White supremacy on social media not tracked by US military. Congress wants to know why.

Kaylah Jackson
February 11, 2020 - 6:48 pm
DRAKETOWN, GA - APRIL 21: Members of the National Socialist Movement, one of the largest neo-Nazi groups in the US, hold a swastika burning after a rally on April 21, 2018 in Draketown, Georgia. Community members had opposed the rally in Newnan and came o

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Following the Charlottesville rally in 2018, a Marine was kicked out of the service after an investigation found he both marched in the rally and had ties to neo-Nazi groups. The former Lance Cpl. allegedly later bragged online about assaulting counter-protesters.

In 2019, a Coast Guard lieutenant who was arrested on gun charges was found to have a cache of weapons and a target list which included politicians and journalists. In a letter, he described himself as a “white nationalist.” 

In both instances, perpetrators used social media as a means to connect with other extremist groups and share their ideas. However, the military does not have an established practice on social media monitoring to weed these individuals out of the ranks.

In a hearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday, members of a House Armed Services subcommittee suggested military reporting and punishment policies regarding white nationalism and extremism should be updated to reflect a resurgence of domestic terrorism in the United States. 

FBI Director, Christopher Wray dubbed racially or ethnically-motivated violent extremists as a “national threat priority” for the agency in 2020 and equated domestic terrorism threats on the same level as ISIS. House lawmakers don’t believe the U.S. military views these threats with the same urgency.

"I don’t think the military takes this threat seriously enough, has the tools it needs or dedicates sufficient resources to the threat. Our accessions and vetting enterprise lumps white supremacist activity in with gang affiliation, rather than treat it as a national security issue on par with foreign terror," said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif.

Across the services, recruiters use tools including background checks, fingerprint scans, and tattoo identification to screen potential recruits for participation in extremist groups but some suggest those resources are dated.

“It’s material that tends to be oftentimes on everything from Facebook accounts to Twitter accounts or in places like 4chan which are searchable,” said Dr. Heidie Beirich,  co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism.“People are shockingly open about their extremist views and it’s the kind of material that should be easy for investigators or people talking to potential recruits to verify.”  

Launched in 2003, 4chan is a website that hosts discussion forums on different topics. While the content varies from music to video games, the Anti-Defamation League credits the site with being "notoriously extremist-friendly," in part because of the anonymity of its users.

While military regulation prevents active participation in extremist groups which includes fundraising, rallying, recruiting, and organization, there’s no standalone article in the Uniformed Code of Military Justice that applies to extremism. The Defense Department also doesn’t possess its own tracking system for hate crimes or for service members who may be linked to extremism.

Rep. Trent Kelly, R-Miss., suggested command climate surveys should include questions on identifying extremism and supremacy for service members to self-report ---a change the services could make without Congress' intervention. 

The absence of this data from DoD leaves the responsibility of reporting to bystanders and leaves the authority to intervene, often at the command level, unless an official report is filed with the branch.

“If all of these cases that you worked very hard to investigate are then referred to command and there’s total discretion within the command, there is not equal due process … or punishment if we don't have a standard,” said Rep. Speier.

Members frequently referenced a Military Times poll that found more than one-third of active duty service members and more than half of minority service members say they have witnessed white nationalism or “ideological-driven racism” in the service.

“We need that data,” Beirich said. “The Military Times poll has become a stand-in for that. But the military needs to be collecting it.”

Stephanie Miller, accession policy director for the Office of Defense Undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness, cited the services’ equal opportunity advisors as representatives who receive training on identifying and educating others on extremism and white supremacy. Miller also mentioned using local records and FBI checks at the recruiting level.

“I have a real problem with the vagueness of these policies and the distinction in active participation and membership. I think these policies have to be updated. They’re woefully inadequate for what we know today is a very serious domestic terrorism problem,” Rep. Speier said.

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