It started when Kristofer Goldsmith came across a Facebook page that looked a lot like his employer’s.
But the fake Vietnam Veterans of America was posting bad information, putting new dates on old news stories and twisting facts in an apparent attempt to stir up fear among readers. That led Goldsmith to embark on a 15-month cyber investigation into social media trolls targeting the military community from Ukraine, Bulgaria, the Philippines and more than two-dozen other countries.
“This is something that is really dangerous, and the fake news that the White House needs to be concentrated on is the fake news that foreign entities are pushing into the veterans community to tear America apart,” said Goldsmith, an Army veteran.
He recently wrote about his findings for WIRED magazine, articulating details about his “amateur investigation” that has since led VVA to push the government and social media sites for help with this problem. Goldsmith points to a recent study by Oxford University, which found that the public’s general trust in service members and veterans make this group particular targets for online trolls.
He said the misinformation could be harming veterans’ health. For example, one post he saw made it look as though an old story about Congress considering cuts to disability benefits was about a new effort, even though it was published over the holiday season when Congress was out of session.
“You’re talking about agitating PTSD, giving people another reason to be anxious,” Goldsmith said.
“We’d like for the (Veterans Affairs Department) to start to educate veterans on cyber hygiene," he said. "The VA provides information about health … We would like to see the VA engage in education campaigns that are similar to that, so basically preventative medicine.”
He said VVA plans to continue raising awareness about this issue with the next Congress and has already gotten other veterans organizations on board. And meanwhile, veterans should be mindful of the content they’re sharing from potentially harmful sources.
“The first thing that they need to do is when they’re following a page of any kind — it doesn’t even have to be specifically related to veterans — if they’re posting things like, ‘Share this photo if you think that veterans should come before refugees,’ you should just go to that page and click the little information tab,” Goldsmith said. “A lot of the pages that they follow and share from that are sharing politically divisive messages are not of American origin.”