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After Capitol riot, a call to protect veterans from disinformation

Foreign and domestic forces target veterans with disinformation on social media as they seek to undermine U.S. democracy

A prominent veterans advocate wants the Biden administration and Congress to help retired servicemembers protect themselves from online disinformation following the deadly Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.

Two veterans — one rioter and one police officer — died as a result of the failed attempt to block certification of the 2020 presidential election results after President Donald Trump claimed they were fraudulent. Numerous other retired servicemembers have been charged with crimes in the riot’s aftermath.

Since the riot, details have emerged about Ashli Babbitt, who spent 14 years in the Air Force before she was killed by Capitol Police while attempting to breach a room adjacent to the House floor. Babbitt was devoted to Trump, lies he told about the election and QAnon, the conspiracy theory embraced by some Trump supporters.

To Kristofer Goldsmith, an Army veteran who fought in Iraq before he began tracking online disinformation campaigns targeting veterans, Babbitt’s death is a clarion call for educating a vulnerable population about the dangers they face online before further tragedies occur.

“She’s certainly responsible for her own actions. She was an adult,” said Goldsmith, the former chief investigator and associate director for policy and government affairs at Vietnam Veterans of America who also runs a nonprofit called High Ground Veterans Advocacy.

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But he said Trump, his allies, foreign adversaries and social media companies also bear responsibility. “Veterans’ patriotism is being weaponized by disinformation in a deliberate effort by foreign actors, and certainly domestic ones, to turn our democracy on itself,” Goldsmith said.

In 2019, VVA published a report by Goldsmith accusing Russia and other countries of seeking to disrupt American democracy through “persistent, pervasive, and coordinated online targeting of American service members, veterans, and their families.” The report found evidence of foreign trolls exploiting veterans to interfere in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.

Goldsmith pressed the Trump administration to respond to his findings as early as 2018, but he says he was largely rebuffed as the president and his allies sought to downplay Russian interference in U.S. elections. “The government has known for a while that there’s a problem,” said Goldsmith, adding later: “It doesn’t feel good to say I told you so.”

Goldsmith hopes President Joe Biden, who alluded to the dangers of disinformation in his inaugural address last week, will work with Congress to establish and fund media literacy and cybersecurity hygiene education programs at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Vets vulnerable and targeted

While online disinformation campaigns can enthrall and delude almost anyone — no military service required — disinformation experts and data scientists believe veterans are particularly vulnerable targets.

Vladimir Barash, the director of Graphika Labs, which tracks the flow of influence campaigns online, presented research to the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee in 2019 which shows that foreign disinformation targeting veterans on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter dates back to 2011.

Veterans represent “a target of interest for both foreign operators and commercial disinformation actors,” Barash told the committee, because they are “highly respected members of society who positively influence their country and their community.”

“At the same time,” he testified, they represent “a vulnerable population in the context of the digital divide.”

In online veteran communities, experts say, disinformation actors often insert themselves in discussions about mental health and reintegration to civilian life with content related to Black Lives Matter, immigration policy or kneeling during the singing of the National Anthem to protest police violence.

The Russian Internet Agency, a government-linked “troll farm,” targeted groups of veterans online with at least 113 divisive ads during and after the 2016 election, Goldsmith’s report found.

Testifying before the House committee, Barash noted that the goal of disinformation is not to sow discord solely in the digital world, but in the real world, too. “By targeting individuals directly, and by leveraging social media to organize offline events, they seek to produce chaos and harm in the homes and streets of our country,” he said.

Goldsmith believes Trump exacerbated the problem. And he assails Trump’s allies, including veterans such as former national security adviser Michael Flynn, the retired Army general who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and was later pardoned by Trump, for giving credence to QAnon.

Flynn’s involvement in QAnon, which claims the government is controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping child sex traffickers, made the movement more attractive to veterans who may have already been disillusioned because of foreign disinformation, he said.

Online, Babbitt’s final online interactions included retweets of Flynn and Jack Posobiec, a former Navy Reserve intelligence offer and prominent alt-right conspiracy theorist. “I’m not saying Flynn is responsible for [Babbitt’s death], but I’m sure his role within the QAnon community is part of the reason things escalated the way that they did for her,” Goldsmith said.

Muted action under Trump

During Trump’s term in office, calls on the federal government to address the problem of disinformation targeting veterans went largely unanswered.

In late 2019, Democrats led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts wrote to Robert Wilkie, the VA secretary, to ask whether the findings in Goldsmith’s report had prompted action at the agency. Almost three months later, Warren received a one-paragraph response.

“VA continues to support efforts to combat foreign influence by educating veterans, VA employees, and beneficiaries on threats from foreign influence operations,” Wilkie said. “VA partners with a variety of agencies regarding national security matters and will continue to work on behalf of veterans, VA employees and beneficiaries to counter the full spectrum of threats to national security.”

In a subsequent letter last March, Warren and other Democrats slammed Wilkie’s response because it did not detail what concrete actions, if any, the department had taken.

“With less than eight months until the next federal election, VA’s vague and wholly inadequate response regarding its efforts to educate veterans about malign influence operations is deeply disturbing and provides no indication that the department is taking all reasonable steps to protect veteran communities from this threat,” Warren and her colleagues said.

In response to an inquiry from CQ Roll Call while Trump was still in office, a spokesperson for Wilkie provided the same statement sent to Warren and referred questions about online disinformation to other federal agencies as well as private social media companies.

Republicans on Capitol Hill have been similarly hands-off.

Last month, a report published by the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee echoed Goldsmith’s earlier report by imploring federal agencies to develop “robust and comprehensive cyber-hygiene training” for retired servicemembers. Republicans did not object to the report’s publication — it was approved by a voice vote — but they did not offer support, either.

Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee, who was then the committee’s top Republican, acknowledged evidence showing veterans were being targeted and said he supported educating them about disinformation, and that it was not his intent to minimize the threat. But he expressed concerns about the report’s other recommendations, arguing that they fell outside the committee’s purview.

Roe also said Republicans were left out of the report’s production, making it “unreasonable to think such a report would produce a bipartisan result.” Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., bristled at the accusation and said Roe’s staff had declined to participate in reviewing the report.

The Homeland Security Department’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency did act prior to last November’s election. In late October, the agency partnered with VVA to disseminate resources raising awareness about online propaganda. But by then, Trump was already spreading election-related disinformation that would lead to violence on Jan. 6.

Renewed calls

Goldsmith is keen on the Biden administration taking swift action.

Biden does not need to wait for lawmakers to take action, Goldsmith said. He hopes the president will sign an executive order directing the VA to offer training on cyber hygiene and media literacy, and hopes Congress will back the initiative with new funding in fiscal 2022.

The chief impetus for that training is not to protect veterans from participating in another event similar to the riot at the Capitol, but to help retired servicemembers who will continue to face the danger of online disinformation in their everyday lives.

“Veterans who become conspiracy theorists isolate themselves from their friends and family, they don’t trust the government, and their overall health and quality of life is going to suffer,” Goldsmith said.

Because the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are producing new generations of veterans, Goldsmith said the VA must move quickly. Still, he is digging in for a long fight ahead, noting the decadeslong struggle by Vietnam War veterans to receive compensation for negative health effects stemming from Agent Orange exposure despite medical evidence.

“Even today, there are Vietnam veterans who do not have their disabilities recognized as being the result of Agent Orange,” he said, adding: “We need to start making moves now because whatever we start doing now is probably going to take a decade to get into full swing.”

Sean Michael Newhouse contributed to this report.

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