There’s Some Very Official Military Business Happening on RedditReading Time: 6 minutes
It’s covering up a bigger problem., How the military uses Reddit.
When Sgt. 1st Class William Reinier logs in to Reddit at work, he’s not doing it to kill time or slack off. As a public affairs officer responsible for social media outreach for one of the Army’s most senior service members, Reinier scans the site as part of his official duties. He’s looking for posts about some of the most pressing problems facing the Pentagon: suicide rates, sexual assault, and horrible living conditions at multiple installations. Users often tag him to get his attention.
When Reinier finds a post that he determines merits further action, he assesses the information, reaches out to the user (if necessary) via direct message, and then works to obtain documentation or information about their specific problem, which can then be used to contact a soldier’s unit or escalate the issue.
For soldiers who are turning to Reddit as a last resort to address problems left unresolved by the military’s normal channels, this outreach is powerful. ‘If you’re a young soldier and you’re all alone, the office of the highest enlisted soldier in the Army reaching down to ask what’s troubling you … I think there’s a unrealized ‘status’ or presence the office has in that capacity,’ Kinmuan, a moderator of one of the subreddits Reinier uses, told me in a message. (Kinmuan asked not to be identified by his real name.)
Reinier is part of a larger effort across the military that’s actively using unofficial subreddits run by current and former service members to crowdsource ideas about the future of its services, conduct internal recruiting, troubleshoot service member issues, and provide services such as career advice for new recruits. Reinier said comments from soldiers on Reddit encouraging the Army to conduct annual mental wellness checks and to reduce restrictions on the amount of alcohol soldiers could keep in barracks rooms led to those ideas being piloted at select installations last year.
This may not sound revolutionary, but to me it sort of felt that way—a ’90s-esque bulletin board system with semi-anonymous posters is a strange venue for an institution that prides itself on total control and is often closed off to the outside world. Had I tried to email the headquarters of the U.S. Army when I was on active duty from 2010 to 2019, I’m confident it would have been, at best, ignored (or, at worst, met with retribution from my immediate supervisors). This new form of digital outreach is certainly a meaningful step toward better engaging with service members—it gives them an opportunity to seek help and raise concerns in a place where they’re more comfortable, without even having to use their real names or worry about rank imbalances. But in some cases, it’s also a Band-Aid that does little to address the military’s many underlying problems.
Currently, the two most active accounts of high-level officials on these subreddits are Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy James Honea and Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston, both of whom have the highest rank in their respective branches that any enlisted service member can hope to attain. Honea and Grinston are responsible for addressing the issues of the hundreds of thousands of enlisted personnel in both services, which are the largest in the military. To do so, they enlist the help of public affairs representatives like Reinier (who works for Grinston) and forums like r/Army, which has more than 220,000 subscribers and sees dozens of topics with hundreds and sometimes thousands of comments posted each day.
‘The usefulness of these sites is that they allow us to identify systemic problems worldwide that we may not have seen, giving us an opportunity to try to fix them,’ Grinston told me during a phone interview. ‘In the future, I hope that leaders don’t shy away from engaging on social media. Soldiers will continue raising issues on them, and we should respond.’
These subreddits are also tools for Department of Defense officials to learn about (and, in the best of cases, address) service member issues before they become national news stories, including responding to individual mental health crises that service members sometimes reveal on these sites. It’s those cases—delicate efforts that often involve direct messages, phone calls to units across the world, and tracking down at-risk service members—that illustrate just how useful the platform can be. Accounts from the offices of these high-level officials have also helped service members with issues of pay, paperwork, housing, and health care. Although this outreach is giving service members access to new avenues for solutions, it’s telling that those members feel as if they must rely on Reddit in the first place. The military’s proposed budget for next year, remember, is $842 billion.
‘When someone makes a post about suicide on one of these sites, we’re in reaction mode,’ Grinston said. ‘But there’s often larger issues that put stressors on soldiers and create these events.’ In an ideal world, he said, these stressors would be addressed by soldiers’ leaders before they became an emergency—but that doesn’t always happen. ‘We’re not trying to replace chains of command; soldiers are contacting us when they feel like they’re not getting what they need,’ he said.
Military subreddits have been around for years, but official outreach on them seems to be a relatively new phenomenon. Each of the main military subreddits has active user bases into the hundreds of thousands and, importantly, allows users to post semi-anonymously, without their real name or rank. Most of the time, the posts are humorous. But they can often turn quite serious, as users discuss everything from their lives on deployments, the friends they’ve lost, and the systemic issues surrounding sexual assault in the military.
All of these discussions are happening on open forums, and people outside the military are also using them for information gathering. On Nov. 3, 2022, a soldier posted about repeated suicide deaths at his unit in Alaska, days before the DOD publicly admitted to these deaths on Twitter. In response to the Nov. 3 post, journalists from military news outlets reached out to soldiers on the platform, and multiple national news articles and responses from the Pentagon followed. And it’s not just journalists—in late April, the congressional office of U.S. Rep. Marilyn Strickland, a Democrat from Washington and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, reached out to members of the Army subreddit by responding to a post about systemic pay issues at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington. In a written statement, a spokesperson for Strickland said the congresswoman’s staff ‘is always looking for new avenues to connect with constituents—many of whom serve at Joint Base Lewis-McChord—including educating them on the services a congressional office can provide.’
For Grinston and Honea, Reddit is one tool to keep track of problems facing their services, and both offices have engaged in Reddit’s Ask Me Anything, a series of open forums in which users on the site submit direct questions. But they’ve also gone much further: Honea’s office used comments from Reddit as part of testimonies to Congress about the state of military health care, and Grinston’s office has crowdsourced ideas multiple times from the users of r/Army.
This outreach hasn’t always been received positively by users on the site, thanks in part to general levels of distrust of high-level leadership. While users on the subreddit seem not to mind unofficial conversations being used for official purposes, the services themselves are extremely wary of categorizing the outreach on these sites as official. There’s also the risk of people posing as someone they’re not.
The subreddits themselves are at times home to racist, sexist, and otherwise discriminatory posts that, despite moderation, highlight why the military continues to generally fail in those areas. Part of this may be reflective of the user demographics of Reddit and the subreddits: Internal censuses conducted by multiple military subreddits revealed that their user bases ranged from 90 to 97 percent male, compared with the military’s overall demographics, where women make up almost 20 percent of the force. These surveys did not ask about race.
How Reddit became important to the military is an open question. It has fewer users than Facebook, where the Pentagon maintains multiple official presences. Even though Twitter has had more overall cultural power, military service members never seemed to create a community there en masse—and the user experience on the platform has deteriorated over the past several months. Subreddits focused on the military, meanwhile, have continuously gained power and influence. ‘Reddit puts everyone on equal footing, since we [as moderators] have far less to do [with] what’s posted prominently on the page—users choose what to highlight or not through the voting system,’ said Kinmuan, the r/Army moderator.
The issue underlying all this, though, is that volunteer, unpaid site users are doing the heavy lifting of creating a forum to share information and triage issues, picking up where the military’s official systems and procedures are failing. These subreddits and their efforts around mental health are a prime example, a forced response to the poor state of the military’s suicide prevention efforts. The fact that the military is officially engaging in these spaces is on its face a positive development, but the fact that service members feel as if Reddit is their best shot at getting their issue addressed is a more fundamental problem. There’s also the problem of continuity: Whether the military will continue to use these sites after new leadership cycles in is unknown—many once successful efforts are forgotten or discontinued in leadership shuffles.
In the meantime, public affairs officers like Reinier are still using Reddit. About a month ago, a soldier made a post on Reddit describing how a last-minute decision during his mandatory moving process meant that his immediate family could no longer accompany him—they were now staying with his parents, effectively homeless. The official account of the sergeant major’s public affairs officer responded, telling the soldier to send them a direct message. Within a couple of days of the message from Grinston’s PAO, according to a subsequent Reddit post, the soldier was able to meet with his immediate leadership, who promised to fix the issue.
The soldier posted an update a couple of weeks later: Despite the help from Reddit, he still didn’t have housing.
If you need to talk, or if you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or call or text 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.
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