Several anonymous military-themed social media accounts have taken to circulating unverified information about the COVID-19 vaccine in recent weeks, a move that some experts said could amplify tensions leadership and personnel.
The increased attention comes after the Defense Department released a memo stating that Secretary Lloyd Austin will make a recommendation to mandate for service members in mid-September.
One tweet in particular, from twitter handle TerminalCWO, suggested that the vaccine, not the virus, kills children.
According to Danny — a pseudonym for one of three anonymous managers associated with TerminalCWO — the goal was to “troll” military influencers on the platform with “satire.”
“It was 100 percent a troll,” Danny told Military Times. “They were frothing at the bait. They were just going off on our account, I mean, just the nastiest things you could say.”
But postings like this have dangerous second- and third-order effects, says a former SOCOM information operations officer as well as a prominent Marine veteran on the receiving end of social media scorn over his personal decision to vaccinate.
“Where there’s real damage at this point in time is simply creating distrust between leadership and their personnel,” retired Col. Andy Zacherl, former SOCOM psychological operations branch chief, told Military Times.
Sowing seeds of discord
Maximilian Uriarte, the Marine artist who created the Terminal Lance comic series, became the focus of a number of military-connected social media accounts pushing an anti-vaccination narrative.
“I put up my vaccination card on my personal Instagram, which has nothing to do with Terminal Lance,” Uriarte told Military Times. “The anti-vaxxers, or whoever, didn’t like that.”
Later, however, he shared a Terminal Lance comic about the vaccine and Marines, which drew further ire from several anonymous accounts.
“I thought it would be really funny to point out how Marines will put basically anything in their bodies, and do anything with their bodies, any day of the week, but somehow they’re health-conscious about this vaccine,” he said. “That was the main reason they were all incredibly butthurt.”
But when audience members on the Terminal Lance social media accounts didn’t engage with the anti-vaxxer comments, they changed subjects and began attacking his religion, some even going so far as to photo-shop his head onto Hitler images.
“They turned it into this whole other deal... some kids sent me a swastika.”
The issue is that the anonymity of these meme purveyors is a double-edged sword among military ranks. While hiding behind incognito social media accounts has proven useful in some cases for discussing serious service member issues like sexual assult, unacceptable barracks living conditions, and toxic leadership, on the other hand, there is virtually no accountability when more nefarious military-oriented accounts use their platforms to sow seeds of discord among the ranks.
Because the moderators can’t be identified, there is no way to prove that they have or have not served in the military, and disciplinary action for active duty members can’t be pursued unless the source is uncovered.
“No one knows who these people are,” Zacherl said. “That’s the beauty and the issue with social media in many respects. It’s difficult to attribute.”
The impact of these anonymous accounts, Zacherl notes, can be far-reaching.
“To people who are inclined to believe in and support these arguments, they’re very effective,” he added.
That seemingly, is what accounts like TerminalCWO, DownrangeDocs, and DumbAFNation, are playing into online.
It’s not about the science
“I hope [the vaccine] gets made mandatory because I am sick of the military looking like a garbage organization full of commanders who break the rules for their own purposes,” Danny said. “Just make it mandatory like every other freaking vaccine.”
Danny, who said he has been vaccinated since March of 2021, said in the case of the COVID-19 vaccine, he believes that what they are doing is calling out leadership for politicking and politicizing the military.
“I didn’t have an issue with the vaccine,” he said. “I’ve been in the Army 20 years. My sister-in-law is a virologist, and she said it was good to go, but that is not in any way an endorsement for anybody else to do it.”
Fellow meme lord DumbAFNation, echoed that sentiment. He believes that the mandate boils down to careerism in the military.
“This is a political issue for some members,” he wrote to Military Times. “I think this issue directly impacts the careers of higher ups in the military, enlisted and officer alike. For some of the lower enlisted they’re just following the info they’re given.”
For him and others, it’s not necessarily about the science behind the vaccine, it’s about being used as pawns in the government’s game. The memes, however misleading, according to Danny, are meant to draw attention to hypocrisy among military leadership and in the government.
“I will continue to fight back against commanders coercing their troops ... and this overwhelming effort, by media personalities, by politicians to get Trump out of office, and desire to prop up a geriatric [President Joe Biden] who’s got no cognitive capabilities,” Danny said.
All three account managers mentioned that the political landscape surrounding the vaccine rollout, flip-flopping from leadership about getting it voluntarily or by mandate, is the real problem.
“No one should be forced to take a medicine they’re not comfortable with or feel that they don’t need,” wrote DownrangeDoc in a message to Military Times. “The military is an exception obviously. We all had to take Smallpox and Anthrax at one point, and no one seemed to care because neither of those vaccines have been politicized like this one.”
That is, however, somewhat inaccurate as the Anthrax vaccine mandate in the 90s was highly controversial and plagued with rollout issues, including a number of court cases.
DOD anticipates mininal controversy
The COVID-19 vaccine, however, is not expected to follow in the Anthrax vaccine’s footsteps. One of the biggest factors in the timing of Austin’s memo is that the Pfizer vaccine is expected to have FDA approval prior to the waiver request.
Biden has already signaled his support for Austin seeking a waiver to make the vaccines mandatory, meaning he will likely waive informed consent under section 10 U.S. Code § 1107.
“If the president chooses to do so at the request of the Secretary of Defense, it is undeniably legal for [him] and subordinate commanders to direct that the COVID-19 vaccine be added to the to the mandatory vaccinations list,” Zacherl said.
And although scores of unidentifiable commenters on social media suggest that they will leave the military if forced to vaccinate, the Defense Department has expressed confidence that the mandate will not generate major issues. Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said during its announcement that he does not believe service members will refuse the call to be vaccinated.
“Members of the military understand when you sign up for the military, that there are requirements laid upon you,” Kirby said in a briefing with reporters Monday. “Some of those requirements include being healthy and fit and ready to serve. Some of that depends on our requirement to make sure you’re fit and healthy, through inoculation and vaccination.”
Zacherl noted optimistically that, despite the influx of posters in online communities saying they would rather be kicked out of the military than get the COVID-19 vaccine, he believes anti-vaccine sentiments are more bark than bite.
“One of the interesting things about social media is that you’re fairly unaccountable for what you say,” he added. “You can make bold statements that you won’t actually be held to. It’s one of the reasons that social media environments are, for lack of a better term, so toxic.”
Sarah Sicard is a Senior Editor with Military Times. She previously served as the Digitial Editor of Military Times and the Army Times Editor. Other work can be found at National Defense Magazine, Task & Purpose, and Defense News.