Ben Wolfgang, Washington Times, December 20, 2021
The Defense Department on Monday issued long-awaited rules to identify and root out political extremism in the armed forces, specifically zeroing in on social media and giving new guidance to commanders who will be responsible for policing their units.
Acknowledging the need to thread “a very fine needle” with respecting First Amendment rights, senior defense officials said that the new policy — which has been under development for nearly a year — is “group agnostic,” meaning that simple membership in a white supremacist organization or other extremist outfit won’t technically violate military guidelines.
But active participation in such groups isn’t allowed, nor is any attempt to share extremist content online, recruit other potential members, or otherwise promote a hateful, anti-government or discriminatory ideology.
The new Pentagon rules do not offer a specific list of extremist organizations. Instead, they identify broad classes of extremist activities and then provide more than a dozen definitions of “active participation” to military commanders.
The commanders then will use those definitions, along with other factors, to determine whether service members in their unit violated the policy and should be subject to discipline.
The definitions of “extremist activity” include: advocating or engaging in unlawful force or violence to deprive others of their constitutional rights; advocating or engaging in unlawful force or violence to achieve a political or ideological goal; advocating or supporting terrorism; advocating or supporting the overthrow of the government; encouraging military or civilian personnel to violate U.S. laws; and advocating discrimination based on, race, color, religion and other factors.
The definitions of active participation, meanwhile, focus more on specific actions an individual might take toward those broader aims, such as demonstrating, rallying, attending meetings, sharing information, recruiting others, sharing literature or displaying words or symbols known to be associated with extremist groups.
In all of 2021, officials said they identified about 100 cases of extremism among active-duty military personnel, up from the “low double digits” across each of the services in prior years.
For example, simple membership in a group isn’t outlawed, but officials said the rules are strict enough that it will be impossible “for someone to be a member of an extremist organization in any meaningful way.”
The most notable changes come in the realm of social media.
While previous extremism policies lacked specifics as to what is and isn’t allowed on Twitter, Facebook or other avenues, the new guidance zeroes in on social media engagement designed to promote the message.
In other words, simply viewing an extremist page isn’t necessarily a violation of the policy. But any engagement with that page — including “liking” its posts — likely would be.