I first came across the imposter Facebook page by accident. The page was made to look like that of my employer, Vietnam Veterans of America, complete with our organization’s registered trademark and name. As an Iraq veteran and the office’s designated millennial policy guy, I was helping run VVA’s social media accounts. The discovery kicked off what would become a 15-month-long amateur investigation into digital trolls in Bulgaria, the Philippines, and 27 other countries—all running Facebook pages targeting American troops and veterans with political propaganda.
Last year, an Oxford study revealed that military veterans are ripe targets for exploitation by foreign powers seeking to undermine American democracy. The report concluded that veterans are more likely than average to be community leaders and that their political opinions have significant influence on those around them. Recognizing this, foreign powers have sought to infiltrate our community, impersonating individuals and organizations with tens of thousands of members in an effort to gain veterans’ trust.
At first, what I found on the imposter Vietnam Vets account didn’t make sense. The Facebook page had recycled old news stories about the Department of Veterans Affairs and veterans’ benefits, as well as a post about a “Vietnam Veterans song of the day.” Even though the latter didn’t have any audio attached, it was nonetheless shared by followers hundreds of times each day.
My employer reported the imposter, and the page’s administrators quickly scrubbed it of any trace of our logo to avoid banishment from the Facebook. Digging deeper, we realized that the news the page was sharing was scraped from legitimate military and veteran-focused newspapers, but that the stories’ dates and content were altered to provoke emotional responses—specifically outrage.
The fake page’s most viral video was a looping, 58-second local media story depicting what looked like berries smeared on a Vietnam Veterans’ monument. However, now it ran in a post that read “EXCLUSIVE: Vietnam Veterans Monument Vandalized… Share and Vote!” Text superimposed over the video prompted “Do you think the criminals must suffer?” More sinister still, the trolls had figured out how to game Facebook’s algorithms into thinking that the video was a live feed. As a result, Facebook treated the looped video as if it were important breaking news, pushing it into the newsfeeds of tens of thousands of Americans.
It took three months and a handful of press releases before Facebook shut down the fraudulent page. The company’s mostly automated reporting features found that even the fake live video hadn’t violated community standards.
Five months after the imposter page was shut down, we discovered two more Facebook pages that were sharing the same content and linking to new websites. One appeared to be a page that had been dormant since 2015, a year before Russia’s election interference reportedly began. Because its creator had forgotten to register the affiliated website anonymously, we were able to identify one of the trolls by name and location: Plovdiv, Bulgaria.
It’s unclear whether this particular troll was financially motivated or part of a network of troll farms in Eastern Europe that are targeting American democracy. Whatever the motivation, the effect was the same. Changing the dates on old stories about Congress making cuts to veterans’ benefits can spread panic, anger, and confusion throughout the community and influence political beliefs and voting behavior.
This troll’s persistence sparked further investigation. We eventually found scores of American-veteran-focused Facebook pages producing politically polarizing content from outside the United States.
Vietnam Veterans of America produced a report on our earliest findings for 11 committees in Congress and a host of alphabet agencies. It’s important for Congress and federal agencies to investigate these foreign entities to find out what damage has been done. But we’re also calling on the Department of Veterans Affairs take a more proactive role in inoculating veterans against this type of threat to prevent future harm.
Studies have shown that older Americans are particularly at risk for being scammed, and the average American veteran is near retirement age. It’s time for VA to adopt “personal cyber hygiene”— steps that people can take to improve their cybersecurity—as an important part of veterans’ overall health. It’s wholly appropriate for Congress to empower the VA to start taking preventative measures to protect veterans from digital threats like manipulation and fraud.
While low tech-literacy and ailing health can create vulnerabilities for older veterans, more recent vets face a looming threat from the massive 2015 OPM data-breach. That cyberattack compromised the background check information for nearly everyone who had received a security clearance since the Iraq war began. If hostile foreign actors were to cross-reference data from this trove of sensitive information with what’s publicly available on social media platforms, they could easily target individual veterans.
Despite its risks, social media is an important tool for many veterans. Facebook allows Vietnam Veterans of America’s members to connect with women and men that they went to war with five decades ago. In addition, countless online veterans groups have been formed to identify those at risk of suicide, so their battle-buddies can intervene before it’s too late.
Mark Zuckerberg has said that protecting democracy is an arms race. In the same way that the VA has been a leader in healing the wounds of ground combat, it must develop ways to protect veterans from harm wrought by cyber war.