, the remaining groups encourage their members to like the newly re-created version.

Facebook's community standards, part of its terms of service, prohibit behaviors including bullying, intimidation, harassment and hate speech, as well as posting pornographic content, nudity and graphic images.

The Marine Corps came under fire over these Facebook groups in May 2013, when Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., sent an open letter concerning the group F'N Wook to the commandant of the Marine Corps, the secretary of defense and the Pentagon's principal deputy inspector general. Speier accused the groups of contributing to a culture of sexual violence.

"The 'humor' expressed on this page and similar pages ... contribute to a culture that permits and seems to encourage sexual assault and abuse," Speier said in the letter.

While officially discouraging Marines from posting to these pages, the Corps has a limited reach when it comes to stopping this behavior online. It released a statement in 2010 setting out guidelines for service members using social media.

"Marines should use their best judgment at all times and avoid inappropriate behavior that could bring discredit upon themselves, their unit, and the Marine Corps," the statement said.

The very nature of social media, including anonymity, the sheer number of commenters and the ease with which pages can be re-created, makes it hard for the Marine Corps to police.

Marines are held responsible for their online presence, Marine Corps spokesman Capt. Eric Flanagan said in an email to NPR.

"There is no tolerance for discriminatory comments. It goes against good order and discipline," Flanagan said. "This includes posting any defamatory, libelous, abusive, threatening, racially or ethnically hateful or otherwise offensive or illegal content."

If a Marine is harassed on these sites, several things need to happen before any official action can be taken. First, the commenters need to be identified. If they're active or reserve Marines, they are held accountable for their actions. Official charges can result in counseling, relief of position or nonjudicial punishment — which can mean a reduction in pay and rank, Flanagan said.

When civilians or veterans harass active-duty Marines, however, there is little the Corps can do. Though that doesn't stop it from trying.

"If postings violate the [site's] terms of service, we have reported it to the social media site," Flanagan said. "There have been over three-dozen instances of us working with social media sites to get pages removed."

A military blog, Task & Purpose, ran a story earlier this year about these groups.

"Shutting down the pages is little more than a game of digital Whac-A-Mole," Brian Adam Jones wrote in the blog. "When the pages are shut down, they reappear within days and return to the same behavior."

For Keleher, these pages are not indicative of Marine Corps culture on the whole.

"You have these types of pages that so freely hate whenever they can on female Marines and wanna do nothing but hate on us, and it's a complete 180 of any experience I had when I was in [the Marines], and that right there shows me that this isn't Marine Corps culture. It's just an uneducated subculture," Keleher said.

However, this subculture, as Keleher calls it, exists at a time when the Marine Corps is considering integrating female Marines into the infantry.

"So why is it OK for them to do that, particularly to fellow service members — people they could end up on the front lines with?" Keleher said. "It's not acceptable. It's not OK."

James Clark is a visuals intern at NPR and a former Marine.

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James Clark