Sep 17, 2019 - Technology

Fake Facebook pages for veterans raised cash, spread lies for years

Photo of a man wearing a vest and a hat with Vietnam veteran patches

Photo: Robert Alexander/Getty

More than 150 Facebook pages targeting American soldiers and veterans — with a total reach of more than 32 million people — dealt lies and propaganda for years, many while soliciting donations, according to a new investigation from a leading veterans' group.

What's happening: About a third of these pages and groups, mostly controlled from overseas, were taken down after they were reported to Facebook. Others remain up, gathering followers and sowing divisions — and illustrating the failure of social networks and law enforcement to curb online disinformation.

The big picture: Online disinformation is often scrutinized for its potential ability to tip elections — but beyond the political moment, there's a longer game.

  • Pages drum up support and inflate their followings with memes and harmless posts, only to slip in the occasional, easily missed poison pill: a mistruth or bigoted jab.
  • "It is constant. It is ever-present. It is every day," says Kristofer Goldsmith of the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), a long-standing veterans service organization. Goldsmith spent the last 2 years investigating fake veterans groups and pages.

Driving the news: In a report published Tuesday, Goldsmith outlines a network of fraudulent Facebook pages that claim to advocate for American veterans, but are largely designed to divide and confuse. They are run from 30-plus countries, including Russia, Macedonia and Iran.

"They're trying to confuse the American public, make us less trusting of important institutions, and to pit us against one another, make us suspicious of one another."
— Kristofer Goldsmith

One example: After President Trump was elected, a Facebook page called "Vietnam Veterans" began posting photos taken from the official VVA Facebook page and selling flags and pins emblazoned with VVA's logo, though the page is not affiliated with the organization.

  • But before long, the page took a turn. It posted a photo of a man wearing camo with a sign reading "Vets before illegals," which was shared hundreds of times. Another post sold a T-shirt that reads "Veterans before refugees."
  • The page also recycled memes from another faux-veterans page based in Bulgaria that imitated VVA and from a page that the Mueller Report connected to the notorious Russian troll factory, the Internet Research Agency.
  • The "Vietnam Veterans" page, which appears to be administered by 13 accounts based in Vietnam and 1 in the U.S., currently has more than 233,000 followers.

"We've talked a lot since 2016 about how candidates have been targeted, but this [report] shows how conversations have been targeted," says the Alethea Group's Lisa Kaplan, a disinformation consultant who read over the VVA report before its publication.

After years studying fake veterans accounts, pages and groups on Facebook, Goldsmith says he recognizes recycled memes as they pop up again and again, some with characteristic colors and fonts.

  • "Propaganda back in the days of the USSR was a billboard or a sign," says Goldsmith. "Now you're getting those propaganda pieces directly in your face."
  • They blend in with the anodyne photos and posts that crowd Facebook feeds, such that unwitting users — including members of the bona fide VVA organization — follow the pages and share the memes with their friends.

What they're saying: In a statement, a Facebook spokesperson said, "We take these issues seriously and will continue to work with the veterans community to address their concerns."

Go deeper: A Macedonian-controlled "Vets for Trump" page (WaPo)

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to make clear that only some, not all, of the Facebook pages in the study solicited donations.

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