Clicking “like” on the wrong Facebook post could now count as “extremist activity” with harsh impacts on military careers under new anti-extremism rules the Pentagon announced Monday, Dec. 20.
At a Monday press conference, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters that new rules on extremism in the military weren’t set up to monitor military members online, but any association with extremism can be punished — including a one-click like, fav, or retweet.
“The physical act of ‘liking’ is, of course, advocating — for groups that advocate violating the Constitution, overthrowing the government, terrorist activities,” Kirby said. “Liking is an advocation.”
The new rules cover nearly all areas of military life, from recruitment to retirement, from online to in crowds. The rules come roughly a year after Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin first declared a “stand-down” to deal with the issue of political extremism in the military. The Department of Defense released guidance defining what qualified as extremist behavior and outlining how repercussions would be extended.
Along with rules against actively participating in extremist behavior — like holding membership in or attending rallies sponsored by groups with clearly violent or extremist goals — a rule against cyber-extremism says that “posting, liking, sharing, re-tweeting, or otherwise distributing content” can be considered active participation “when such action is taken with the intent to promote or otherwise endorse extremist activities.”
Pressed by reporters on how the military would enforce social media rules, Kirby said there would be no broad initiative toward proactively monitoring online behavior. “There’s no monitoring, there’s no methodology in here, there’s no intent, there’s no ability for the DOD to monitor the social media of every member of the armed forces,” he said. “It’s not something that the command is going to be actively fishing for.”
The new rules, laid out in a memorandum to senior Pentagon leadership Monday, are based on the Countering Extremist Activity Working Group.
- Review and update DoD Instruction 1325.06, “Handling Protest, Extremist, and Criminal Gang Activities Among Members of the Armed Forces,” to clarify the definition of prohibited extremist activity. Even with the new language, though, the Pentagon will not create a list of specifically outlawed groups.
- Update the service member transition checklist, which members fill out when they leave the military.
- Review and standardize screening questionnaires for incoming recruits across all the services. The different services have generally produced their own questionnaires on extremism for new recruits.
- Commission a study on extremist activity across the DoD.
The revised instructions put in place a two-part test wherein an activity must be prohibited and an individual must actively participate in the activity to determine whether that individual is violating the new anti-extremism rules.
“We believe only a very few violate this oath by participating in extremist activities, but even the actions of a few can have an outsized impact on unit cohesion, morale and readiness,” Austin wrote in announcing the rules.
One thing the new rules don’t do is name specific groups considered extremist, although, in the past, service branches have used the broad categories that the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI use.
“Groups can and do change their methodologies, their ideals, and motivations, and they can disband and reform themselves as something else,” Kirby said Monday. “If we came out with a list, it would only be as good as the day we published it.”
The term “extremist activities” includes advocating for or engaging in unlawful force, unlawful violence, or other illegal means to deprive individuals of their rights or to achieve goals that are political, religious, discriminatory, or ideological in nature. It can also mean advocating for, engaging in, or supporting terrorism or the overthrow of the government of the United States or any subdivision of it.
Also prohibited is advocating for military personnel to violate the law for the purpose of disrupting military activities, as well as advocating widespread unlawful discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation.
“Active participation” is defined broadly, from advocating the use of violence in support of extremist activities to recruiting others to an extremist cause, as well as communicating information that could undermine operational security in support of extremist activity. It also includes fundraising, attending a meeting that constitutes a breach of law and order, demonstrating and rallying, distributing literature, displaying paraphernalia, and engaging in cyber activities.
Kirby said that individual cases would be left up to the judgment of a service members’ chains of command. “One key component of this instruction is a more clear explanation of what commanders’ authorities and responsibilities are and really delegating down to them because they know their people and they know their units better than anybody,” Kirby said.
However, The Intercept claimed in May to have evidence that a pilot program was under consideration by the CEAWG to hire a private surveillance firm for implementing a social media monitoring tool. At the time, Kirby said there was no such contract with any company. Kirby specifically called The Intercept’s story “misreporting.”
In the first nine months of 2021, the military service branches recorded a total of 294 allegations of prohibited activities.