WASHINGTON — Online trolls appear to be targeting U.S. veterans and military members on social media in an effort to confuse and unsettle the community, according to a new Oxford University study released this week.
Researchers from the school’s Computational Propaganda Project found “significant and persistent interactions between current and former military personnel and a broad network of Russia-focused accounts, conspiracy theory focused accounts, and European right-wing accounts.”
The findings prompted officials from Vietnam Veterans of America to request executives from Facebook and Twitter to work more closely with federal agencies to protect troops, veterans and military families from disinformation campaigns led by foreign irritants.
“For months we’ve been quietly trying to push Facebook to close down fake pages that are imitating Vietnam Veterans of America, and to stop Russian bots from harassing our advocates, to no avail,” said John Rowan, president of Vietnam Veterans of America
“So far these social media companies have failed to step up, which is why we need the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs to get involved.”
In VVA’s case, the harassment centers around a months-old imposter Facebook page set up by Bulgarian activists. Group officials said they have been alarmed by the false news stories being shared on the page — which include doctored videos of vandalized war memorials — and its rapid growth in followers.
Officials also said VVA staffers have been targeted by online spam-bots sharing false, partisan news stories. Kris Goldsmith, assistant director for policy and government affairs for VVA, chronicled that abuse on Twitter last week.
Those actions seem to fit the pattern uncovered by the Oxford researchers.
They said their findings show that veterans and military members on social media are “among the most sophisticated news consumers,” often sharing the least amount of false and misleading information.
But it also apparently makes them targets for would-be trolls.
“The public tends to place trust in military personnel and veterans, making them potentially influential voters and community leaders,” the study states. “Given this trust and their role in ensuring national security, these individuals have the potential to become particular targets for influence operations and information campaigns conducted on social media.”
Researchers said the problem seems more pronounced on Twitter than Facebook, although disinformation on both social media networks present potential problems. Rowan said both networks need to “immediately shut down all fake veteran pages and spam bots” and work with federal authorities on long-term fixes.
The report is available online at the Computational Propaganda Project’s web site.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.