March 29, 2021

Duckworth: Social media habits hold clues to extremists in the military

Source: The Hill


Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) on Monday suggested that the Pentagon find a way to examine the social media habits of incoming and existing service members who show tendencies toward extremist views.

“It’s not a new thing, but I will tell you that I have seen over the last probably two decades this growing radicalization of a portion within the military. And I think part of it too comes with social media consumption,” Duckworth, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, said at The Hill's Future of Defense Summit. 

Duckworth, a former combat pilot in the Iraq War, said she discussed with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin the need to understand what information young troops are receiving on their personal devices and whether they are trained to recognize false information. 

She told The Hill’s Steve Clemons that the Defense Department needs to figure out which troops are coming into the military with extremist opinions and tendencies as well as “what media they’re consuming while they’re in [service] and who’s targeting them.”

Extremism in the military has been under scrutiny following the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Nearly 25 percent of people charged in connection with the insurrection had some connection to the military, and the Pentagon later acknowledged that white supremacist and similar fringe groups “very aggressively recruit soon-to-be veterans.” 

But because the Pentagon has limited data on just how deep the problem runs, the department has struggled to point to a clear increase or decrease in such a problem and ways to address it.

Austin in January ordered a 60-day stand-down across the force to address extremism, but Democratic lawmakers have pressed for screening public social media activity for red flags as part of how incoming service members are scrutinized.

Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who also spoke at Monday’s event, pointed to social media as a large unknown in how it motivates service members “towards the kinds of events we saw happen on Jan. 6.”

“What we don’t know enough of right now, very frankly, is how to get our arms around the influence of social media basically prying into this anger and frustration and fears that are out there. ... We haven’t done a good job, frankly, at looking at the root cause for terrorism in our own country.”

Duckworth — who shortly after the insurrection called on Pentagon leadership to investigate and punish any current and former service members who “betrayed” their oaths by participating “in a seditious conspiracy that used force” — also pointed to misleading talking points from mainstream media that service members might be absorbing within military installations.

She recounted that when she first enlisted, televisions at military installations would be tuned to the Pentagon channel, recounting the news of the day. But over the course of her career, she said, channels increasingly displayed Fox News.

“I remember spending the 10 years of my military career in rooms where the biggest screen that was on was Fox, and I would say, ‘Well, you know what? That’s not actually news. That’s Fox Entertainment.’”

“We should still be visually watching everybody else, from Fox to MSNBC ... and we get a good 360 picture of the situation, but the main source of news cannot be an entertainment division,” she said.

Both Duckworth and Panetta spoke at The Hill's "Future of Defense Summit," co-sponsored by Collins Aerospace and Lockheed Martin.

By:  Ellen Mitchell