Why the Kremlin Targets Veterans

This Veterans Day, as Americans across the country prepare to honor the brave men and women who have served in the United States Armed Forces, foreign adversaries will target and exploit service members with a variety of online predatory behavior. From creating fake social media accounts to spread disinformation within and about veteran communities to outright scamming veterans with solicitations for personal information and money, bad actors have been unrelenting in their targeted operations.

And unfortunately, there are strong strategic incentives for nation-states like Russia to continue an online assault on veteran communities.

Last December, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released two reports describing how Russia targeted specific groups online with disinformation campaigns. In that same month, our team published a commentary called Why Putin Targets Minorities, which provides historic and strategic context. The primary thesis was that Kremlin operatives target specific subgroups to capitalize on latent grievances or sensitive touch points in an effort to erode that group’s attachment to our shared national identity. The ultimate objective of this divide and conquer strategy is to have large portions of the population lose faith in the democracy—and disengage altogether.

Russian president Vladimir Putin targets minority groups because he’s an opportunist, and he is a former intelligence officer who has studied human psychology. This is not to say that minority groups are inherently predisposed or susceptible to fall for disinformation. However, people strongly affiliating with minority or affinity groups do already have a sense of group identity. In most cases, they also possess legitimate grievances that strongly bind the group together. Russia exploits these societal cleavages and works to promote narratives that “the system,” and thus democracy, is irrevocably broken. Russia’s employment of disinformation is the latest incarnation of “active measures” used throughout the Cold War to erode trust in democracy.

Veterans, like the minority communities we studied, rightfully possess a strong sense of identity. This is a positive attribute that likely correlates with civic participation. But it is also no secret that the U.S. government, and society at large, has not always lived up to expectations in fully supporting and actively reintegrating our veterans into society. This combination creates a foothold that foreign adversaries and malicious actors can use to insert themselves into these communities and has made veterans a prime target of foreign influence operations.

Online Attacks on Veterans

In September 2019, Kristofer Goldsmith of the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) concluded a two-year investigation into foreign actors targeting veterans online. This study thoroughly tracks and documents inauthentic behavior, demonstrating the precision, sophistication, and believability of these online campaigns.

Screenshot: IRA-controlled Facebook page seeking to engage viewers through interactive or divisive memes; Source: VVA, “VVA Investigative Report,” September 17, 2019.

Goldsmith’s report goes into a deeper study of how different types of actors are able to infiltrate veterans’ groups online and systematically reveals other criminal actions like identity theft and the illegal collection of personal information. His findings on targeted disinformation operations are consistent with trends we have studied in other contexts.

First, it is important to recognize that these are continuous, democracy-undermining operations that go beyond election interference. The volume and intensity of these aggressive operations have grown since 2016 and show no signs of abating. Russian state-sponsored media outlets, such as RT and Sputnik, have focused their sights on the idea that the United States is not supportive of its veterans. Playing to grievances, programs on RT and Sputnik constantly reinforce the notion that the U.S. government and corporations do not care about veterans. These programs often interview veterans and use misleading and divisive questions about the U.S. government’s military and veteran policies to further amplify and exploit the existing frustrations in the veteran community. The goal of this reporting, generally unbeknownst to the people being interviewed, is to wear away veterans’ faith in the U.S. system.

Screenshot: Rick Sanchez: “We all love to applaud our veterans and talk about how much we care, do we really? Enough?”; Source: RT America, “US ‘Support for Veterans’ is All Talk,” November 9, 2018.

In addition to infiltrating, or in some cases creating, online pages and posting group-reinforcing narratives, Kremlin-sponsored trolls have routinely promoted divisive content meant to instigate veteran resentment toward the government or other groups within the democracy. Twitter’s recently released tweets from identified Russian bots (all after the 2016 election) have messages like the following:

  • After 30 Yrs of USAF Service, My family #StandForTheFlag StandUpAmerica #SupportOurVeterans #HATESLiberals/#DemocRATS
  • #BlackLivesMatter & #CampaignZero members/supporters arrested for beating a white military veteran
  • The difference between the good guys and the bad guys is whether they use human shields or make themselves human shields

The danger of malicious trolls impersonating and infiltrating U.S. veterans’ circles cannot be overstated. By attempting to sway the veteran community, these operatives from Russia’s Internet Research Agency seek to create internal splinters, further isolating U.S. veterans. This is done, as seen above, by accusing liberal-leaning veterans of disloyalty to their own group while driving conservative-leaning veterans toward the extremist far-right movement, isolating both halves from their own community and the rest of U.S. society as a whole.


Screenshot: Both images are from a Russian-backed Facebook group called Stop A.I. (Stop All Invaders). The images were reproduced in Senator Michael Bennet’s book : Michael Bennet, Dividing America: How Russia Hacked Social Media and Democracy (Michael Bennet, 2019)

It is worth emphasizing again that the grievances explicitly or implicitly addressed by Russian media often are based on legitimate issues. It is important that veterans service organizations, foundations, corporations, and citizens fight for reform and overdue accountability. Advocacy makes U.S. institutions better and the nation stronger. But that is not the outcome Russian messaging seeks. Instead of highlighting grievances with the intent of mobilizing people toward reform, the disinformation operations hyperbolize a hopeless despair created by U.S. society—one that cannot be remedied by democratic means. Putin wants targeted groups to see disengagement or violence as the only answer.

Today, Russia is the prime culprit of using disinformation to plant and amplify narratives meant to undermine U.S. democracy, but it is not inconceivable that other foreign and domestic actors will soon follow suit. The more connected citizens become online, the easier it is for nefarious groups to directly connect with real citizens. The United States should develop threat-agnostic solutions aimed at strengthening the overall resilience of its democracy.

Recommendations

VVA published its report publicly in the hope that “Americans and Congress can be aware of and have a better understanding of how these foreign admins operate.”

The Defending Democratic Institutions project at CSIS has similarly been working to raise awareness on how adversaries are attacking public trust in democracy. In February 2018, we produced a report entitled Countering Adversary Threats to Democratic Institutions that highlights the need for whole-of-nation campaigns that prevent, deter, and reduce the effectiveness of active measures. More recently, we released a report in May 2019 on how the Kremlin attacks the justice system as part of its broader mission to undermine democracy. In these reports, we highlight a few recommendations that are applicable for safeguarding any democratic institution or group:

  • Promote bipartisan action against nefarious foreign actors and increase technical defenses and countermeasures to increase the costs of disruptive activities;
  • Raise threat awareness and invest in impact-oriented research to understand the full scope of disinformation;
  • Improve rapid response capabilities and communication capabilities between institutions, appropriate federal entities, and social media platforms; and
  • Expand civics and media literacy trainings to build societal resilience to pernicious information campaigns, elevating these efforts as a national security imperative.

There should be a push toward data-driven research to demonstrate the magnitude of the threat and the consequences for society will help amplify the urgent need for action. There should be better communication between social media platforms, the government, and the public. Once those channels are clearly established, the United States can more aggressively prevent, detect, and mitigate the effectiveness of ongoing operations.

But truly the most important long-term countermeasure against this form of attack is the promotion of media literacy and civics as a national security imperative. Democracy—its foundational values, its institutions, and its citizen groups—should be understood, appreciated, and protected. The United States should ensure that all of its citizens can make their voices heard when seeking to hold its system and institutions accountable to live up to aspirations. And U.S. institutions and society must continually strive to hear those voices and improve. That kind of engaged and informed citizenry is the foundation of our democracy—the democracy the veterans whose service we honor have worked so hard to protect.

Suzanne Spaulding is senior adviser for homeland security with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Jason Gresh is a military fellow with the CSIS International Security Program. Devi Nair is a program manager and research associate with the CSIS International Security Program. Alexandra Huber is an intern with the CSIS International Security Program.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2019 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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Suzanne Spaulding
Director, Defending Democratic Institutions, and Senior Adviser, Homeland Security, International Security Program

Devi Nair

Former Associate Director and Associate Fellow, International Security Program

Alexandra Huber

Intern, International Security Program

Jason Gresh