Videos of troops and military equipment moving through downtown Philadelphia spread online last month, sparking false claims on social media platforms that the U.S. government was preparing to invoke martial law. The posts spread quickly, garnering millions of views and thousands of shares.
What was really happening? Parade preparations for Flag Day and the U.S. Army’s birthday in historic Philadelphia. The military vehicles were on the move as part of the city’s annual Stars and Stripes Festival, held this year on June 14, when members of the Pennsylvania National Guard showed off military equipment to the public, according to Maj. Travis Mueller, a Pennsylvania National Guard public affairs officer.
Heading into the July Fourth holiday Tuesday, more troops and military equipment will be present in urban areas as part of citywide celebrations, including the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular, the National Independence Day Parade in Washington, D.C., and the Armed Forces River Parade in San Antonio. Military flyovers are being planned for events across Oregon, Colorado and Vermont, among other states.
These celebrations offer more opportunity for the spread of rumors like those that took hold in Philadelphia. One way to stand down the panic? If you see military troops in your city or town, check out local law enforcement and local military bases’ social media accounts, or states’ National Guard pages on Twitter and Facebook, where public affairs officers often post about service members and equipment appearing in public before planned activities.
The unsubstantiated rumors of martial law sparked by troops spotted on Philly streets is just one of many incidents of such images spawning disinformation online. Such conspiracies go back to the 1970s, when so-called “black helicopters” became a symbol of a military takeover of the U.S. But they’ve grown in frequency since 2020, when myths about voter fraud eroded the public’s confidence in U.S. democracy, experts said.
“The whole idea is quite preposterous. We’re so far from any situation in which martial law would be declared that it’s laughable,” said William Banks, a Syracuse University law professor who wrote a book about the domestic role of the U.S. military. “The fact that it’s become a part of disinformation campaigns is concerning.”
In addition to parades and other public events sparking concerns, the arrival of summer – annual training season for the National Guard and Reserve – means more troops on the move and more conjecture about a military takeover.
“What people are seeing now is what people have seen every summer for as long as I’ve been alive,” Banks said. “Folks are taking their summer National Guard duty right now and riding convoys to wherever they’re going to be. For many of us, it’s a regular scene in the summer on the highways.”
Rumors spread online this month when a military convoy was spotted on state roads near Idaho Falls. The Idaho National Guard had posted the planned movement on its Facebook page on June 13, alerting the public that its 148th Field Artillery Regiment would be moving tracked vehicles the next day from its training area back to its armory. “Don’t be alarmed!” the post warned. Still, a video of the convoy was posted by a worried onlooker and went viral on social media. One post that received more than one million views warned, “BREAKING NEWS! Tank group on the highway in Idaho falls today!”
A few days later, some social media accounts shared videos of low-flying helicopters in the Bay Area, describing their presence as an “undeclared military drill.” The MV-22 Ospreys and Sikorsky White Hawks seen over Marin County, California, on June 16, were security for President Joe Biden’s planned fundraising visit, the San Francisco Gate reported.
In February, false reports spread that combat had come to San Diego’s shores, when the U.S. Army Special Operations Command conducted training around the city. This despite the city’s high concentration of military bases and routine exercises, and an advisory issued in advance by Naval Base Coronado. Residents told local television stations they were caught off guard by low-flying helicopters and explosions.
Adding to the confusion? Several social media accounts – some of them verified on Twitter and boasting tens of thousands of followers – have falsely claimed that all of these movements are signs the military is preparing for an impending violent event and the invocation of martial law.
“Inconceivable” and “utterly absurd” is how legal expert and retired Army officer Geoffrey Corn describes the various martial law conspiracies. If ever anyone tried to illegally invoke martial law, it would be stopped by military leaders, Congress and the courts, said Corn, director of the Center for Military Law and Policy at Texas Tech University.
“The leaders of the DOD would look at this and say, ‘We don’t have legal authority to do what you’re asking,’” Corn said, adding that “As soon as Congress got wind of it, it would create a political crisis,” and the federal courts would shut it down.
A rise in martial law conspiracies
The presence of military equipment has been a long-standing trigger for conspiracies. Stories of black helicopters and their role in covert operations started in the ‘70s but gained more attention in 1995, when former Rep. Helen Chenoweth, R-Idaho, held congressional hearings about black helicopters allegedly targeting ranches in the rural West.
False claims about alleged government preparations to declare martial law are becoming an uncomfortable American tradition. In 2015, U.S. Army Special Operations was preparing to hold what it called a routine multi-state training exercise called Operation Jade Helm, spurring rumors of a covert effort to impose martial law. Such was the widespread panic that the Texas governor deployed the Texas state guard to monitor special operations troops. In 2018, former CIA director Michael Hayden attributed the Jade Helm panic to Russian disinformation targeting Texas, according to the Texas Tribune.
While these types of conspiracies date back decades, rumors of the government invoking martial law have been on the rise since former national security adviser Michael Flynn publicly called for former President Donald Trump to impose martial law to force a new election after his 2020 loss, said Syracuse University law professor Banks. Flynn’s status in the conservative movement and experience as an Army lieutenant general lent weight to his espoused theories that ballot tampering had lost Trump the election – theories proven false by multiple state and federal investigations.
At the time, Flynn retweeted an ad from a conservative political organization that called on Trump to suspend the Constitution, declare martial law and order the military to oversee a new election.
“Flynn called over and over and over again in 2020 for the invocation of martial law,” Banks said. “He’s a widely followed guy in certain circles and by virtue of his rank, he had a lot of credibility.”
The Covid-19 pandemic also gave rise to false claims about martial law being declared to invoke a nationwide quarantine – some of the rumors reaching so many people that the National Security Council spoke out to debunk them. “Text message rumors of a national #quarantine are FAKE. There is no national lockdown,” the NSC tweeted.
The Pentagon also debunked other viral claims about impending martial law in 2020, including one Twitter post that showed a video of Army equipment being moved by rail with the comment, “Coming soon?” Then-Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Rath Hoffman said the video showed joint light tactical vehicles being transported by Army Material Command from a factory in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to then-Fort Bragg, now-Fort Liberty, North Carolina.
Former Illinois Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger, a lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard, has been working to counter some of the conspiracies he sees online, while battling his own frustration that so many fellow Americans could be so gullible.
“I think there is a real importance in exposing the ludicrous-y of it,” he told Military Times.
Kinzinger put that in practice, responding sarcastically, he thought, to a tweet about the alleged impending military takeover of Philadelphia. “As a Guardsman let me just say, this is exactly what you think it is and not drill weekend or summer training. No, it’s a takeover of whatever you love by whoever you hate.” That sarcasm was lost on some, who took his post to be confirmation of their worst fears.
Kinzinger has battled what he sees as a flood of disinformation that has enveloped his party, including debunked claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election. He was one of only two Republicans on the congressional committee that investigated the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, and ultimately left Congress over his party’s embrace of such claims.
“You can fight to try to tell the truth, you can fight against the cancer in the Republican Party of lies of conspiracy of dishonesty,” Kinzinger told ABC “This Week” when he announced he was leaving Congress.
He wants to see the military be similarly pro-active to spot disinformation about military activities online, and act swiftly to correct the record.
“I think it’s important for people to see that when they hear something like the government is going to take over Philadelphia, that they actually are aware of what that conspiracy is before they just take someone’s word for it,” he said.
Retired Army colonel David Maxwell, a former U.S. Army Green Beret, cautioned against vilifying or attacking believers in unfounded conspiracy theories.
“We are naturally suspicious of the government,” said Maxwell of his fellow American citizens.
“This disinformation reinforces that idea that we have to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, but we don’t realize that the enemy that is attacking us is not our government, not our military, but the outside forces. That is the real paradox,” said Maxwell, now a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank, Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
He suggested attacking the baseless claims themselves with a four-pronged strategy, represented by the somewhat unwieldy acronym R-U-E-A: recognizing adversarial strategies, understanding how those adversaries implement their plans, exposing those plans to the affected public and finally attacking the bad actor’s strategy to undermine its efforts.
On the positive side, the U.S. has “very engaged citizenry,” he said. But it’s “informed by bad ideas and influenced by Russia and China, Iran and North Korea,” as well as other bad actors.
A brief history of U.S. martial law
Since the United States was founded on July 4, 1776, martial law has been enacted at least 68 times. The figure varies because one state’s governor allegedly declared martial law 30 times, but official records don’t show all of these declarations. A few of these declarations made their mark on what the U.S. could see today.
General Andrew Jackson declared martial law for the first time in U.S. history in 1814 before the Battle of New Orleans to guard Louisiana territory from British attack. Local authorities and members of the press criticized the general’s controversial actions.
Until the mid-1800′s, martial law couldn’t be declared because it was incompatible with the U.S. Constitution, according to Joseph Nunn, counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, a non-partisan law and policy institute. In a seminal case, Luther v. Borden, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1849 to rule in favor of an entity attempting to declare martial law to prevent a state government overthrow. Based on that case, all U.S. states theoretically have the legal ability to declare martial law when warranted, which helps explain why 57 of those 68 cases of martial law were declared by states.
Nunn said the federal level is a different story. The U.S. government has declared martial law 11 times since 1776, but that was more than two centuries ago, and the Supreme Court hasn’t clearly defined whether it currently has the legal authority to do so.
“Martial law is a historical phenomenon … largely confined to the period between the start of the Civil War and the end of World War II,” Nunn said.
On Dec. 7, 1941, immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii’s governor declared martial law on the islands. U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt approved the move, and the islands remained under military rule for nearly three years. Civilians charged with crimes went before military tribunals and the military controlled more mundane aspects of life, like traffic, parking and trash pickup.
After Hawaii, the use of state- or territory- level martial law ticked up, particularly as civil unrest grew during the Civil Rights Movement, but the actual implementation of martial law looked less like all-out military rule and more like a state governor calling upon the national guard for riot control.
When groups peddle claims that a military exercise schemes to declare martial law, Nunn said they likely think of the military rule in Hawaii and not the more frequently exhibited use of controlling riots. The most recent declaration of martial law in U.S. history happened in Maryland about 60 years ago, when the government imposed martial law that lasted over a year in the town of Cambridge, during the racially-charged civil unrest known as the Cambridge Riot of 1963.
Unlikelihood of martial law in modern-day U.S.
What stands in the way of declaring martial law? All the federal and state bodies that are already in charge, enforcing their own laws with their own forces, like the police departments that now exist in all 50 states, Nunn said. “Their resources are so large and so heavily armed… you don’t necessarily need the military to come to a situation with federal force,” he added.
“Martial law is the absence of law,” legal scholar Banks said. “So, if martial law should ever be invoked, it should be in situations of a very extreme breakdown in civil authority, where the government isn’t operating and can’t operate normally, and where the courts are no longer open and operating.”
That would only conceivably happen in cases like a catastrophic nuclear attack or a plague that kills a majority of the population, said retired Army officer Corn.
In any other instance, Corn believes a declaration of martial law would prompt immediate legal challenges, and that troops would balk.
“I think military leadership would refuse to obey,” Corn said. “The military’s oath is to the Constitution, and we would expect that any military leaders – advised on what the limits of their legal authority are domestically – would step up and not follow such an order.”
Allison Erickson is a journalist and U.S. Army Veteran. She covered military and veterans' affairs as the 2022 Military Veterans in Journalism fellow with The Texas Tribune and continues to cover the military community. She has written and reported on topics such as migration, politics, and health.
Nikki Wentling covers disinformation and extremism for Military Times. She's reported on veterans and military communities for eight years and has also covered technology, politics, health care and crime. Her work has earned multiple honors from the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, the Arkansas Associated Press Managing Editors and others.