A veteran carrying an American flag.

Vietnam Veterans Group: ‘Foreign Criminals’ Targeting Servicemembers for Online Exploitation

An advocacy group for military service members is calling on similar organizations as well as federal officials and social media platforms to take more steps to protect their fellow veterans from being manipulated by online disinformation.

“Servicemembers, veterans, and our families are being targeted both by foreign criminals and our nation’s adversaries as a direct result of our service and sacrifice,” the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) said in its September 2019 report:

We have had our identities stolen and our organizations imitated so that we can be politically exploited and manipulated by foreign powers on a mission to destroy the very democracy we fight for.

The report by Kristofer Goldsmith, a United States Army veteran, an advocate for veterans, and the VVA’s associate director for policy and government affairs, follows a two-year probe revealing not only numerous instances of identity theft and social media users falsely claiming to be veterans, but also several Facebook groups purporting to support their communities run by administrators based out of “suspicious combinations of countries with native language barriers and no geographic commonalities.”

This strongly suggests a more widespread network of disinformation efforts, as the Washington Post reported, and their effects may reverberate across the nation — if not the world — in myriad ways:

Foreign actors — some seeking profit, some seeking influence and some seeking both — haven’t flagged in their efforts to reach U.S. voters through online information sources such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Veterans and active-duty military personnel are especially valuable targets for manipulation because they vote at high rates and can influence others who admire their records of service.

“Veterans as a cohort are more likely than others to participate in democracy. That includes not only voting but running for office and getting others to vote,” said Kristofer Goldsmith, chief investigator for Vietnam Veterans of America. He was the first to discover the takeover of Vets for Trump during research for a report to be released Wednesday that documents widespread, persistent efforts by foreign actors to scam and manipulate veterans over Facebook and other social media.

“The American-focused Facebook page ‘Veterans Nation’ has spread Russian generated content and had admins only in Vietnam, Brazil, and Ukraine,” Goldsmith wrote in the report. “A second example is the ‘Honoring our American Heroes’ Facebook page, which has four admins in the US, one in Indonesia, one in Iran, one in Malaysia, one in the Philippines, and one in Vietnam.”

The VVA also reported that the owners of several Facebook pages supporting United States President Donald Trump were “tricked” out of control of their accounts by hackers based in Macedonia; the country has long been identified as a home base for “troll farms” bent on pushing corrosive disinformation and propaganda online.

“These attacks will continue until policies are enacted to quickly and harshly impose a real cost on bad actors so that they are dissuaded from engaging in and being complicit in predatory behavior online,” Goldsmith wrote:

It is not enough to simply rely on social-media companies closing the accounts of people engaged in fraud. These predators can too easily create new accounts and continue taking advantage of and manipulating Americans. The provocateurs behind the anonymous avatars must pay a price and be brought to justice.

To fight future attacks against veteran communities, the VVA called on the Trump administration to release the National Cybersecurity Division from under the Department of Homeland Security and make it an independent agency, as well as create a Cabinet-level post for a secretary of cyber security. That official, the VVA said, would be tasked with working with a “civilian cybersecurity advisory board” made up of officials from social media platforms and internet and cybersecurity companies. The report also called for social media companies to take steps to verify accounts for both active service members and veterans who had completed their service.

“We are making this report open to the public so that Americans, our government, and groups targeted by foreign trolls can better understand this problem,” VVA President John Rowan said in a statement. “We are calling on the federal government to take swift, coordinated actions to impede criminal activity by foreign trolls.”

We contacted the VVA seeking further comment on the report, but we have not yet heard back.