Yesterday, a 21-year old Air National Guard member from Massachusetts was identified as the alleged leaker of classified documents that has appeared in multiple media outlets. The Airman allegedly shared these documents in a racist, sexist, and homophobic Discord chat group. A deeper dive into this group by The Washington Post shows that the Airman likely wasn’t posting the documents as some sort of premeditated plot to work with America’s adversaries, but for another reason:
What is clout? Clout is the definable level of popularity or notoriety one develops on social media. It can be measured in clicks, likes, retweets, watches, bookmarks, or whatever other metric matters to the user. “Clout-chasing” is the act of developing sharable media for the sole purpose of attaining clout, similar to what you may have known in the past as “clickbait.”
At its core, clout is just the latest, modern adaptation of humankind’s evergreen needs for belonging, acceptance, and recognition. Society recognizes certain sources of clout as admirable: awards and published works after discoveries, winning elections to public office, breaking the tape at a track race.
But there is a dark side to clout that has been on full display this week. It’s the side that seeks the ends of fame or notice or importance with little or no regard for the means. It’s how a young American from a patriotic family can allegedly spit in the face of that patriotism by illegally sharing classified documents. It is also a symptom of a much larger problem.
There are generally two sources of motivation. People are either driven by intrinsic or extrinsic motivation.
Intrinsically motivated people set goals and accomplish tasks to better themselves or achieve some standard they have set. They seek (mostly) positive, personal growth. Intrinsic motivation also isn’t limited to the individual; one can find intrinsic motivation in performing at their best to support a team. This is the core of healthy, honorable military service.
Extrinsically motivated people are not necessarily bad. In fact, we are all probably extrinsically motivated at one time or another, such as when we ask for higher pay or chase one of the sources of admirable clout mentioned above. But social media and constant connectivity has proliferated clout for clout’s sake; the means are irrelevant if the end result is a larger Twitter following, more website clicks, or more donations to a campaign or cause.
This latter concept of clout, derived from extrinsically motivated and dishonorable people, is what led to things like the January 6th insurrection, the poisoning of American political discourse, and the selling or posting of classified data.
We need to stop this trend dead in its tracks.
Clout, in and of itself, is neither a problem nor an excuse. What we must do is separate clout-chasers – those for whom attention or importance is the sole end – from those who obtain clout while striving honorably for a separate goal or end.
It’s time to stop clicking or liking or sharing content simply because it’s what we want to hear. In the hours after his arrest, Marjorie Taylor Greene made the mind-numbingly daft decision to paint the alleged leaker as some kind of hero. Her tweet has been viewed nearly 1 million times – which was exactly the point of her sending it. MTG, as she’s referred to in shorthand, is cut from the same cloth as the alleged leaker: clout-chasing is the end for her, and more people that click or react to what she says – even if they react negatively! – the more clout she receives.
This also goes for people on our side of the partisan ideological divide, regardless of which side you are on. Liberal commentators who make wild or baseless claims are clout-chasers; do not interact with their content. Conservative commentators who tweet heinous missives about women or LGBTQ+ people, or who dehumanize their political opposition are clout-chasers; do not interact with their content. These folks are also related to the snake-oil salesman of yore; charlatans who peddled needless wares back in the day or YouTube-famous fitness “influencers” of today who make wild claims in paid ads that don’t actually help anyone achieve their goals.
The most effective strategy that we have for dealing with clout-chasers is to withhold their clout. Force them into more face-to-face interactions, so that folks can more easily see through their charade. This is tough to do for someone like MTG, who awakens the darkest of creatures to support a cravenly anti-American platform. But it is something we absolutely must do in our armed forces.
Engage your people. Talk about values. Recognize people who are honorable in your unit. Pay attention to those who retreat into their phones or computers or gaming systems. Uphold the standards of service.
There are certain things – like racism, sexism, and white supremacy – that are absolutely incongruent with military service. I’m not saying that the current manifestation of clout-chasing is, too, but if we must act now to reinforce the honorable in our ranks and in our society before it’s too late.