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Exclusive: The Pentagon hasn’t stopped the military’s revenge porn problem

Service members are still sharing nude photos and engaging in online harassment a year after the Marines United scandal

by Alexa Liautaud
Feb 25 2018, 3:15pm

Marianeth Crockett's friends were the first to warn her about the pictures of her circulating online. In October, they saw her picture on a Facebook page for active and retired sailors and thought she might want to know what people were saying. In the 6-year-old photo, Crockett, a now-retired sailor, poses with two male colleagues at a gun range. It’s innocuous — just three young service members fully clothed in their fatigues — but someone had photoshopped the logo for the porn company Brazzers over the image, and people in the Facebook group were going nuts.

Users posted the doctored photo dozens of times and it drew thousands of comments, many of them disparaging or violent: Crockett was a bitch, she deserved to be assaulted. People described the graphic things they wanted to do to her. One user wrote, “This page is going to be the next Marines United.”

Nearly a year after the nude photo-sharing scandal known as Marines United rocked the military and drew scrutiny to online harassment in the ranks, service members and veterans continue to face regular harassment and abuse on social media, a VICE News investigation found. The Facebook page where Crockett’s photo appeared is one of dozens of forums where nude photos and offensive comments are still regularly shared.

The Pentagon last year pledged to crack down on misconduct online and the Navy made it a crime for sailors and marines to post nude photos of service members without consent. In December, Congress expanded those rules to all military branches, and anyone sharing explicit images could face a court martial.

Yet harassing images and comments are easy to find. Over the past month and a half, VICE News reviewed dozens of informal military social media groups and message boards — both open and private — and found sexually explicit photos and derogatory comments alongside banal memes and jokes about military life. Interviews with victims, advocates, and members of these groups reveal the extent of the ongoing “revenge porn” and harassment epidemic in the armed forces — and just how difficult it is to curb.

“It points to how toothless the DOD’s policies are.”

“I could go online right now and find three or four pages alone” of content outlawed by the Pentagon, said Scott Jensen, a retired Marine colonel and the CEO of veteran advocacy group Protect Our Defenders. “Right now, it points to how toothless the DOD’s policies are.”

The original Marines United group was quickly shut down in March 2017. But then Marines United 2.0 popped up. Then Marines United 3.0, then 4.0, then local chapters, code languages, closed groups, groups with different names. In July, the Daily Beast reported that a Dropbox drive called “Girls of MU” containing more than 3,000 explicit photos and videos had been shared on another offshoot group called Mike Uniform.

The groups appear on every online platform: Facebook, Tumblr, Reddit, Snapchat, and Instagram. They’re constantly reinventing themselves as they get shut down, using different names, dummy profiles, and obscure titles to divert public attention. They’re increasingly “secret,” so they’re harder to track. They rarely accept women as members.

One group called JTTOTS, or Just the Tip of the Spear, consistently includes comments that degrade female service members, even on photos that appear to the outsider as entirely mundane. In one of its recent iterations on Facebook (since shut down), the admins posted a photo of a female service member taking a mirror selfie, her face and name tag visible. The comments included a request for users to share nude images of her and another saying, “She’s gonna get promoted. Like real fast.”

At least one comment threatened assault: “God, I just wana spartan kick that thing in the fucking mouth and empty a 13 round 45 Magazine into its dome piece.” Another user responded, “And then smash?” To which the first user responded, “yea probably.”

That iteration of the JTTOTS group was shut down in October, but its Instagram account remains. Amid banter and workplace humor, there are photos and captions degrading service women and equating their promotions to how often they perform sexual acts. One disturbing photo of a naked, broken female mannequin carries a caption that reads, “A perfect example for why women don’t need to be in the #infantry.”

On Reddit, a page called “Military Gone Wild” reveals a stream of albums of photos of naked service members. The group instructs users to blur out the “dogtags” to protect identities, but often the person’s face is shown.

At first, Crockett thought the reaction to her photo was bizarre, seeing as the post wasn’t sexual by any means. “Apparently, a woman can't stand fully clothed with two guys because it's automatically lewd and slutty,” she said in an interview this week. “It's ridiculous!”

Back in October, she immediately messaged the Facebook group’s administrator asking them to remove her photo from the page. Five hours later, she got a response: a laughing emoji. The post continued to go viral.

Crockett was worried people would recognize her at the airport and in other public spaces. “They were wishing me sexual violence, wishing me rape, they were saying I deserved this. They started selling T-shirts and the whole time they’re really thinking that no one can touch them.”

One user commented, “Suck my DD-214,” Crockett said, a reference to the discharge form service members sign when they leave the military and no longer come under the military’s code of justice. That slogan appears on a T-shirt that’s for sale on Etsy and other online stores.

“It was the lowest point of my life.”

“It was the lowest point of my life,” Crockett said. “For a brief second I thought, if I just leave this earth, things might be better.”

Crockett reported both the photo and the Facebook page to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the agency tasked with investigating allegations of possible criminal misconduct in the Navy, within 48 hours of it first appearing. She also visited her local FBI field office in St. Louis and was told her complaint would be passed on. She never heard back.

The FBI field office said they could not comment on whether a complaint had been filed. NCIS told VICE News that investigators found no criminal activity to meet the felony charges threshold in Crockett’s case and passed it back to the Navy command to act on their discretion. This was news to Crockett, who hadn’t heard from the agency since she spoke to them in October. “It’s one system fail after another,” she said. “They never told me.”

The Department of Defense pointed to the recent overhaul of anti-harassment policies among its efforts to stop revenge porn, but advocates and policymakers say the Pentagon doesn’t have the bandwidth to find every image and every user on the internet violating its code of conduct.

“The department continues to monitor and assess the social media landscape,” Maj. Carla Gleason, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said. “However, as social media platforms continue to expand, the challenge remains in becoming aware of and identifying victims of cyberbullying and cyberharassment, as well as identifying those individuals committing the offenses.”

The page where Crockett’s photo appeared, Shit My LPO Says (a reference to a leading petty officer), still has a public Facebook page online, its own website, and a private Instagram account.

Its public page has roughly 24,000 followers, not much smaller than Marines United, which counted about 30,000 active-duty personnel, veterans, and civilians when it was up and running. Other groups are more selective, and secretive.

Mike Uniform, one of the most prominent Marines United replacement groups, boasts 5,000 members. The group changed its privacy settings from closed to secret in January.

An administrator for the group said in an interview with VICE News that they made the change because of negative media attention.

“We're not that group that some news agencies are trying to make us look like. We're not just rampant, savage, sexual rape culture, all that stuff,” said the admin, who was also an active member of Marines United.

He denied that groups like his were being used only to share inappropriate photos. He instead described the spirit of camaraderie among members and how they are able to help each other through PTSD and suicidal thoughts.

“We wouldn't be here again now if all we were interested in nothing but sharing porn and stuff like that. Facebook wouldn't allow it again,” he added. “There’s so much more to it.”

Just a fraction of the members in any of these groups is responsible for posting explicit content, the admin said. But his team does have to hand out a warning or remove users for posting inappropriate or illegal content about once a week.

“We're not perfect, but it's something that we dedicate a great deal of our own personal lives to,” the admin said. “We’re doing this because this is our camaraderie, it's our brotherhood and we're doing the best we can.”

Erin Cuomo is the founder of #NotInMyMarineCorps, a group of women active-duty and veteran service members formed in the aftermath of Marines United to advocate for gender equality in the military. She said claims of helping veterans were questionable given that many of these groups don’t allow in women military personnel. Since 2001, the rate of female veteran suicide has increased dramatically in comparison to that of males.

“I would say that almost if not all of the women and men we have talked to who have been victims of revenge porn and assaults have at one point or another had the thought cross their minds,” Cuomo said. “When we hear founders of MU or the new Mike Uniform try to use preventing suicides as a defense of their members, it falls on deaf ears for us.”

In February, the Pentagon issued a sweeping sexual harassment policy for the armed forces, defining harassment as “offensive jokes,” “insults or put-downs,” “stereotyping,” and “threatening or provoking remarks,” among other acts. While some definitions extended to “written” comments, the document made no mention of the words “online” or “cyber.”

The policy places the discretion over enforcement and punishment in the hands of the secretaries of each military branch. They were given 60 days as of Feb. 8 to come up with their own guidance on how to enforce it.

The Pentagon said the aim was to make it easier for victims to report. But they still report the same way as before, to their chain of command. Supervisors can then choose to convene a court-martial, but there is no standard punishment for online sexual harassment.

Gleason, the Pentagon spokeswoman, did not respond to a question about how many service members had been court-martialed or otherwise disciplined for online misconduct.

In the meantime, the harassing content remains so pervasive that advocacy support groups are turning to more innovative methods to combat the problem — including recruiting male infiltrators to act as trojan horses in the often exclusively male groups.

John Albert, a former Marine from Greenville, South Carolina, has scoured dozens of websites for nonconsensual photo sharing of service members and cyberharassment. In an interview, he described these groups’ methods of evading detection.

“They’ll change the privacy status, change the group’s profile picture and the background picture, make the membership private, not having a name that has anything related to ‘MU,’” he said.

It's “the spiritual reincarnation of Marines United.”

Others, however, keep the namesake for “branding,” he said. “That’s why they switched from Marines United, to MU, to Mike Uniform,” he said. He called Mike Uniform “the spiritual reincarnation of Marines United.”

Albert’s efforts and those of other infiltrators have garnered some success in getting these groups shut down. For example, Marines United Florida Chapter, a Facebook group, included a stream of revenge porn photos, sexist comments, and threats of sexual harassment and sexual assault, he said. Albert contacted the admin and reported the group to Facebook about a dozen times. It disappeared at the end of October.

Jensen led sexual assault prevention efforts in the Marine Corps until leaving in January to head up Protect Our Defenders. He said the Pentagon should be more proactive in tracking revenge porn and sexual harassment online, but he added that tech companies should also take responsibility for the content on their platforms.

A spokesperson for Facebook said the company had worked with the Pentagon at one stage “to help educate them on how military members can report violating images on Facebook.” She did not respond to further questions about whether the company continues to work with the Pentagon today.

Ultimately, advocates, policymakers, and former service members say it’s a question of getting to the fundamental culture of the military, which continues to skew heavily male.

“I don’t think that the senior leadership and the DoD recognizes how influential social media is in the lives of those who serve,” Jensen said. “Online behavior is a keystone of dealing with the cultural changes that need to occur that are a baseline of why particularly women are facing the challenges they are in the ranks.”