In October 2020, Military Times reported that two deployed soldiers from the Michigan Army National Guard were being investigated for a TikTok video they posted of themselves unleashing a profanity-laden tirade against liberals and Democrats for being “crybabies and snowflakes burning our [expletive] country down.”1 In January 2021, an airman first class posted in a military-themed Facebook group that he plans to “continue to say ‘Beijing Biden is not my president’ for 4 years.”2 The airman went on to say that the memorandum the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued to all service members on 12 January 2021, condemning the 6 January insurrection, would not deter him from doing so.3
These incidents are among the latest examples of service members violating Department of Defense Directive (DoDD) 1344.10, “Political Activities by Members of the Armed Forces,” which prohibits service members from publicly engaging in partisan political activity.4 More accurately, these incidents are the latest publicized examples of service members running afoul of guidelines pertaining to political activity on social media that happened to make national news. Egregious and clear-cut violations tend to make headlines. For example, in a widely publicized case in 2012, the Marine Corps separated Sergeant Gary Stein with an other-than-honorable discharge for establishing an Armed Forces Tea Party page on Facebook, where he made derogatory comments about President Barack Obama and sold anti-Obama bumper stickers.5
When service members violate rules pertaining to partisan political activity on social media, the transgressions tend to come to light because a third party has observed and reported the individual to his or her chain of command, not because military leaders are informed from a formal, dedicated monitoring effort.6 It is unclear how widespread such violations are among service members on social media, considering that most infractions—like any other violation of good order and discipline—often are adjudicated at the unit level through letters of reprimand or nonjudicial punishment. In other words, there is no DoD-wide repository that comprehensively tracks service members violating rules regarding partisan political activity, including those that occur on social media.
Service Members’ Partisan Political Activity on Social Media
When a member of a profession engages in conduct contrary to the profession’s ethic, an obvious tendency can exist for other members of the profession to categorize the offender as an outlier and unrepresentative of the broader profession. It can be tempting for military leaders to view the handful of publicized cases of violations on social media as extreme examples and conclude that most service members behave responsibly on social media, in accordance with DoDD 1344.10 and the broader norms of the profession.
Recent survey research, however, provides some insights into the nature and extent of service members’ political activity online and suggests violations of the nonpartisan ethic may be widespread. A survey of more than 500 senior service college students and U.S. Military Academy cadets conducted from December 2015 to January 2016 found that respondents’ military friends actively engaged in multiple forms of political commentary on social media sites.7 More than three-quarters of respondents indicated their military friends on social media posted links to political stories, “liked” political content, and posted their own comments on political issues. Most of those activities are benign, and service members who comment on political news stories online may not necessarily be in violation of DoDD 1344.10. This same survey, however, also found that more than one-third of respondents indicated their military friends on social media encouraged others to take action on political issues. This latter finding is more problematic than sharing or liking political stories, because the activity could violate provisions in DoDD 1344.10 that restrict service members from promoting a partisan cause.8
Of equal, if not greater, concern than the types of political activity service members engage in is the tenor of their political commentary. Surveys of more than 1,700 senior military officers attending senior service college and cadets at the U.S. Military Academy conducted during both the Obama administration (2015–16) and the Trump administration (2017–20) asked respondents for their observations on their active-duty friends’ social media activity.9 Roughly one-third of respondents reported they observed their active-duty friends use or share insulting, rude, or disdainful comments directed against the President or specific elected officials on social media. Responses did not vary considerably between the two presidential administrations, although the proportion of senior service college students who observed their active-duty friends make rude comments did increase by roughly 10 percent from the Obama administration to the Trump administration.
Much has been written about how the tone of political debates on social media is increasingly angry, disrespectful, and divisive.10 Nevertheless, it is alarming that a third of military officers (and soon-to-be officers) report that their active-duty friends—who ostensibly subscribe to standards of professionalism—engage in the same vitriolic behavior online. The survey question referenced above did not ask respondents to identify the frequency with which they observed such normative violations or whether those making the rude and disdainful comments were officers or enlisted personnel. Given the makeup of the survey sample, however, it is likely other officers formed a large portion of respondents’ active-duty friends on social media. When officers use contemptuous words against the President, Vice President, members of Congress, the Secretary of Defense, or other elected or appointed officials, they could be punished under Article 88 of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).
What makes these findings particularly concerning is that derisive comments by active-duty service members directed against a President or elected leaders ultimately degrade civilian control. It is not known if the service members referred to in these surveys were ever held accountable, if indeed they were found in violation of Article 88. When such incidents occur with impunity, they risk normalizing contemptuous criticism of a President or other elected leaders by those in uniform. Regardless, given these survey results, it is plausible to conclude that the extent of service member nonpartisan violations online is much wider than the handful of flagrant cases that have made headlines in recent years.
The Medium is the Message
It is unclear if service members are more politically outspoken today, compared with those who served in the 1990s, for example. The Clinton administration witnessed several high-profile incidents in which officers publicly criticized the President. The most notable example involved an Air Force major general who was reprimanded and forced to retire after referring to President Clinton as “pot-smoking,” “womanizing,” and “draft-dodging” during remarks at a military banquet in 1993.11 Two Marine Corps majors received letters of caution for separate incidents in 1998 in which they disparaged Clinton in an op-ed article in the Washington Times and in a Navy Times article.12
Whether service members have always been fairly outspoken on partisan political matters or disrespectful to elected leaders is somewhat immaterial. What matters is that, today, social media provides service members with an easily accessible, public outlet to transmit their opinions farther and wider than ever before. In this regard, even though senior military leaders should certainly be concerned about service members’ apparent willingness to criticize a President and other elected leaders, Marshall McLuhan’s memorable line reminds us that the medium in which these normative violations occur is just as important:
The medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium—that is, of any extension of ourselves—result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.13
The Department of Defense has been slow to recognize that the medium is the message and that the locus of political dialogue and debate in society occurs today on social media. DoDD 1344.10—last updated in 2008—makes no mention of social media. Instead, it focuses on traditional, but arguably outdated, forms of political expression: marching in a partisan political parade, speaking before a partisan rally, and serving in an official capacity in a partisan political club. As a result, the directive is borderline obsolete, as it fails to address the dominant medium in which service members are likely to wade into partisan politics in a public fashion today—online.
Part of DoD’s hesitancy to tighten restrictions on service members’ political speech is rooted in long-standing sensitivities to First Amendment concerns—even though it is widely understood that service members face many limitations regarding their personal conduct.14 Moreover, unit commanders have neither the time nor the inclination and capacity to monitor their service members’ social media posts. Instead, commanders address infractions brought to their attention.
The 6 January insurrection and concerns about domestic extremism within the ranks have spurred greater attention to service members’ activity on social media and their partisan political activity in particular. Certainly, airing partisan political commentary online is not the same as espousing white supremacist causes or advocating the use of violence against the government. However, vitriolic speech by active-duty service members directed against elected leaders will garner more scrutiny than it did in the past, out of concern that such commentary on social media may not just be idle chatter but also indicate broader unprofessional—if not extremist—behavior.
Curbing Partisan Behavior Online
As DoD and each service grapple with how best to define, identify, and eradicate extremism in the armed forces, they should also use this opportunity to establish clearer and more consistent guidance on partisan political speech on social media. The department is long overdue in updating DoDD 1344.10 to include relevant guidance on permissible political activity on social media. In the absence of current DoD-wide guidance, the services have tried to fill this gap, as the Navy did with its 2019 social media handbook.15 However, clear and consistent language across all the services—codified in a formal directive—is needed. Also needed is a more in-depth explanation of why certain activities are allowed, such as liking or following a partisan political figure, while others, such as suggesting others like or follow a partisan political figure, are not. Absent clear directives, commanders will have a difficult time not only adjudicating violations but also keeping them from occurring in the first place.
Ensuring regulations keep pace with changing times and technology is necessary. But reinforcing to service members the importance of a professional ethic and its extension into the realm of social media is even more vital. Efforts that do so may help shift any debates from parsing what is and is not allowable regarding partisan political activity to instead what is and is not appropriate—even when certain activities are permissible. Norms are only maintained in any profession through constant teaching and reinforcement, and this is also the area with the most promise for reform. A survey of nearly 1,500 U.S. Military Academy cadets conducted in late 2019 and early 2020 found that only 13 percent of respondents felt it was acceptable for service members to talk about politics on social media—a marked change from prior survey research that found cadets actively engaged in political commentary online.16 Whether this change in attitudes is a direct result of purposeful sensitization about the importance of nonpartisanship on social media at West Point is unclear, but it is certainly reasonable to believe so.17
Since the 6 January insurrection, many have called for a recommitment to and reexamination of the oath each service member takes.18 DoD even included recommended talking points about the meaning of the oath in the training materials it provided the services for their stand-down days to address extremism.19 A renewed focus on the oath—to include a close reading of the Constitution that service members pledge to support and defend—is not simply a means of inoculation against extremism in the ranks. It can also reinforce the military’s subordination to civilian authority and commitment to nonpartisanship—both of which are sorely needed in this era of intense partisan polarization.
1. Davis Winkie, “Deployed Soldiers Face Punishment for Their ‘Message to Liberals’ Video,” Army Times, 16 October 2020.
2. Patricia Kime and Oriana Pawlyk, “‘Beijing Biden Is Not My President:’ Troops’ Social Media Posts in Spotlight After Capitol Riots,” Military.com, 4 February 2021.
3. Paul Sonne, “Joint Chiefs Call Riot a ‘Direct Assault’ on the Constitutional Process, Affirm Biden as Next Commander in Chief,” Washington Post, 12 January 2021.
4. Department of Defense, “Political Activities by Members of the Armed Forces,” DoD Directive 1344.10 (Washington, DC: 2008).
5. Mark Walker, “Tea Party Activist Gary Stein Booted from Marine Corps,” San Diego Union-Tribune, 25 April 2012.
6. Stephen Losey, “Pentagon Eyes Plan to Intensify Social Media Screening in Military Background Investigations,” Military.com, 3 March 2021.
7. Heidi A. Urben, “Like, Comment, Retweet: The State of the Military’s Nonpartisan Ethic in the World of Social Media,” (Washington, DC: Center for Complex Operations Case Study, National Defense University Press, May 2017).
8. “Political Activities by Members of the Armed Forces,” 3.
9. The “Politics, the Military, and Social Media Research Survey” was conducted in December 2015 and January 2016 and surveyed 537 U.S. Military Academy cadets and National Defense University (NDU) students. See Urben, “Like, Comment, Retweet.” The “NDU Civil-Military Relations Survey” was conducted in seven waves from December 2017 to March 2020, surveying 1,218 U.S. Military Academy cadets and senior service college students attending NDU and the Army War College.
10. Maeve Duggan and Aaron Smith, “The Political Environment on Social Media,” Pew Research Center, 25 October 2016.
11. Eric Schmitt, “General to Be Disciplined for Disparaging President,” The New York Times, 16 June 1993.
12. Rowan Scarborough, “Major Gets Punished for Criticizing President,” Washington Times, 7 December 1998; Michael J. Davidson, “Contemptuous Speech against the President,” The Army Lawyer (July 1999), 1–2.
13. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw Hill, 1964), 1.
14. Kime and Pawlyk, “Beijing Biden Is Not My President.”
15. Department of the Navy, Navy Social Media Handbook, March 2019.
16. Michael Robinson, Risa Brooks, and Heidi Urben, “How Biden’s Pick for Defense Secretary Might Shake Up Civil-Military Relations,” Political Violence at a Glance, 8 December 2020; Urben, “Like, Comment, Retweet.”
17. In 2016, the U.S. Military Academy established a new policy outlining professional conduct standards for social media. See Robert L. Caslen, “See New Policy, Act Like a Professional With Social Media,” Pointer View, 20 October 2016.
18. Paula Thornhill, “How to Teach Troops About the Constitution,” Defense One, 18 February 2021; Tom Vanden Brook, “Joint Chiefs of Staff Call Capitol Riot ‘Sedition and Insurrection,’ Remind Troops of Oath,” USA Today, 12 January 2021.
19. Department of Defense, “Stand-Down Training Material to Address Extremism in the Ranks,” Defense.gov.