U.S. Army Central is investigating social media posts made by Lt. Col. Joseph Cannon, commander of the Michigan National Guard’s 3rd Battalion, 126th Infantry Regiment, for potential violations of Defense Department political speech rules.
“U.S. Army Central is investigating social media behavior within its formation not consistent with the Army values and allegations that violate DoD’s policy on political activity by members of the Armed Forces,” said Col. Armando Hernandez, the ARCENT spokesman, in a statement to Military Times. ARCENT was unaware of Cannon’s social media conduct until contacted for comment by Military Times.
Military Times obtained more than 30 screenshots of posts about politics and conspiracy theories made on Cannon’s personal, mostly private Facebook page. While Cannon has made hundreds of political posts since at least 2009, many of the screenshots are of posts shared or written since his battalion mobilized and deployed to the Middle East earlier this year, according to their timestamps.
Cannon’s posts include a share flagged as “false information” from a longshot GOP Senate candidate, in violation of DoD rules on political speech, according to military legal expert Rachel VanLandingham. His timeline also includes dozens of political posts and conspiracy theories. His posts mock Barack Obama as the “Messiah,” and he shared a “Plandemic” COVID-19 conspiracy film and a hashtag related to the QAnon conspiracy theory.
Regardless of whether there was a violation of DoD rules, another expert suggested Cannon’s polemic posts may raise concerns in his chain of command about his ability to lead. Two soldiers under his command have already been punished for posting a video deriding “liberals and Democrats.”
Hernandez, the ARCENT spokesman, declined to comment on whether the posts could have damaged the command climate or whether they could lead to a loss of confidence in Cannon’s ability to command, citing the ongoing investigation.
Military Times attempted to reach Cannon via Facebook Messenger on Tuesday and Wednesday, and through his ARCENT command on Thursday, but he did not immediately respond. The Michigan National Guard also did not respond a request for comment sent on Tuesday. The posts were still up as of Wednesday evening.
Last week, Military Times learned two soldiers in Cannon’s battalion were punished for violating DoD regulations on political speech in uniform. The soldiers, whose names were not released by U.S. Army Central or the Michigan National Guard, were disciplined after posting a viral video laden with obscenities that targeted “liberals and Democrats.” The soldiers made the video while on duty in Bahrain, according to a defense official.
Another viral video, another two troops in trouble.
Following Military Times’ reporting on the video, soldiers from Cannon’s battalion approached Military Times regarding Cannon’s Facebook posts, expressing dismay over the posts and the overtly political climate in the unit.
Army officials and experts contacted by Military Times also expressed concerns about Cannon’s conduct on social media.
“Soldiers, including those in the Reserve Component on active duty, are prohibited from participating in partisan political activity," said Hernandez, the ARCENT spokesman. "The U.S. military is an apolitical organization that swears an Oath to the Constitution of the United States and not to a political party or organization.”
VanLandingham, a law professor at Southwestern Law School and a retired Air Force JAG, explained that Cannon’s posts are in a gray area of restrictions on political speech by troops, but may have violated DoD regulations prohibiting partisan political activity.
But, if investigators consider his profile to imply DoD endorsement, his political posts would likely be a major breach of rules restricting political speech.
A civil-military relations expert interviewed by Military Times said the investigation could also result in a loss of confidence in Cannon’s ability to command, regardless of whether he violated DoD political speech rules.
“It probably already is a command climate issue,” said Carrie Lee, a professor at the Air War College who spoke with Military Times via phone in a personal capacity. “Even if [Cannon’s conduct] doesn’t cross into violation of law...you need to be able to lead men and women of all different kinds of perspectives and political persuasions.”
Another civil-military relations expert advised the damage to the Army’s reputation could extend beyond just Cannon’s battalion.
“When members of the military post or share partisan, political messages on social media, it threatens to erode the American public’s trust in the uniformed military as a nonpartisan institution,” said Heidi Urben, a security studies professor at Georgetown University and retired Army officer. Leaders especially, she explained, should “exercise great caution when talking politics on social media and steer clear of partisan content at all times.”
One post Cannon shared on Oct. 1 from Lauren Witzke, a GOP Senate candidate appearing on the ballot in Delaware, “crossed the line of DoD regulations prohibiting ‘partisan activity’” and Army social media policy, according to VanLandingham –– regardless of the implied endorsement issue. Military personnel cannot share posts from candidates for office, according to the policy. The share was of a false claim regarding late-term abortion, which has since been flagged as “false information” by Facebook.
Other posts were not from candidates but were extremely political in nature, though not necessarily “partisan” in the narrow definition of the word set forth by the DoD.
Cannon posted a link to the website of Kevin and Keith Hodge, prominent conservative influencers known together as “The Hodgetwins,” on Oct. 15. In the comments, Cannon describes their political opponents as “the 5th column…alive and very dangerous…willing to destroy everything for their political ambitions…I worry about the America I am goong [sic] to come back to next spring.”
The battalion commander’s other posts include one from July 26 declaring that Democratic presidential nominee Joe “Biden is not the candidate. The Candidate is Michelle Obama.” The post alleges a conspiracy wherein “racial and ideological disunity” is self-inflicted so that Obama, “the newer and improved Messiah (not male nor white) can come to ‘heal’ our national divide. Don’t be duped.”
Cannon has also shared a number of conspiracy theories about Biden, including claims of fixed debates, media conspiracies, and ties to China described as “unsubstantiated” by PolitiFact.
His timeline also includes a number of public posts made during the Obama administration. One from 2013 accuses the news media of a “conspiracy” in their coverage of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012.
Another post from 2013 commented on a CNN gun rights roundtable featuring two Marine veterans, one for gun rights and one for gun control. “Notice one with a rifle…and the other…a camera…good Job CNN…is this PFC Manning’s ho[m]osexual lover from the Marines,” he said in an apparent reference to Chelsea Manning, the former Army intelligence specialist who was convicted under the Espionage Act for leaking classified material to WikiLeaks.
Cannon, whose battalion has contributed soldiers to Michigan’s ongoing response to COVID-19, has also shared a significant amount of conspiracy theories and misinformation related to the deadly disease.
On Aug.19, he posted a link to part two of the viral “Plandemic” documentaries, both of which are laden with mis- and disinformation about the virus that causes COVID-19. FactCheck.org says the video “suggests without proof that the novel coronavirus was man-made and intentionally released.” In his comments, Cannon said, “Who do you trust?”
Other posts from July amplified disinformation about facemasks purportedly reducing blood oxygen levels –– a claim disproven by medical experts and scientific experiments. On July 31, Cannon evaded Facebook’s fact-checking on the claim by editing a photo associated with the disinformation, saying, “Lets [sic] play with the detection algorithm a little bit…see if it notices…”
Cannon also shared “false information,” according to Facebook’s fact-checking, on Aug. 30 alleging that the CDC had falsified COVID-19 death totals.
He followed the skepticism of CDC death counts with an “Anchorman” meme on Oct. 7 that read, “On a positive note, nobody has died of ‘old age’ since March.”
Another post from April was of graffiti reading “COVID-1984.”
The battalion commander has also speculated about other conspiracies, including a fact-checked post in August questioning whether the Beirut explosion was caused by a suicide drone.
Another post on Aug. 11 simply read “#SaveourChildren,” an anti-child trafficking slogan adopted by QAnon conspiracists.
A matter of confidence
Cannon may face greater punishment for an indirect loss of confidence in his ability to command rather than the posts themselves, explained experts.
“The rules governing military members' political activities, particularly regarding online conduct, are not as clear-cut as one would think,” said VanLandingham in an interview with Military Times. “Military members must never allow their personal opinions to carry, or appear to carry, the [approval] of their branch or the DoD.”
VanLandingham said Cannon’s military-heavy Facebook profile — his uniformed profile picture, his listed National Guard and Department of the Army civilian employment, and his frequent sharing of posts showing his unit’s training activities — may not be sufficient to imply DoD endorsement.
The implied endorsement issue may not matter, though, says Lee, the civil-military expert.
Commanders, said Lee, lead an ideologically diverse cadre and cannot be seen as exerting undue influence.
“One of the important things about being a commander — or about leadership in general — is that every single person underneath you feels as though you have their best interest at heart," she said.
A commander espousing a political point of view on social media may adversely affect subordinates with differing opinions, regardless of the perspective, Lee said.
“[It] becomes a real loss of confidence and it becomes a command climate issue if you have soldiers under your command who are liberal, and they’re watching your Facebook page" that has conservative political posts, she said. “That can spell a lot of trouble for you as a leader to just be able to lead effectively."
Lee also indicated that Cannon’s posts could lead his soldiers — such as those in his Company A who were recently disciplined for political posts on duty — to think partisan posts were acceptable.
“You can imagine a Joe on the street seeing a battalion commander posting really pro-Trump things and thinking that he is speaking for the DoD,” she said.