Impact of misinformation campaigns targeting service members and veterans

Impact of misinformation campaigns targeting service members and veterans
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Last week, many of us celebrated as the calendar year changed from 2019 to 2020. However, as we look forward to embracing a new year, a new decade, and new resolutions, some old problems continue to lurk in the background. One of those problems is the impact of foreign disinformation campaigns targeting service-members and veterans

As we approach the 2020 election, it is now more critical than ever that we learn from the influence that such campaigns had on the 2016 election, which included “efforts to divide us along partisan lines,” particularly by exploiting service-members, veterans and their families. 

Therefore, if Congress is going to undertake any new year’s resolutions in 2020, I would encourage them to resolve to work in a bipartisan fashion to address, to eliminate, the influence of foreign disinformation campaigns, beginning with campaigns that target service-members and veterans.


Unfortunately, as was recently demonstrated by a November 2019 hearing before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs (HVAC), very few people are paying attention to this issue, including the very Committee members appointed to do so. 

“I found election interference and no one cared,” Kristofer Goldsmith, chief investigator for Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), recently told BuzzFeed News. He elaborated that he found himself “staring at empty chairs on the committee,” as concurrent and incredibly partisan impeachment hearings stole the spotlight from what should have been an easy bipartisan issue for members to come together on.

The fact that no one cares proves the point that, sadly, many of these disinformation campaigns are working. Not only did many members of Congress opt to participate in the high-profile and highly-politicized impeachment hearings over the HVAC hearing, but many of the themes perpetuated by these disinformation campaigns subsequently emerged in an impeachment-related commentary.

In addition to this fact, there is additional and ample evidence that such campaigns are continuing to target veterans and service-members specifically.

As noted by Goldsmith in his November 2019 congressional testimony, veterans are often purposefully targeted by such disinformation campaigns because: 


“Veterans are more likely than any other demographic in the U.S. to vote, run for office, and motivate others to vote. [Veterans’] opinions and political beliefs are generally highly respected across the entire political spectrum, and as a result, our behavior often influences the behavior of those around us. In many cases, as veteran votes, so does her family and circle of friends.”

As a result of that hearing and the research he compiled, including a publicly-available 191-page report, Goldsmith recommended a “whole-of-government response,” to include efforts on the part of VA, DOD, and the White House, as well as social media companies directly, to form a Commission that studies the problem and recommends legislative and policy-based solutions. Thus far, those recommendations have gone unheeded.

VVA, therefore, followed its congressional testimony with a December 2019 letter to the White House, which to date, has also gone unanswered. According to the Washington Post, the letter asked the President to intervene because none of the federal agencies involved responded to their evidence of foreign “fraudulent activities ranging from identity theft to election interference.”

According to Goldsmith, this may be because the problem is perceived as too complicated or politically complicated. “It’s easy to say ‘let’s send Javelins to Ukraine.’ People get that,” he stated, “It’s much more difficult for the Secretary of VA to say ‘this is our plan to educate 9 million veterans who use our health care on how to spot a deep fake or falsified news.”

With the 2020 election less than ten months away, time is of the essence about stopping disinformation campaigns targeting veterans. Indeed, utilizing veterans who served their country to manipulate political beliefs and sow discord in that same country is the antithesis of the democratic principles upon which our nation was founded. 

Unfortunately, winning has become everything at the expense of our electoral integrity and the lives of many veterans and service-members. Congress would be wise to take this issue more seriously, to include implementing the “whole-of-government” response recommended by VVA. 

Despite the lukewarm response from those in Congress and the Administration, Americans should take solace in one thing: the resolve of actual U.S.-based veterans organizations like VVA to solve the problem. Vietnam veterans have fought and won numerous policy-related battles, including the fight for Agent Orange-related disability benefits (some of which were just approved as of Jan. 1, 2020), a fight that took decades. 

The fight against foreign disinformation campaigns may, like the battle for Agent Orange benefits, end up being much longer and more frustrating than it needs to be. But with the support of Congress and the Administration, it doesn’t have to.

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 MillerJefferson (Jeff) Bingham Miller40 Trump-connected lobbyists secured over B in coronavirus relief for clients: report Should we defund the VA, too? How to celebrate Memorial Day during a global pandemic MORE (R-Fla.). You can find her on Twitter: @RileyTopping