Posted on May 20, 2021

Pentagon Plans to Monitor Social Media of Military Personnel for Extremist Content

Ken Klippenstein, The Intercept, May 17, 2021

As part of the Biden administration’s crackdown on domestic extremism, the Pentagon plans to launch a pilot program for screening social media content for extremist material, according to internal Defense Department documents reviewed by The Intercept, as well as a source with direct knowledge of the program.

An extremism steering committee led by Bishop Garrison, a senior adviser to the secretary of defense, is currently designing the social media screening pilot program, which will “continuously” monitor military personnel for “concerning behaviors,” according to a Pentagon briefing in late March. Although in the past the military has balked at surveilling service members for extremist political views due to First Amendment protections, the pilot program will rely on a private surveillance firm in order to circumvent First Amendment restrictions on government monitoring, according to a senior Pentagon official. Though the firm has not yet been selected, the current front runner is Babel Street, a company that sells powerful surveillance tools including social media monitoring software.


The Defense Department hinted at the program in an April 9 press release about its Countering Extremism Working Group, which it says will make recommendations on “incorporating machine learning and natural language processing into social media screening platforms,” as well as “ensure training addresses issues raised by commanders and supervisors on ‘gray areas’ such as reading, following, and liking extremist material and content in social media forums and platforms.”

The pilot program will use keywords to identify potential extremists, though coming up with a list of terms without running afoul of speech protections has proven to be challenging, the senior Pentagon official said. To this end, the military plans to consult with experts from across the political spectrum to help develop the pilot program. {snip}

“Using key words to monitor social media isn’t just an unnecessary privacy invasion, it is a flawed strategy that will ensure it is short-lived,” said Mike German, a retired FBI agent who did undercover work in neo-Nazi groups and is now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program. “It will undoubtedly produce a flood of false positives that will waste security resources and undermine morale, without identifying the real problem, which is the tolerance for those that openly engage in racist behavior and discrimination.”

Last month, the White House rejected a 2019 proposal from the Department of Homeland Security to collect social media data from immigration applicants. After the White House’s decision, Harsha Panduranga, counsel for the Brennan Center’s Liberty & National Security Program, argued that social media screening not only lacks efficacy but also may even hamper freedom of expression.