The Trump administration has for nearly two years ignored mounting evidence that Russian operatives and other foreign actors were deliberately targeting U.S. troops and veterans with online disinformation amplified on a massive scale, a leading veterans group said.
American veterans and service members enjoy a high degree of social respect, and ongoing manipulation campaigns aimed at them could be weaponized to sow social discord in their communities, Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) warned officials at the Defense and Veterans Affairs (VA) departments in March 2018, among other agencies.
But those agencies have brushed off VVA since they were presented with evidence that eventually became a detailed report and congressional testimony, said Kristofer Goldsmith, the veteran service organization’s chief investigator.
And their plea to President Donald Trump for help has similarly been ignored, Goldsmith said.
“It’s easy to say ‘let’s send Javelins to Ukraine.’ People get that,” Goldsmith said. “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.’ ”
The group asked Trump to intervene in a Dec. 18 letter because no federal agency responded to their evidence of foreign “fraudulent activities ranging from identity theft to election interference,” according to a copy of the letter obtained by the Post.
VVA has not received a response.
Memes, over-the-top political comments and false news articles created by adversarial governments and foreign troll farms intentionally sowed social chaos by championing veterans and denigrating liberals and minorities, VVA’s November report found, and many carry pro-Trump messages aided by common perceptions that the military leans conservative.
Many pages are operated from Asia and Eastern Europe, and some even have Iranian ties, Goldsmith said. The murky world of these pages unveils the direct and indirect relationship with Russian operations and their effective saturation on social media.
One page, “Being Patriotic,” was cited in former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation as a product of the Internet Research Agency — a troll factory with Kremlin ties and the target of U.S. indictments and cyberattacks.
One common theme is referencing Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest of police brutality as an attack on troops and veterans. Others suggest using resources for veterans at the cost of immigrants and refugees. Both mimic the language of conservative Americans attacking liberals. One image of a military widow used to attack Kaepernick was shared by Trump on social media.
Some pages deceive veterans into believing they are American-run, but they have a clear financial goal, Goldsmith said. Some pages generate similar disinformation with no clear financial incentive, while other sophisticated campaigns may sell items to appear innocuous as a smoke screen for more nefarious operations, such as Russian election interference.