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Security Brief: NORTHCOM Week of May 17, 2021

Week of Monday, May 17, 2021 | Issue 12

Nina Smith and Neoclis Soteriou, NORTHCOM


The Pentagon, headquarters of the US Department of Defense[1]


Date: Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Location: Arlington, Virginia, United States of America (US)

Parties involved: The Department of Defense (DOD), the Biden administration, military personnel

The event: There were reports that the DOD had announced that it will launch a pilot program for screening the social media content of US military personnel for extremist material as part of the Biden administration’s crackdown on domestic extremism. An extremism steering committee led by Bishop Garrison, a senior adviser to the secretary of defense, was said to be currently designing a social media screening pilot program, which would “continuously” monitor military personnel for “concerning behaviors.”[2] This pilot program was reportedly meant to rely on a private surveillance firm to circumvent First Amendment restrictions on government monitoring, which had previously prevented such monitoring of military personnel. Although the private surveillance firm tasked with this monitoring had not been announced, the current front runner was said to be Babel Street, a company that sells powerful surveillance tools including social media monitoring software.[3] The pilot program was reported to most likely use keywords to identify potential extremists, although coming up with a list of such keywords without infringing upon free speech would likely be difficult. Reports of this program's announcement coincided with a national increase in domestic extremism, including from military personnel, which has become a leading concern for intelligence and law enforcement agencies. However, the DOD has since claimed that it is not planning to troll troops’ social media accounts and that the working group is tasked with reviewing the current policy that touches on extremism.[4] As well as other tasks such as creating a department-wide definition of extremism, revising transition materials to prevent veterans from being targeted, and launching studies or surveys to get into the prevalence of extremist views among service members. However, even without this program, the DOD already has an insider threat program that looks at social media activity when concerns are raised about an individual and a preliminary screen during the military recruitment process.


The implications:

  • The program might not come to fruition. The day after the first reports of the potential pilot program, the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, John Kirby, denied any such plans. This quick denial may be a result of the backlash against the first reports of the program, or the program may have been misrepresented by the original reporting. Due to the Pentagon’s quick disavowal, it is unlikely that a monitoring program will be rolled out without major changes.

  • Increased scrutiny of military personnel on social media could uncover extremist tendencies in the military. Gathering more evidence and information related to this topic would allow for more monitoring and study of the phenomenon. This could help the military create new policies and training methods to prevent further radicalization in the military.

  • Social media monitoring could be seen as a violation of military personnels’ constitutional right to free speech. Free speech advocates will be likely to use this new program as an example of governmental overreach. The effects of this would be twofold. First, it could cause resentment among the members of the military, leading those who feel that their privacy is being violated towards radicalization. It would also likely add fuel to the fire of conspiracy theorists who believe the government is constantly overreaching by monitoring its citizens.

  • The use of keywords for social media monitoring is a delicate balancing act that could leave this program with disastrous results. If the search terms are too narrow, it could either miss threats or be focused too narrowly on one demographic, resulting in discrimination. However, it could lose specificity with broad search terms, identifying so many potential threats that it would take too much manpower to investigate them all.

[1] The Pentagon, headquarters of the US Department of Defense, taken September 2018, by Touch of Light licensed under Creative Commons

[2] PENTAGON PLANS TO MONITOR SOCIAL MEDIA OF MILITARY PERSONNEL FOR EXTREMIST CONTENT, The Intercept, May 2021, https://theintercept.com/2021/05/17/military-pentagon-extremism-social-media/

[3] Ibid.

[4] Pentagon pushes back on report of anti-extremism social media surveillance program, Military Times, May 2021, https://www.militarytimes.com/news/your-military/2021/05/18/pentagon-pushes-back-on-report-of-anti-extremism-social-media-surveillance-program/

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