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Liking a Facebook Post Could Get Service Members Punished Under Pentagon 'Extremism' Policy

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby announced a new "extremism" policy being rolled out by the Pentagon under President Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Monday that the Department of Defense says provides "increased clarity" on what amounts to "extremist activities" or "prohibited activity" by service members.

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While Kirby "emphasized" that "the Department is focused on prohibited activity, not on a particular ideology, thought or political orientation," the new guidelines create a broad definition for "active participation."

"The new definition preserves a service member's right of expression to the extent possible while also balancing the need for good order and discipline," Kirby claimed while announcing the updated policy.

In addition to other definitions, the Department of Defense will consider "Advocating widespread unlawful discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex (including pregnancy), gender identity, or sexual orientation" as "extremist activities" in which service members are prohibited from active participation.

"Active participation" includes: 

–"Knowingly displaying paraphernalia, words, or symbols in support of extremist activities or in support of groups or organizations that support extremist activities, such as flags, clothing, tattoos, and bumper stickers, whether on or off a military installation." 

–Engaging in "electronic and cyber activities regarding extremist activities, or groups that support extremist activities – including posting, liking, sharing, re-tweeting, or otherwise distributing content – when such action is taken with the intent to promote or otherwise endorse extremist activities."

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–"Fundraising for, or making personal contributions through donations of any kind (including but not limited to the solicitation, collection, or payment of fees or dues) to, a group or organization that engages in extremist activities, with the intent to support those activities."

–"Actively demonstrating or rallying in support of extremist activities (but not merely observing such demonstrations or rallies as a spectator)."

Along with the expanded definitions, the Department of Defense report outlined several "immediate actions," including commissioning "a study on extremist activity within the Total Force" which includes service members, civilian personnel, and contractors to gain "greater fidelity on the scope of the problem," set to be released in June of 2022.

According to the report, the Department of Defense "determined the number of substantiated matters of members of the military who are subject to official action due to engagement in prohibited extremist activity are fewer than 100 over the past year." For context, another Pentagon report released in September revealed that, tragically, 580 members of the military — including active duty, reserves, and National Guard — died by suicide in 2020. Among active duty service members, the suicide rate is up more than 41 percent from 2015 to 2020. Where's the concern, working group, or other action from the Biden administration to address that crisis?

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The release of the Pentagon's updated guidance follows Secretary Austin's February direction that a Department of Defense-wide "stand down to educate Department of Defense personnel on the threat posed by extremist activity," and his April directive to establish the "Countering Extremist Activity Working Group." 

The Pentagon focus on domestic extremism and terrorism was spurred by an effort undertaken by President Biden in reaction to the events of January 6th, but fails to mention or address concerns of the domestic terrorists in the ranks of Antifa and Black Lives Matter that laid siege to American cities in 2020. Their blindness toward political violence on their own side means that any new guidelines, specific or not, shouldn't be assumed to apply equally across the ideological spectrum.

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