VA and Congress aren’t fighting fake news targeting vets

US Marine Corps

When we think of our nation’s warriors, we think of veterans who have endured multiple deployments in furtherance of the global war on terror. We think of strong men and women who’ve seen the horrors of combat. Most importantly, we think of the honor, bravery and courage exhibited by those who have taken the oath of service to defend our country against all enemies, both foreign and domestic. 

What we think less of, however, is the life of continued service many veterans choose to pursue when they return to civilian status. In furtherance of the courage that they exhibited on the battlefield, many find themselves called to continue fighting, albeit in more symbolic and less tangible battles.

{mosads}One of those veterans is Kris Goldsmith, the assistant director for policy at Vietnam Veterans for America and founder of High Ground Veterans Advocacy. As recently highlighted by the Wall Street Journal, Goldsmith discovered that veterans were being targeted by misinformation campaigns by administrators in foreign countries made to look like authentic veteran-focused organizations. Often times, these campaigns were encouraging a type of political divisiveness usually absent from within veterans’ community.

Goldsmith was troubled by this and rightfully so. Recognizing that the harms of such campaigns extend far beyond political infighting, Goldsmith took it upon himself to learn more. 

A 2017 study by Oxford University entitled “Junk News on Military Affairs and National Security: Social Media Disinformation Campaigns Against US Military Personnel and Veterans” confirms what Goldsmith has been able to demonstrate through his research.

According to the study, “the public tends to place trust in military personnel and veterans, making them potentially influential voters and community leaders…Given this trust and their role in ensuring national security, these individuals have the potential to become particular targets for influence operations and information campaigns conducted on social media.” 

The need for greater transparency and access to information about the origins of information on social media platforms is an issue that is not unique to the veteran’s space. 

However, as highlighted above, given the role that those in the veterans and military community play as leaders in their community, veterans have a unique opportunity to lead much needed reform efforts in the cyber-security arena.

First, veterans can spearhead efforts to better educate users on how to recognize foreign content. Leadership and teamwork are core components of military service and veterans often take their responsibilities as community leaders seriously by setting examples for others and communicating clearly about expectations.

By learning how to recognize foreign content, veterans can share with others how they were able to identify the misleading information, encourage others to be on the lookout for the same identifiers and also encourage others not to share information that demonstrates those qualities. 

According to Goldsmith, “it initially wasn’t intuitive for me to learn how to identify misleading pages on the Facebook mobile app. There is an “i” button (for information) above the “like” button and if you click on it, it will tell you where the content was developed. This information needs to be more clear and accessible — most people would not share political content developed in Kosovo if they knew the origins.” To this end, just as many products manufactured in the USA are clearly stamped with “made in the USA” — social media pages could similar brand themselves to promote where the information originated from. 

Next, given military members focus on teamwork, veterans are also uniquely situated to work as partners with companies such as Facebook and Twitter to combat this information. Both organizations possess a threat intelligence team, and those teams take the spread of misinformation seriously.

Nonetheless, some members of those teams don’t possess the same level of cultural competency with regard to military and veteran’s issues that veterans themselves do. 

“Veterans can recognize discrepancies in uniforms or awards that raise red flags as to content that some others may not,” states Goldsmith. Veterans working together with threat intelligence teams to improve their cultural competencies are also a productive step that social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter can take.

Finally and most importantly, veterans can help drive cultural change. Historically, veterans have a successful track record of driving cultural change, from the Bonus Army after World War I, to recognition of PTSD and Agent Orange-related disabilities after Vietnam, to the current healthcare access and cyber-warfare issues currently facing the veterans community.

“This is a moment in time that demands cultural change, and our government needs to be a leader here,” states Goldsmith. Unfortunately, both VA and Congress have taken a hands-off approach to the spreading of misinformation. Although this is a sensitive issue, Congressional oversight is an effective tool for not only raising awareness, but also initiating action. Weaponizing patriotism is a national security concern and one that Congress should no longer shy away from.

As the Russian author Leo Tolstoy once said that “the two most powerful warriors are patience and time.” Our nation’s veterans are also powerful warriors, and as demonstrated by Goldsmith, patience and time can go a long way in identifying problems, but effectuating cultural change can go even further by fixing them.

Rory E. Riley-Topping served as a litigation staff attorney for the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), where she represented veterans and their survivors before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. She also served as the staff director and counsel for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs for former Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). You can find her on Twitter: @RileyTopping.

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