By Kris Goldsmith, CEO Sparverius, Veteran, VVA investigator and author of the Troll Report.
When I served in Iraq, I knew I had a target on my back. I never expected to become one at home.
But our foreign enemies, like Putin, aim disinformation attacks on veterans, service members, and our families every day. This Memorial Day, we must honor our fallen soldiers by fighting the foreign disinformation that uses their deaths to divide us and spread propaganda.
I’ve spent the last 6 years exposing these attacks, first on behalf of the Vietnam Veterans of America’s (VVA), then as the CEO of my own company, partnering with other not-for-profit groups like Community Conversations. As part of a years-long investigation at VVA, we documented persistent, pervasive, and coordinated online targeting of American servicemembers, veterans, and their families by foreign entities who seek to disrupt American democracy. Our report found that American veterans and the social-media followers of several congressionally chartered veteran service organizations were specifically targeted by the Putin-controlled Internet Research Agency with hundreds of paid ads and thousands of pieces of organically posted content.
Veterans are targets of disinformation on social media
Our enemies create fake social media accounts, use well-known wounded warrior stories and images to gain followers, engage audiences, and spread lies to turn us against our country and one another. For example, casket photos of Gold Star families have frequently been exploited by foreign admins who politicize photos of the families mourning over the casket of their fallen servicemember. The VVA worked to support one widow who put out a public call to tell people on the internet to stop making her and her deceased husband into a political meme. When we attempted to discover the origin of the page of this offensive meme and report it to Facebook, we came to realize that it wasn’t just posted once — but countless times on several different social media pages, and that many other Gold Star families were also being exploited in the same way. In numerous cases, these intimate photographs weren’t being used just to build an audience or spread divisive political messages, but also being used by foreign admins to sell counterfeit merchandise using the names and logos of well-respected veterans organizations.
In other instances, we found images of fallen soldiers or veterans used to promote racism and xenophobia. While there may be individual American veterans who subscribe to racist and xenophobic beliefs and are attracted to messages like “Veterans Before Illegals” or “Veterans Before Refugees” — there is not one single legitimate veteran’s’ organization that in any way endorses or promotes these messages. We, in fact, categorically reject them and seek to underscore that this false dichotomy is both harmful to veterans and our democracy as a whole. Yet, foreign admins have been promoting these hateful messages alongside posts that sell merchandise with our names and logos — misleading the general public about the positions maintained by our organizations
The lies are pervasive. But the truth is that every dollar or hour targeting veterans is well spent.
We are respected by others; we vote and serve in public office more often. U.S. veterans have a higher propensity than other subgroups of Americans to be politically engaged — and nearly one-third of the federal workforce is composed of veterans. This makes the targeting of our community, the MilVets population, a means to jeopardize federal agencies ranging from law enforcement and defense to healthcare and food safety. Recent polling has shown that veterans and service members are acutely aware that they are targets. Nine in ten respondents are concerned about disinformation, including majorities of all subgroups (98% of Democrats, 87% of Republicans).
But we can fight back with awareness and action by calling it out. From checking our own emotional responses to outrageous content, to checking veracity sources, and seeking out local news sources off of Twitter and Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok: we’ve been sharing solutions and bringing attention to the problem. By verifying information sources and checking our own emotional responses to outrageous content biases before sharing social content, we can disarm disinformation. Because the fight for our democracy doesn’t stop on the battlefield. And it’s up to us to win.