On Feb. 26, the Washington Post reported that U.S Cyber Command blocked internet access for the Internet Research Agency, the Russian oligarch-linked organization that the Mueller investigation has deemed responsible for interfering with the 2016 election. Our government blocking the internet access of a persistent cyber threat to our democracy for election day is an encouraging sign, but it is far too little.
The St. Petersburg-based IRA is just one of countless foreign groups seeking to interfere with the American electorate, and those trolls are active every day. They aren’t just motivated by the goal of interfering with our democracy; they’re driven by a host of financial incentives that our government and tech companies have done little to nothing about.
For 18 months, Vietnam Veterans of America, a congressionally-chartered veterans service organization, has been fighting foreign trolls that are targeting the military and veterans community to weaponize and turn a profit off of our patriotism. From entities that publish falsified news about veterans benefits cuts to earn ad revenue for their clickbait websites, to targeted employment and financial scams, veterans organizations have been forced to play defense against a deluge of anonymous overseas actors who work day and night to deceive Americans — stealing our names, logos and reputations to gain their trust.
These are serious problems that need to be investigated by cyber professionals at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with the goal of finding out who is behind these anonymous online avatars.
The action on Election Day didn’t impact the Kosovoans from running the 3,000-plus member “American Proud” Facebook group that is still hosting pro-Trump and anti-Bernie political memes today. The six Vietnamese admins running the “Proud Women Veterans” Facebook Page that has 34,233 likes are still active. A Snapchat scammer just offered me thousands of dollars as part of a money laundering scheme, ostensibly as a labor-free way to work for and support the nonprofit organization that the troll doesn’t know is the very organization employing me to investigate them.
The one-day denial of internet access for one group didn’t shut down the global network of dozens of nefarious Twitter accounts that have successfully infiltrated the insular network of national military and veterans advocates, and it did nothing to stop the countless fraudulent accounts across any other social media platform.
During a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing in April 2018, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook was directly challenged by then chairman Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., about the fake veterans pages on his network. Since then Facebook implemented a change that reveals the country of origin of admins of pages with very large followings, but this still allows foreign trolls to build followings of tens of thousands of Americans before the hard-to-find country of origin information is revealed.
The troll infection isn’t limited to social media platforms. Domain hosts have gone without public scrutiny for allowing these foreign actors to anonymously create websites made to deceive Americans, and to host obviously hostile propaganda sites.
Third-party websites haven’t been investigated for their role in facilitating t-shirt and memorabilia sales with illegal use of trademarked veterans service organization logos. Many times pictures of flag-draped coffins and videos featuring the official insignia of American military branches are served up alongside divisive and even racist political messages on social media pages directing followers to buy these items. Where is the money going?
The Military Coalition, a group consisting of 32 military and veterans service organizations and comprised of millions of members, is asking Congress and federal agencies to recognize that our community is being targeted by foreign adversaries and to take immediate action to protect us.
It’s not enough to leave it up to social media companies to play whack-a-mole and close one hostile account at a time as users report them to mostly automated systems. It takes far more time and energy for independent researchers to track, document and report these suspicious accounts than it takes for the foreign actors behind them to simply start over with new avatars. Investigators like me don’t have the tools or legal authority to unmask, let alone punish, the human beings seeking to turn a profit by eroding our democracy.
Without the FBI tracking who is behind these anonymous accounts and making them pay a real price — more than a single day of internet access denial — we’re losing the cyber war that’s being waged against us.
Kristofer Goldsmith is associate director for policy and government affairs for Vietnam Veterans of America.