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Weaponizing e-girls: How the US military uses YouTube and TikTok to improve its image
Amidst falling approval ratings and lack of recruits, the Pentagon has chosen a new tactic: viral TikToks made by psyop agents
US military personnel often share their everyday life on TikTok. Some joke around and play pranks on their companions, others share what they do and eat in the army, etc.
One of today’s most popular ‘military influencers' is Hayley Lujan, also known as lunchbaglujan. Lujan is known for her provocative, somewhat cynical sense of humor, friendship with Donald Trump’s son, and the fact that she is not a simple soldier, but a specialist in Psyops – Psychological Operations.
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The career platform for US military recruits states that such “Soldiers are known for their communication expertise—using unconventional tactics to persuade and influence foreign allies and enemies in support of U.S. Army objectives.”
Lujan’s subscribers are aware of this. They assume that her account is part of a carefully designed marketing strategy. The influencer’s goal is to help bolster the reputation of the US military, particularly in the eyes of zoomers. Or, as the authors of “Know Your Meme” say, “to get ‘simps’ and the dudes who reply to every picture of boobs with ‘OMG DM me’ to enlist”.
The US Armed Forces have been experiencing a shortage of volunteers for several years. Despite reductions in military staff (over the past 40 years, the number of personnel decreased by nearly half), the service is still short on recruits.
In 2022, the military only managed to recruit 45,000 servicemen out of a planned 60,000. As a result, the Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth announced that members of the National Guard and the Army Reserve may be called up for active service. Units could also be further reduced since it may be impossible to fully staff all existing detachments.
Recruitment to the Air Force and Navy was more successful, but only because it involved candidates who were not able to start service in 2021.
FILE PHOTO. Army recruiter Staff Sgt. Pablo Valdez Martinez (L) chats with a potential Army recruit in the new office for the City Hall Recruiting Station in lower Manhattan in New York. © Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images
This personnel shortage can be attributed to several causes. First, the US doesn’t have enough suitable candidates. Entry requirements vary based on the service branch of the armed forces, but the main criteria are similar:
a candidate must be between the ages of 17 and 35 years
they must be physically and mentally healthy
they must present a high school diploma and pass an entry test for the corresponding service branch
The candidate must also be a US citizen or at least possess an immigrant Green Card
Despite the relatively simple requirements, finding the right people hasn’t been easy. According to a recent Pentagon study, only 23% of young people in the United States are fit to serve. The rest have health problems: obesity, mental disorders, and addictions.
The situation has been aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic as isolation significantly affected US schoolchildren and took a toll on their physical health. Moreover, lockdowns have made young people more indecisive. Studies show that men who studied in high school remotely and engaged in less communication with peers are more likely to postpone important decisions such as applying to universities or joining the armed forces.
Recruitment is also getting harder because of an increasing number of young Americans who suffer from addictions. For example, alcohol and drug abuse disqualifies about 11% of those who are otherwise fit to serve. Additionally, marijuana in some form or another is now legal in most states. However, those using the substance still cannot enlist in the military.
FILE PHOTO. U.S. troops from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division get some rest at Green Ramp before they head out for a deployment to the Middle East on January 4, 2020 in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. © Andrew Craft/Getty Images
High school dropouts are another problem affecting military service. In 2020, 3.2 million students graduated from high schools in the United States, but those without a diploma are not able to enlist.
Even if the US had twice as many healthy and educated young people, the armed forces would still face a shortage of volunteers because the population no longer holds the army in high esteem.
The chaotic withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, an increasingly divided domestic political system, and disputes about the role of NATO in the modern world raise issues – and quite a few uncomfortable questions – for the US Armed Forces. Moreover, the military is criticized by politicians on both the left and right. The former label it a bulwark of racism, homophobia, and imperialism. The latter believe that the military blindly follows woke culture and does not react to national threats quickly and decisively enough.
Skeptics also point out the cynicism of the law which considers 17-year-olds not old enough to buy a can of beer, but old enough to die and kill for the sake of obscure goals.
Different ethnic groups also have different attitudes toward the military. For example, Blacks and Latinos give less positive ratings to the US Armed Forces than White Americans.
Neither traditional propaganda on the “protection of freedom” nor “progressive” ads about minorities in the army have been of much help. In 2018, public trust in the military was rated at 70%. In 2022, that number dropped to 48%.
The Pentagon understands that both in terms of politics and combat effectiveness, it’s dangerous to ignore the declining popularity of the armed forces. So, in order to recruit more young people, the military is brushing up its image not only through conventional advertising, but with the help of cute influencers.
Factory of dreams and recruits
Sending celebrities to hotspots in order to support soldier morale was an important part of US military propaganda during World War II. In Europe and Korea, US soldiers were entertained by Laurence Olivier, George Miller, Marilyn Monroe, and dozens more stars. Others worked on the “home front”, polishing the image of the military through the means of cinema.
Initially, the Office of War Information was responsible for popularizing military service. Its supervisor, Elmer Davis, said that “the easiest way to inject a propaganda idea into most people's minds is to let it go through the medium of an entertainment picture when they do not realize they're being propagandized.”
There have been plenty of movies sponsored by the US Department of Defense: “Wings” (1927), “The Green Berets” (1968), “Top Gun” (1986), “Eagle Eye” (2008), “Act of Valor” (2012), “The 15:17 to Paris” (2018) and many others. The Pentagon still cooperates with Hollywood.
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