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Like, Comment, Retweet: The State of the Military's Nonpartisan Ethic in the World of Social Media

By Heidi A. Urben CCO Case Study 1

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Executive Summary 

The State of the Military's Nonpartisan Ethic in the World of Social MediaPast research contends that with the exception of voting in presidential elections, military officers’ political participation is fairly muted. Moreover, most allegations of political outspokenness tend to be levied at retired officers, not those on active duty. Department of Defense directives provide guidelines on permissible but traditional forms of political expression for active duty members of the military, but largely neglect social media as a forum for political activity. Through a survey of more than 500 military elites attending the United States Military Academy and National Defense University, this project seeks to establish the nature and extent of political expression by members of the military throughout social media and whether or not such expression is in keeping with the norm of nonpartisanship. 

Findings suggest that while most military elites continue to identify as conservative and Republican, fewer appear to do so today than at any other time over the past 30 years. Second, military elites actively use social media networking sites, although younger elites are more prolific in their use. Third, while respondents’ nonmilitary friends were more politically active than their military friends, both active duty and retired military actively participate in multiple forms of political and partisan expression, from posting comments on political issues to “friending” political figures. Fourth, party identification and political ideology elicit different responses and behavior about politics on social media. Military elites who identify as liberals and Democrats are more likely to have more politically diverse military friends on social media, but are also more likely to report feeling uncomfortable by their friends’ politics. Finally, a striking percentage of those surveyed—50 percent in some cases—indicated their active duty military friends have engaged in insulting, rude, or disdainful comments directed at politicians, elected officials, and the President, with liberals and Democrats more likely to report they observed such normative violations. Together, these findings suggest Republican and conservative military elites may be more likely to see social media as their echo chamber and raise further questions about the politicization of the force. This study concludes by considering the implications these findings carry for the norms of an apolitical, nonpartisan military.

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