Russian interference has been a hot topic in mainstream media headlines for the last few years, and a study by the nonprofit Vietnam Veterans of America has found that much of that interference directly target U.S. military veterans.
Russia’s Internet Research Agency has been linked to influence campaigns spreading misleading or false information on social media networks, most commonly on Facebook. The foreign entity was behind more than 100 sponsored advertisements served to social media users who follow verified and legitimate organizations including Vietnam Veterans of America, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and Concerned Veterans for America.
“One Facebook page called Vietnam Veterans, which has been around since at least 2016, posted both photos of VVA’s president to imply a relation with the group, and re-posted Russian IRA memes,” CNN reported.
The Facebook pages and groups these ads were purchased from were typically moderated by accounts from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Vietnam, though direct links to the Russian IRA were not always obvious.
“Known Russian propaganda and similar politically divisive content that targets service members and veterans is being spread by admins from at least 30 foreign countries, with concentrations in Eastern Europe and Vietnam,” VVA chief investigator Kristopher Goldsmith, wrote in the report’s executive summary.
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The ads were first splashed onto social media pages during the months leading to the 2016 election. One found on Instagram by the New Republic showed a woman dressed in black, crying over a casket covered in an American flag. The caption read, “Killary Clinton will never understand what it feels like to lose the person you love for the sake of your country. Honoring the high cost paid by so many families to protect our freedom. Buy a T-shirt—help a veteran.”
The ad cost about $50, but was paid in Russian rubles. It was served to at least 18,000 Instagram accounts, the majority of which belonged to U.S. veterans, and at least 500 of whom click through to check out the “MilVet” apparel.
According to the New Republic, it’s still unknown whose coffers the profits from MilVet apparel ultimately went to, though the political gain would have favored any opponent of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton during the campaign.
The VVA’s report asks the State Department to discourage this practice from reoccurring and advocate for “anti-cybercrime laws abroad.” It also recommended a cabinet-level secretary for internet infrastructure and security.
The responsibility for damages done neither falls on the State Department nor Facebook’s leadership, the VAA maintains. Facebook has taken an active role in neutralizing collaborative efforts to spread misleading information on Facebook pages and ads on a number of occasions. Likewise, the US Government’s US Cyber Command took action against the IRA’s internet access in 2018, during the midterm election.
“The fact that it’s on Facebook makes it look to members of Congress right now as if like it’s all Facebook’s fault,” said VVA researcher Kris Goldsmith. “In our view, Facebook’s an American asset, one of the most important American companies to ever exist, one that can be a force for good to spread democracy around the world, and our adversaries have turned it against us.”
The U.S. Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948, also called the Smith Mundt Act, restricts the State Department from the publishing or broadcasting information intended for foreign audiences within the United States, except for the purposes of examination, and not more than 12 years after its initial dissemination abroad. Details discovered by CNN show that the FBI has been serving up its own ads, targeting Russians in the Washington, D.C. area, however. the ads are aimed at recruiting Russian nationals as counterintelligence agents.
One of the ads used a stock photo of a female college graduate standing next to her parents. A caption over the photo, written in Russian, reads, “For your future, for the future of your family.”
Other ads included one with picture of a chess set, with the caption, “Isn’t it time for you to make your move?” and one picturing a man walking over a bridge, overlaid with the phrase, “Time to draw bridges.”
The captions in some of the ads contained grammatical or spelling errors, which may indicate that the designer or designers were not native Russian speakers.
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Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.