The post popped up in select Instagram feeds shortly before the election in 2016. Its photo depicted an anonymous black-clad woman on an airport tarmac, crying over a metal casket covered in an American flag. “Killary Clinton will never understand what it feels like to lose the person you love for the sake of your country,” the caption began. “Honoring the high cost paid by so many families to protect our freedom. Buy a T-shirt—help a veteran.”
In the world of military memes, it was a pretty standard sponsored post by the popular american.veterans Instagram account, targeted at members of online groups for the United States Army Reserve, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Concerned Veterans for America, and a fan page for Chris Kyle of American Sniper fame. The apparel sales were real, but the post was not concocted by a veteran—not a United States veteran, at least. The account that posted it was controlled by Russia’s Internet Research Agency; for just over 3,000 rubles (about $50), its “Killary” post was targeted to nearly 18,000 mostly-veteran Instagram users; at least 500 clicked through to the third-party site selling “MilVet” apparel. “Who profits from sales of MilVet merchandise in any of these cases is also unknown,” investigators now say, though it’s not hard to imagine who profited from the post’s political message.
It was but one of thousands of politically charged social media posts directed at military veterans by foreign actors, according to a new 191-page investigative report released Tuesday by Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA). And rather than taper off after the 2016 election, these shady accounts and shareable memes have continued to proliferate. “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, writes in the report’s executive summary.
That report, which builds on inquiries begun by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, also details how an online account claiming to be a wing of ISIS called the “Cyber Caliphate” was, instead, a Russian cutout. Under the guise of Islamist terror, the Russian account sent a string of threatening messages to military wives: “We know everything about you, your husband and your children and we’re much closer than you can even imagine.” Mission accomplished: The messages prompted a cycle of alarmist national news coverage. “Online Threat to Army Wife: ISIS Is Coming For You,” the Fox News Insider headline blazed, incorrectly.
Major veteran service organizations spend a great deal of time protecting their members from affinity scams; that was the genesis of VVA’s online-troll tracking project. Goldsmith began by tracking impostor groups on Facebook, including a highly popular fake VVA page that was run not out of Washington but Plovdiv, Bulgaria. “The page was spreading falsified news—changing dates on true stories and sensationalizing and exaggerating otherwise benign reporting—on issues that are closely associated with this specific population,” he writes. In the course of his research, he also discovered that until last month, a 131,000-member Vets for Trump page was run by admins based in Macedonia.
Besides a catalog of hundreds of bogus posts by bad actors, the report details how vet-oriented dating services on social media were really Ukrainian-run catfishing accounts; some foreign-run Facebook accounts “left automated comments on one another’s posts” to goose engagement; and various Twitter and Facebook accounts directed veterans to malware distribution points or offered nude images of vets to other users.
A little money and deviousness goes a long way for foreign actors in propagandizing veterans, who are among the most trusted and civically engaged constituencies in American politics. According to a 2017 Oxford University study, the military community is also extremely online. For servicemembers overseas, the allure of the internet is obvious: an easy channel for catching up on domestic news and communicating across continents. Veterans, meanwhile, are increasingly turning to social media as a new gathering place. In 2016, Donald Trump more than doubled John McCain’s showing among veteran voters, despite the latter’s ballyhooed military career and the former’s lack of service. Trump did this in part by playing to the racial and cultural id-impulses that might once have been confined to a few back corners of VFW and American Legion halls.
Foreign propagandists adeptly understood the appeal of Trump’s reflexive jingoism and exploited it. Their most popular social memes condemned kneeling in the NFL; stoked fears of Islamic Sharia law; and assailed Jane Fonda for her controversial trip to North Vietnam in 1972. “I just hope that I live long enough to visit her grave to urinate on it,” one (real) Facebook user commented on a foreign troll account’s Fonda meme, which featured her face photoshopped onto a urinal.
The VVA report concludes with a list of suggested policy fixes, including the creation of a cabinet-level secretary focused on internet infrastructure and security. It also calls for the State Department to encourage “anti-cybercrime laws abroad” to limit the spread of propaganda. Over the 20th century, as radio and television communication proliferated, a few countries hammered out agreements to limit interstate propaganda, though few were ever enforced. America’s only semi-serious approach to this work came with the 1948 passage of the Smith-Mundt Act, which curtailed the government’s ability to target its own people with propaganda. (That law was effectively overturned in 2012.)
The dilemma, though, is that it might take a new U.S. administration to get any affirmative action—but in the absence of action, the 2020 election will be fought on a battlefield of bullshit, where veterans and service members are largely defenseless marks.
Goldsmith, for his part, hopes Facebook and the feds will pick up on his report and take action before then.
“I would love for the FBI to take this report and follow the trails to get the bad guys,” he said. “That’s not my job. I should be worrying about veterans’ healthcare and education benefits, not the cybersecurity of American elections.”