It was not shocking to me when I learned of the recent leaker “OG” and his Discord family of young men. Nor was it a surprise that it was a member of the National Guard. There are three aspects I want to discuss related to the events of “OG.” Young men, chat apps, the military, and my experience with all three.
Over the last 13 years, I’ve served in the National Guard. At times, I was expected to participate in the current chat app flavor of the month. I had them all. Discord, Signal, WhatsApp, GroupMe, Facebook, and even a walkie-talkie app called Voxer. National Guard members are not regularly on a military installation and typically serve one weekend a month. This makes communication through official channels challenging for leadership. Most soldiers are not provided with DOD mobile devices, and we need to use a military computer on base or our personal computer with a smart card reader to view our email. It’s cumbersome, leaving most soldiers not routinely checking official email between monthly training events. It’s easy to lose touch with your unit for weeks at a time. It’s easy to feel isolated when everyone returns to civilian life at the end of each training event.
So how does leadership solve the problem? Using encrypted chat apps. The apps made everything easier for leadership and soldiers. Disseminating information, accountability, last-minute changes, health and welfare checks, etc. It made us a more effective force. During operations, we often bond over silly memes and gifs related to work. Leadership moderated and kept it professional. It seemed like a win-win. But it still felt odd using unofficial means for official communication.
The Army has responded to the issue and announced a bring-your-own-device pilot called Hypori. It allows you to access DOD-approved email and chat collaboration apps on your personal mobile device. This will eliminate leadership’s reliance on unauthorized chat apps.
Setting aside all the operational security concerns, there was another aspect of using the apps that nobody considered until we heard anecdotes of soldiers being approached by far-right groups. What started as innocent became a slippery slope to radicalization.
Here’s one example:
PVT Smith is asked by leadership to join the unit chat group for accountability and information sharing. PVT Smith joins, and so do the other members of his company. PVT Smith has never used the chat app before, but he finds connecting with his new peers helpful. PVT Smith likes to play video games when off-duty and uses the app to invite other gamers from his unit to his own off-duty gaming group. This chat group grows with other gamers, and they invite non-military members into the group. Over time, PVT Smith bonds with the non-military members. Leadership is no longer present. He expresses interest in other topics, specifically guns, God, and gear. One of the non-military members invites PVT Smith to a third chat group focused on their shared interests. This third group makes PVT Smith feel like family. They discuss politics around guns, immigration, and how they feel like they are losing their country to the radical left. The group often mentions their struggle and needing to take their country back. PVT Smith, passionate about service to the country, asks the group how he can help. The group leader invites him to an in-person meeting where a local far-right militia is recruiting.
PVT Smith might have found his way to the far-right militia group without using the app, but the right conditions and technology were in place for PVT Smith in this scenario. This isn’t to say the military’s use of the app causes radicalization. The apps themselves are not inherently evil. For example, I’m part of a Discord server of car enthusiasts where we discuss our car projects and plan in-person car meets. But it does point back to the bigger issue with young men today.
Professor Scott Galloway has been a leading voice on the topic of young men. Young men have been struggling to define their identity in society today. They are less likely to attend college, work, or attach to partners. They are more susceptible to fringe theories and spend most of their time online.
I empathize with young men today. As a millennial who was homeschooled and works remotely, I know how easy it is to find myself spending most of my time online and alone. It was my default for years. Family, friends, fitness, therapy, and even my National Guard service have helped keep me from slipping into complete isolation. I’ve learned that I’m the kind of person that must actively pursue healthy in-person connections, or else I risk spiraling into isolation. We must encourage more young men to pursue healthy masculinity, in-person connections, and mentorships and not fear seeking mental health services when needed.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Guard, Department of Defense or the US Government.
Joe is passionate about delivering a balanced media diet and believes it’s critical to a well-informed electorate. He comes from a diverse technology background and holds a B.A. in International Relations. In his free time he’s an avid gamer, CrossFitter, and car enthusiast. He enjoys traveling the world with his family, going to rock concerts, and watching stand-up comedy. He is also a military veteran and currently serves part-time as a UH-60 Black Hawk pilot for the Army National Guard.