American veterans targeted online by foreign entities: study

American veterans targeted online by foreign entities: study
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A study published Tuesday found that foreign entities have been targeting American veterans, service members and their families through social media disinformation campaigns and identity theft with the goal of “disrupting American democracy.”

The study’s findings, first reported by The Washington Post, were the result of a two-year investigation by Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), a nonprofit group that focuses on promoting the rights of veterans.

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VVA described the interference as a “persistent, pervasive, and coordinated online targeting” of veterans and service members. It found that the Russian Internet Research Agency bought more than 100 advertisements in order to target followers of veterans groups both during and after the 2016 election and that foreign entities based primarily out of West Africa have been stealing the identities of service members, mostly those killed in action, to target Americans with scams.

One key finding of the report was that foreign actors have created fake social media accounts purporting to be American veterans who work at veterans organizations.

The accounts, created primarily on Facebook, are then used to “send friend requests to the relatively small community of veteran advocates and connect with its prominent members who work to shape federal policy,” according to the report.

At least one of these fake accounts, labeled “Vets for Trump,” had been spreading disinformation in the lead-up to the 2020 election with the goal of spreading pro-Trump and anti-Democratic candidate messages. The Post noted the "Vets for Trump" account has since been recovered from the foreign entities that controlled it.

VVA urged both Congress and the Trump administration to take action to address these types of online threats. 

“Vietnam Veterans of America is presenting this report to the general public so that Americans and Congress can be aware of and have a better understanding of how these foreign admins operate,” VVA wrote in the report.

The group added that “we are urging the White House, Congress, and the private sector to act quickly to combat this predatory behavior in cyber-environments and to ensure that the exploitation of and attacks against servicemembers, veterans, and our families do not go unpunished.”

Among the recommendations included in the report was for the White House to create a Cabinet-level director of cybersecurity position in order to make cybersecurity a priority for the nation. VVA also recommended that the secretary of Veterans Affairs should develop “cyber-hygiene” plans to help educate veterans and service members on cybersecurity.

VVA also urged social media companies to retain any and all evidence of foreign interference to allow law enforcement and investigative groups to examine it.

“Servicemembers, veterans, and our families are being targeted both by foreign criminals and our nation’s adversaries as a direct result of our service and sacrifice,” VVA noted. “We have had our identities stolen and our organizations imitated so that we can be politically exploited and manipulated by foreign powers on a mission to destroy the very democracy we fight for.”

—Updated Thursday at 1:47 p.m.