U.S. Space Force / Senior Airman Andrew Bertain

'Influencers in uniform' are boosting recruiting, Pentagon says

Troops' social-media posts are "wildly popular because I think youth are looking for authenticity,” says deputy defense secretary.

The Pentagon’s efforts to recruit more young Americans into the armed forces are receiving a boost from service members with large online followings, the deputy secretary of defense said during an event hosted by the Center for a New American Security on Tuesday. 

Kathleen Hicks said when it comes to the department’s Gen Z-focused military recruitment initiatives on social media, “where we've seen the most success is with—I feel so out of my lane here—with influencers.”

Hicks said digital content from “genuine service members on their own,” such as videos on YouTube, are resonating with younger viewers, particularly posts that are less overt in their recruitment tactics.

Service members "describing a day in their life talking about whatever—going out to get fast food but they're in uniform, whatever it is—those are wildly popular because I think youth are looking for authenticity,” Hicks said.

An August 2022 survey of 13- to 17-year-old Americans conducted by the Pew Research Center found that significant and growing numbers of teenagers reported using video- and photo-sharing platforms in 2022, including Youtube, Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat. 

DOD personnel and employees of other federal agencies, however, are prohibited from using or downloading TikTok on their official government devices due to national security concerns over the app’s ownership by a China-based company.

Service branches that are not the Marine Corps and Space Force have seen subpar recruiting in recent years. In April, leaders from the Army, Navy, and Air Force all told lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee that they expected to miss their recruitment goals for fiscal year 2023 by thousands of enlistees. 

Some branches are considering switching or relaxing their standards for enlistment to allow more Americans to meet the eligibility requirements for service. 

Hicks admitted that “military recruitment has been a challenge” for DOD since the COVID-19 pandemic and that “we continue to look for creative solutions” in targeting and expanding the pool of eligible candidates for military service. 

Part of the Pentagon’s effort includes increasing the visibility of service members. Less than 7% of U.S. adults in 2022 were veterans, which Hicks said “has reduced most Americans’ familiarity with the military.”

“Without those direct ties, it is harder to observe the military way of life up close,” she said. “We can improve societal connections by increasing the visibility of the military through community outreach, by sharing their stories of service so that youth especially can better understand who our service members are, what they do and what they're most proud of.”

Hicks said DOD reviews “how we advertise, where we advertise, to whom we advertise,” and is continuing to look at recruitment efforts geared toward the online and virtual spaces where younger Americans congregate.

“We can do a lot on advertising — we need to, we’re going to,” she added. “And that includes on social media, [it] includes in gaming platforms [and] other places, because what constitutes social media is itself shifting.”

But she added that “we can't lose sight of the fact that that authenticity really speaks, and that's where I think there's a lot of opportunity to grow.”