Pentagon unveils new rules on ‘extremism’ following January 6 riot — even ‘liking’ a social media post could land a service member in trouble

The Pentagon issued new rules this week outlining what constitutes prohibited extremist behavior in military ranks and what will be the procedure for handling such behavior, the Associated Press reported.

What’s the background?

The new rules, officially issued Monday, come nearly a year after some current and former service members participated in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, triggering a broad Department of Defense review. 

Shortly after the Capitol riot, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also ordered an unprecedented one-day stand-down for all branches of the military to discuss the problem of extremism and extremist ideology in the ranks. The reported purpose for the stand-down was so that military leaders could gain a better grasp on the scope of the problem.

The Pentagon claimed that extremist behavior is on the rise within the military ranks, noting that roughly 100 substantiated cases of extremist activity have been documented in the past year, an increase over previous years.

What are the details?

In the policy release, the Pentagon lays out a new two-step process to determine that someone is responsible for extremist behavior. First, a military commander must determine that the actions a service member engaged in constituted “extremist activity”; and second, the commander must determine that the service member “actively participated” in that activity.

The new policy broadly defines “extremist activity” as any behavior ranging from depriving people of their constitutional rights to supporting terrorism or the overthrow of the U.S. government or advocating for unlawful discrimination.

The new rules still maintain some level of vagueness, allowing “extremist activity” to be left up to interpretation. Below is the full list of what constitute “extremist activities,” as shown in the policy release: 

  • (a) Advocating or engaging in unlawful force, unlawful violence, or other illegal means to deprive individuals of their rights under the United States Constitution or the laws of the United States, including those of any State, Commonwealth, Territory, or the District of Columbia, or any political subdivision thereof. 
  • (b) Advocating or engaging in unlawful force or violence to achieve goals that are political, religious, discriminatory, or ideological in nature.
  • (c) Advocating, engaging in, or supporting terrorism, within the United States or abroad. 
  • (d) Advocating, engaging in, or supporting the overthrow of the government of the United States, or any political subdivision thereof, including that of any State, Commonwealth, Territory, or the District of Columbia, by force or violence; or seeking to alter the form of these governments by unconstitutional or other unlawful means (e.g., sedition). 
  • (e) Advocating or encouraging military, civilian, or contractor personnel within the DoD or United States Coast Guard to violate the laws of the United States, or any political subdivision thereof, including that of any State, Commonwealth, Territory, or the District of Columbia, or to disobey lawful orders or regulations, for the purpose of disrupting military activities (e,g., subversion), or personally undertaking the same. 
  • (f) Advocating widespread unlawful discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex (including pregnancy), gender identity, or sexual orientation.

After determining whether certain behavior constitutes “extremist activity,” commanders are given 14 categories by which they will judge whether the service member engaged in “active participation.”

The categories are intended to root out formal membership in extremist groups, according to Pentagon spokesman John Kirby. But when taken separately, something as small as “liking” a questionable post on social media could result in a service member being punished.

“The physical act of liking is, of course, advocating, right? And advocating for extremist groups, groups that advocate violating their oath to the Constitution, overthrow the government, terrorist activities … Liking is an advocation and that’s laid out clearly in the instruction,” Kirby told reporters Monday, according to Defense One.

Anything else?

Other senior defense officials reportedly clarified that “liking” a post won’t automatically initiate punishment. Such behavior will only be part of the review process.

“As an incident comes to light, and as authorities are looking at the context of that case, then that social media information could be one point among many that would be taken into consideration,” a senior defense official told reporters, ABC News reported.

“There has to be a knowing element to it,” another senior defense official added. “There has to be sort of an amplification of the message is what we’re looking at. So, somebody who just stumbled across content wouldn’t be necessarily sufficient, depending on the facts, to violate this policy.”