Photo courtesy of James Townsend, Jan. 6 Insurrection

The Pentagon is now enforcing new rules targeting far-right extremism and white supremacy within the U.S. military following the Jan. 6 insurrection. NPR analysis found that nearly one out of every five rioters charged for their participation in the riot has a connection to the U.S. military. 

The rules, which were announced in December 2021, state that if a service member reposts or “likes” extremist content on social media, they could face disciplinary action.

The Department of Defense doesn’t prohibit joining extremist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan or the Proud Boys, but aims to prevent service members from participating in far-right events. “Military members are highly prized by these groups as they bring legitimacy to their causes and enhance their ability to carry out attacks,” according to a report released by the department in March 2021. 

Over 80 U.S. military service members, past and present, were charged in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot investigation. During the riot, protesters stormed the Capitol in an attempt to prevent the certification of Joe Biden’s election. Extremism within the military can be particularly problematic as service members are familiar with weapons, combat tactics, and they have access to important classified information.

However, the Pentagon has admitted that there is no practical way to enforce the rules. The Pentagon’s chief spokesperson, John F. Kirby, said in a press conference, “There’s no ability for the Department of Defense to monitor the personal social media accounts of every member of the armed forces.” Rather, if banned behaviors are reported, commanders are to talk to their troops before deciding if disciplinary action is required. It is not clear how service members who break the rules will be penalized. 

“We owe the men and women of the Department of Defense an environment free of extremist activities,” Austin said in a public memo. “And we owe our country a military that reflects the founding values of our democracy.”

In addition to the new guidelines, Lloyd James Austin III, the first Black U.S. secretary of defense, has formed the Counter Extremism Working Group, which hopes to eliminate extremism within the military. The group will update the Pentagon’s definition of extremism, educate veterans who may be targeted by extremist organizations, and standardize entrance questionnaires to identify applicants who have participated in extremist activities in the past.

“We owe the men and women of the Department of Defense an environment free of extremist activities,” Austin said in a public memo. “And we owe our country a military that reflects the founding values of our democracy.”