US Troops on Base Less Likely to Seek Extremist Content Than Americans in General, Study Finds

Service branches differ in their engagement with anti-Black extremism or anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, internet research firm says in upcoming report.

The Defense Department will soon know which bases and branches have the most troops looking for domestic violent extremist content. The next step is figuring out how to stop it. 

The data is expected to arrive in about three weeks in a report from the U.S. Military Academy and Moonshot, a startup founded in 2015 to spot people searching online for violent extremist information and direct them to helpful resources instead.

Moonshot founder Vidhya Ramalingam declined to detail the findings in the report. But she said the data suggest that active duty troops are less prone than the American public as a whole to seek out information about violent extremism. 

“When we look at bases for each branch as compared to national averages, there is disproportionately low engagement on most bases,” Ramalingam said. “Some branches have higher levels of engagement with anti-Black extremism or anti-Semitic conspiracy theories...But we’re not seeing really heightened levels of engagement that are incredibly worrying.” 

The Biden administration released the first National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism last week. Under that order, the Pentagon is working to sharpen its definition of extremism, and clarify what consequences troops might face for different actions. It’s not clear how widespread extremism is in the military, but at least 50 troops are facing charges over their involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol. 

Moonshot’s report on extremism in the ranks will quantify the problem by geolocating search data to determine on which bases troops are searching for violent extremist content. Ramalingam said search data is a great statistic to evaluate because unlike social media, it’s not performative and people may search for things they aren’t comfortable talking about with friends. The data, which will all be anonymized and can’t be traced back to a particular person, will show which bases and which branches have the most people searching for this type of information online.

The data can help the Pentagon know where it has the greatest problem, but that knowledge alone will not solve the issue.

Moonshot, which is already working with the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, also has tools that the government can use to get help to people searching for violent content online. Ramalingam said she’s had conversations with individual service branches and the broader department, including a meeting with the Pentagon’s top diversity officer Bishop Garrison a month ago, on how the department can harness the technology her company uses to find and eliminate extremism in the ranks. 

The company aims to redirect people looking for violent extremist content online. For example, if someone searches on the internet for how to join the Ku Klux Klan, they might see a search result for counseling services, tools to learn how to critically examine media, or a suggestion to deescalate emotions running high. Moonshot primarily uses ad markers on social media and search results to reach those actively searching for violence and intervene. 

Some of their most successful efforts have used emotions to appeal to those looking for violent content, Ramalingam said. For example, the most successful ad they tested said “anger and grief can be isolating.” The company also offers mindfulness exercises to people searching on the internet for violent extremist content. Between November 2020 and February 2021, someone searching for content about white supremacism, armed groups, or conspiracy theories on YouTube watched a de-escalation breathing exercise all the way through more than half a million times.

Ramalingam said there’s some evidence that these interventions are having a lasting effect. People looking for violent extremist and disinformation content between January 2021 and March 2021 engaged more than 70,000 times with a crisis counseling website. Of those, 15 percent came back to the same website later on their own. 

Moonshot has a staff of about 50 people based in London, though the company has worked in the United States since its founding six years ago. But the prevalence of violent extremism is increasing so quickly in America that Ramalingam says she is opening a Washington-based office that’s expected to have 18 people by the end of the year.

“The launch of the D.C. office came for a few reasons, one of which is that the need for the work here just dramatically grew in the last year,” she said. “The scale of the audience is so large that we couldn’t justify not being here.”