Report: Foreign Entities Targeting Service Members and Veterans Online

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Kristofer Goldsmith, Chief Investigator and Associate Director for Policy and Government Affairs for Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), released a report on Tuesday outlining persistent, pervasive, and coordinated online targeting of American service members, veterans, and their families by foreign entities who seek to disrupt American democracy.

Vietnam Veterans of America’s (VVA) began the two-year investigation, beginning in August 2017,  that showed American veterans and the social-media followers of several congressionally chartered veterans service organizations were specifically targeted by the Russian Internet Research Agency with at least 113 ads during and after the 2016 election.

Goldsmith reported:

This represents but a tiny fraction of the Russian activity that targeted this community with divisive propaganda: The organic politically divisive content (organic meaning not having to do with ads, rather unpaid posts and comments) created by Russians have a far greater reach than the known paid ads; for even though many of the original sources have been removed from social-media platforms, their posts and comments continue to be propagated and disseminated by foreign administrators (aka admins, who maintain and manage online sites) to spread hateful and politically divisive messages.

In 2018, Facebook released a tool to reveal the countries of origin of Facebook-page admins for pages that have more than 110,000 followers or have purchased ads of a political nature. This tool has not inhibited the creation, rapid growth, and influence of foreign-born Facebook pages. This measure has, however, revealed that known Russian propaganda and similar politically divisive content that targets service members and veterans is being spread by admins from at least 30 foreign countries, with concentrations in Eastern Europe and Vietnam.

These foreign admins have created individual social-media accounts that purport to belong to American veterans working at reputable veteran’s organizations. They use these fake-veteran accounts to send friend requests to the relatively small community of veteran advocates and connect with its prominent members who work to shape federal policy.

These fake-veteran accounts infiltrate both public Facebook pages and private Facebook groups, where they can spread propaganda and false news, while shaping and moderating/censoring the conversations of the unsuspecting community of American veterans who follow or join these groups and pages. These admins also recruit Americans who have an interest in veterans and other foreign nationals to help moderate the groups and pages and make them appear more legitimate.

One such page, “Veterans of Vietnam,” with nearly 160,000 followers, has had admins in Russia, Ukraine, and Italy. This page has been bolstered by at least three dedicated Russian-generated Vietnam-veteran-focused websites that were created to build the Facebook page’s credibility by sharing information about the Vietnam War and veterans’ benefits. These admins also control a closed Facebook group, “American Veterans of Vietnam,” which solicits information from Vietnam veterans regarding their military experience.

Fake accounts are also being utilized by hostile Chinese intelligence services to connect with high-ranking and influential members of the intelligence and defense communities centered in and around Washington, DC.

Chinese officials are seeking to exploit financially vulnerable members of these communities and leverage debts to recruit spies.

The full VVA report can be found here.

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