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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Nancy Jo Sales

Was the Gen-Z Pentagon leaker motivated by social media clout?

An undated picture shows Jack Douglas Teixeira who was arrested by the FBI, over the leaks online of classified documents<br>An undated picture shows Jack Douglas Teixeira, a 21-year-old member of the U.S. Air National Guard, who was arrested by the FBI, over his alleged involvement in leaks online of classified documents, posing for a selfie at an unidentified location. Social Media Website/via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS- THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES THIS PICTURE WAS PROCESSED BY REUTERS TO ENHANCE QUALITY. AN UNPROCESSED VERSION HAS BEEN PROVIDED SEPARATELY.
‘They called Teixeira “OG”, or Original Gangster.’ Photograph: Social Media Website/Reuters

Massachusetts air national guardsman Jack Teixeira, 21, has been charged in a Boston court on two counts under the Espionage Act, and the question on everyone’s minds is why. Unlike with whistleblowers in the past such as Daniel Ellsberg (the Pentagon Papers) and Chelsea Manning (Wikileaks), neither ethics or politics seem to have been the motivation for Teixeira’s alleged leak of hundreds of pages of classified documents related to the war in Ukraine. He doesn’t appear to have been acting as an agent for a foreign government, according to his criminal complaint. So why is he allegedly behind one of the worst leaks of US intelligence in a decade, for which he now faces up to 15 years in prison?

Based on what we know so far, the answer may be that Teixeira did it, as they used to say, for the Vine – for social media clout. Sources say he wanted to impress a bunch of teenage boys and young men who were his acolytes in a Discord chat room of 20 to 30 gamers who referred to themselves as Thug Shaker Central – the most wannabe gangster name imaginable for a bunch of gamers whose leader (Teixeira) lived with his mother.

This group, which was dedicated to discussing guns and war-themed video games, was apparently full of young men Teixeira liked to lecture with his superior knowledge of military subjects. After some of them expressed doubts about whether he had access to classified information – which he had told them he did, in his position as an IT guy with a high-level security clearance in the 102nd intelligence wing at the Otis air national guard base on Cape Cod – Teixeira allegedly started photographing sensitive documents and emailing them to the group’s members (after which they eventually wound their way on to Russian-language Telegram channels).

For young men growing up in the digital age, when everything seems accessible – except maybe classified government documents – this struck the Thug Shaker Central members as immensely cool. They called Teixeira “OG”, or Original Gangster. “Everyone respected OG,” a member of the group with the username Vahki told the New York Times. “He was the man, the myth. And he was the legend. Everyone respected this guy.”

Teixeira’s story epitomizes a strain of Gen-Z white males who have been raised by the dark corners of the internet as much as by their parents. Some of his backstory actually echoes those of mass shooters. Former classmates have described him as an “odd kid” who made others feel “uneasy”. He made comments some saw as racist; he seemed “obsessed” with guns and war. “A lot of people were wary of him,” Brooke Cleathero, a former classmate, told CNN.

After the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, Teixeira reportedly showed up to school wearing a shirt adorned with an image of an AR-15. A deleted account reportedly linked to him on the gaming site Steam had as its avatar a black-clad figure clutching a rifle. The FBI is said to have found guns in Teixeira’s home when they came to arrest him, on 14 April, in North Dighton, Massachusetts.

Gen-Z is often lauded as a generation full of energetic young activists committed to a host of progressive causes such as the climate crisis, LGBTQ+ rights and indeed gun control. But there are other Gen-Zers who lean far to the right; often, they are lonely, isolated young men and boys who fall prey to white supremacists and other rightwing extremists who seek them out online, looking to radicalize them by way of filling them with a sense of belonging.

Social media companies are notoriously complicit in the problem, routinely failing to block hateful content from younger users, and sometimes actually promoting it to them. Members of Thug Shaker Central, which formed during the pandemic, reportedly exchanged racist and antisemitic epithets and memes, while some of its members have appeared in other groups featuring Nazi iconography. “There’s no point hiding it,” Vahki told the New York Times, discussing the extreme ideology of the group. “I’m not a good person.”

What happens now is that Teixeira will be tried and, if found guilty, he could spend the next decade or more reflecting on how he derailed his life by trying to act like a player in front of his toxic chatroom fans. “Guys, it’s been good – I love you all,” he reportedly told members of Thug Shaker Central after he got wind of his imminent arrest. “I prayed to God that this would never happen.” With time on his hands, he might turn his thoughts toward the soldiers in the war in Ukraine – some of whom are as young or younger than he is – and hope that their safety has not been compromised by his reckless need for attention. Meanwhile, the US military might think about how it’s going to deal with a new generation of soldiers who have been raised on technology that promises them glory rivaling what they would once have found in war.

  • Nancy Jo Sales is the author, most recently, of Nothing Personal: My Secret Life in the Dating App Inferno

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