House launches investigation into internet trolls targeting veterans

Matt Saintsing
March 06, 2019 - 1:05 pm
Veterans are increasingly a target of international internet trolls.

Photo by Brianna Paciorka/News Sentine

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The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is launching an investigation into deceptive “anonymous internet actors” imitating veterans groups online looking to scam vets and spread disunion. 

“Foreign actors that use shadowy practices to disseminate false information, target service members and their families, impersonate (Veterans Service Organizations), and deceive the American people shouldn’t be allowed to operate outside the law,” said committee chairman Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), in a statement Tuesday announcing the investigation. 

“Our veterans served in uniform to guard against threats to our democracy just like those posed by these internet bots and trolls intent on sowing division and spreading misinformation.” 

Veterans are being targeted to inflame society by international internet trolls.
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Kristofer Goldsmith, associate director for policy and government affairs at Vietnam Veterans of America, first noticed that internet trolls were aiming at the veteran community in 2017. 

“I got into a habit of typing Vietnam Veterans of America into the search bar on Facebook,” Goldsmith tells ConnectingVets. 

That’s when he saw a Facebook page called “Vietnam Vets of America” that was using VVA’s logo. After some internet sleuthing, he realized the page wasn't run by his organization but was being controlled by someone in Bulgaria.  

“Frankly, they were a lot better at running the page than we were,” he adds. “They were producing a lot of video and graphic-based content, which Facebook rewards.” Content that was being used to incite and exploit social divisions among the hundreds of thousands of followers. 

Here’s how that typically works: Pages like Vietnam Vets of America will provide what Goldsmith calls “falsified information” designed to elicit an emotional reaction from their audience. 

For example, they posted a video of a Vietnam veterans monument defaced with red berries with the caption, “Do you think the criminals must suffer?” 

Goldsmith says it doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican, “if you’re an American, you’re going to get pissed off.” 

“Their intent is not to support any political campaign, it’s to simply take the issues that divide Americans and turn up the volume.” 

The monument is just one example, but there are dozens if not hundreds of others. 

“More than 300,000 vets died awaiting care,” read a status on Being Patriotic, according to The Guardian. “Do liberals still think it is better to accept thousands of Syrian refugees than to help our veterans?” 

Why are veterans particularly sought after? A 2017 Oxford University study finds that since service members and veterans are held in such high regard they become especially attractive targets for online trolls. 

That’s not to say veterans are the only ones being targeted, law enforcement officers and activists alike can find themselves in the same position without knowing it. 

In a Military Times Op-Ed published Monday, he argues that organizations like Vietnam Veterans of America “have been forced to play defense against a deluge of anonymous overseas actors who work day and night to deceive Americans.”  

While Goldsmith is “incredibly glad” to see the House Committee on Veterans Affairs launch the investigation, “it doesn’t impose a cost” on the sources of these insidious actors, as an FBI investigation could. 

“What Vietnam Veteran of America really wants is for the entire federal government to get involved,” he says. 

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