Targeting of Veterans

The targeting of veterans on social media is not a product of the 2020 election cycle and has been going on for years, explained Vladimir Barash, PhD, science director of Graphika, a social network analysis company.

“U.S. veterans and members of our military are highly respected members of society who positively influence their country and community,” Barash said in his written statement. “At the same time, they are considered a vulnerable population in the context of the digital divide. Common topics of discussions in veteran communities include mental and physical health issues, separation from military service and reintegration into civilian life. Those are all topics we have seen malicious campaigns target and engage with in order to manipulate the veteran community.”

One example of this targeting was the reposting of a 2017 Stars and Stripes story about President Donald Trump’s first budget. “It was a true story written by a reputable outlet,” Goldsmith explained. “Part of it mentioned how there were proposed budget cuts to certain disability benefits. That story was copied and pasted word-for-word on a site based out of Bulgaria. Same headline, same text, but changing the date to make it look more urgent.”

This is the kind of fraudulent social media content that can have a subtle but serious effect on the health of veterans.

“When VVA members find out that total and permanent disability benefits for those collecting Social Security [are going to be cut] that has a profound effect on the real health of our members,” Goldsmith declared. “To be re-exposed over and over again to that sense of panic, to real effects on your life, can exacerbate PTSD and physical health conditions.”

Barash added that the effects could spread to include other aspects of a veterans’ life. “When they are targeted by malware, this breaks down the fragile social fabric that they are trying to build as they return from military service.”

Goldsmith urged the committee to require VA to take efforts to shield veterans from cyber threats. “Cyber hygiene must be considered a critical aspect of veterans’ overall health needs in the 21st century,” he said.

He advocated for the creation of a deputy assistant secretary for cyber-health at VA—a political appointee who could be held accountable for modernizing VA’s approach to veterans’ healthcare in the digital age.

House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mark Takano (D-CA) addressed the issue of internet spoofing at hearing entitled “Hijacking Our Heroes: Exploiting Veterans Through Disinformation On Social Media.”

“The platforms themselves need to do MORE to eliminate the issue of internet spoofing and, if they don’t, then Congress will need to step in more directly,” he warned.

Veteran-targeted spoofing does not have to be limited to the internet, however. Last month, the FCC released a statement warning veterans to beware fraudulent phone calls claiming to be from VA. Using caller ID spoofing that shows the call to be coming from a local number, the scammers often leave voice messages, such as: “Your VA profile was flagged for two potential benefits to the changes in the VA program. These are time sensitive entitlements. Please call us back at your earliest convenience.”

Veterans who call back will be asked for personal information, including their Social Security number. According to VA, the department does not cold call veterans and will never request a Social Security number over the phone.