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U.S. Military Updates Its Guidance on Handling Extremism

The U.S. military updated its guidelines on handling extremism within its ranks, seeking to clarify which types of behaviors the rules prohibit while still seeking to limit encroachment of members’ First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby described the guidelines dealing with extremism as a “two-part test,” noting that the conduct prohibited must be active participation in extremist activity. The update provides additional definitions and clarifications in each of those areas.

The new guidance addresses common social media actions specifically: “Engaging in electronic and cyber activities regarding extremist activities, or groups that support extremist activitiesincluding posting, liking, sharing, re-tweeting, or otherwise distributing contentwhen such action is taken with the intent to promote or otherwise endorse extremist activities. Military personnel are responsible for the content they publish on all personal and public Internet domains, including social media sites, blogs, websites, and applications.”

In answering questions from the press, Kirby said, “The physical act of ‘liking’ is, of course, advocating.” He went on to note that no individual action is likely to stand in isolation and that any investigation will consider more than just an errant like or share on social media.

He also said the new updates were necessary because service members, the press, and others sought clarification of the original guidance, which the department issued earlier in 2021 after it discovered service members took part in the 6 January attack on the Capitol. After the incident, the Department of Defense empaneled the Countering Extremist Activity Working Group, which released its report earlier this month. Leaders used the group’s report to write the updates.

In addition to the guidance update, Kirby said the department updated the Service Member Transition Checklist, with additions addressing extremist groups who target people leaving military service, and the Recruit Screening Questionnaire, which was standardized across services. He also said the department commissioned a new study “to gain greater fidelity on extremist activity in the force going forward.” Work on the study has already commenced.