Disinformation attacks and scams targeting veterans online have ramped up in recent years, leaving lawmakers and social media platforms scrambling to address the issue.
According to experts, veterans often seem an easy target due to their high level of trustworthiness, the older age of veterans, and the emotional attachment many Americans feel for the group.
A study published by the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) in September highlighted the threat to veterans. The report found that the Russian Internet Research Agency had bought over 100 advertisements targeting followers of veteran accounts on social media sites during and after the 2016 election.
Most of the ads were bought on Facebook, and at least one major fake veterans account had been used to spread messages supporting President Trump ahead of the 2020 elections.
And in addition to targeting veterans with political disinformation, many scammers also impersonate veterans in their schemes.
These worries have also attracted the attention of Congress. On Wednesday, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee held a hearing on how veterans are often exploited through social media disinformation campaigns.
Kristofer Goldsmith, chief investigator and associate director for policy and government affairs at VVA, testified, urging the committee to adopt a “whole-of-government response” to address both disinformation threats against veterans and other threats in cyberspace.
Those recommendations include requiring the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to take action to protect veterans against these threats and holding social media companies responsible for not adequately combating them.
“This committee must help service members, veterans and our families resist the influence of foreign disinformation campaigns and efforts to divide us along partisan lines,” Goldsmith said in her prepared remarks.
The panel also heard from representatives of social media companies, who highlighted the strides made in protecting veterans and other groups from disinformation attacks and scams since the 2016 election.
Nathaniel Gleicher, the head of security policy at Facebook, on Wednesday detailed the steps the platform is taking to combat disinformation scams targeted at veterans in his testimony. Gleicher said scammers often try to impersonate veterans in their appeal because the group is seen as “trustworthy.”
“This can occur on an individual basis — where a specific veteran is impersonated, such as in a so-called romance scam,” Gleicher said in his prepared remarks. “Or it can happen at the organization level — where Facebook Pages or groups are created to impersonate veteran-related organizations. Protecting veterans on our site is something we take very seriously.”
According to Gleicher, Facebook is testing new detection tools to help spot and remove fake accounts created on the platform that are meant to impersonate veterans.
Disinformation beyond veterans is not a new issue for social media companies, which have faced pressure to crack down on such content. Facebook has also been at the center of controversy over how it handles political ads with false or misleading information. The company has declined to subject political ads to fact-checking and declined to take down a Trump campaign ad that made corruption allegations against former Vice President Joe Biden without evidence, sparking criticism from Democrats.
“We know that we are fighting against motivated adversaries in this space, and that we have to iterate and improve our approach to stay ahead,” Gleicher said in his remarks. “We are committed to doing just that. Although our efforts haven’t been perfect, our commitment is producing results.”
Twitter has also played a major role in fighting disinformation efforts aimed at veterans and other groups, banning engagement with users that constitutes a “fraudulent scheme,” such as financial phishing scams.
“All people who use Twitter — including veterans — must have confidence in the integrity of the information found on the service,” Kevin Kane, Twitter’s public policy manager and another witness at the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing, said. Twitter also recently decided to ban all political advertisements on its platform.
Across the Capitol, senators are also looking to take action.
Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.), the top Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, told The Hill that addressing online threats against veterans “is a reasonable thing to pick up.”
Tester noted, however, that that decision rests with Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who is retiring from Congress at the end of the year.
Veterans and veteran advocacy groups seem to be promising targets for foreign actors looking to spread disinformation, particularly in regard to elections, experts said.
Vladimir Barash, the science director at network analysis group Graphika and another witness at the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing, told The Hill that “chains of influence” formed by veterans are often an appealing target.
“When you have an audience such as veterans, they have a pretty large and influential presence online, so by targeting them, even by targeting just a small audience, it is possible to reach a much larger set of people in just one hop,” Barash said.
Barash argued that, due to this online presence, the disinformation can “fly under the radar,” particularly since in this community a “campaign that targets 2,000 users” can be just as effective as one that targets millions.
According to Barash, Graphika has tracked targeting of veterans on social media since as early as 2011, but the targeting has increased following the 2016 elections across all major social media platforms.
Veterans groups may also be seen as a target due to the emotions they evoke in Americans and due to their older age demographic, Steve Grobman, the senior vice president and chief technology officer at computer security company McAfee, told The Hill.
“There is clearly a trend of using topics that have high levels of emotional sensitivity in disinformation campaigns,” Grobman said. “It would be very reasonable that adversaries would utilize both the topic of that trend as well as potential targeting of that trend in the disinformation space.”
Grobman warned that disinformation threats online against veterans and other groups are likely to intensify through the creation of “deepfake” videos, which are manipulated through technology to appear real.
“I do think with the emergence of deepfakes, our veterans on social media can be placed at additional risks,” Grobman said. “If you had the president or another key figure making statements about the service of veterans or issues that veterans care deeply about, they need to make sure that that video has come from an authentic source before they believe it.”