House Committee to Hold Hearing on the Online Exploitation of Veterans

Rep. Mark Takano

Rep. Mark Takano Kevin Wolf/AP Images for Human Rights Campaign)

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A veteran, a scientist and representatives from Facebook and Twitter are all set to testify.

Representatives from Facebook, Twitter and a veterans service organization will testify next week as part of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs ongoing investigation into the malicious online exploitation of America’s veterans and service members.

“Veterans are being targeted and impersonated through disinformation campaigns on social media—that’s the reality,” Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., told Nextgov Wednesday. “I launched an investigation into these anonymous actors back in March, and I’m determined to hold social media platforms accountable in the fight to prevent these scams.”

The witnesses for the Nov. 13 hearing—entitled “Hijacking our Heroes: Exploiting Veterans through Disinformation on Social Media"—will include Facebook’s Head of Security Policy Nathaniel Gleicher, Twitter’s Public Policy Manager Kevin Kane, Graphika’s Science Director Vladimir Barash and Vietnam Veterans of America’s Chief Investigator and Associate Director of Policy and Government Affairs Kristofer Goldsmith.

Today’s technological landscape enables instigators to easily implement tools like email and social media to influence voting behavior or trick Americans into sharing their most sensitive personal data online and a variety of vulnerabilities render the veteran population to be a popular target for online manipulation. Following serious reports that online bots and trolls specifically targeted vets to spread disinformation and sow division across America early this year, the committee saw it necessary to open its own probe.

After months of fact-finding, the hearing will likely offer Takano and other lawmakers the opportunity to ask social media platforms directly how they are working to prevent the malicious vet-targeting scams—and how Congress and law enforcement might be able to help. 

“Foreign entities from across the world have come to recognize that service members and veterans are an economically efficient target if they want to push things like anti-American propaganda, or engage in things like financial fraud or romance scams,” witness Kristofer Goldsmith told Nextgov Wednesday. “We, as a country, are behind the curve in coming to recognize how dedicated our competitors and adversaries are to influencing Americans.”

Goldsmith, a veteran who served on the frontlines in Iraq before smartphones and social media were ubiquitous, now tracks and combats trolls and foreign adversaries targeting VVA, a congressionally-chartered veteran service organization. In September, he released the results of a two-year investigation that he conducted, which documents “persistent, pervasive, and coordinated online targeting of American servicemembers, veterans, and their families by foreign entities who seek to disrupt American democracy.” 

In his research, Goldsmith identified actors targeting veterans with the intent of interfering in the 2020 presidential campaign, individuals from West Africa that would steal the identities of service members and veterans, including those who have been killed in action, in an effort to target Americans with romance scams, foreign entities that would create fake veteran profiles and spread fake information across small online veteran communities and many other ill-natured efforts. 

“That type of psychological manipulation can amplify the effects of [post traumatic stress disorder] or send someone who has a history of psychological problems into a new period of distress,” Goldsmith said. 

He added that his report offers some “radical solutions,” including calling on the administration to create a cabinet-level secretary charged with prioritizing cybersecurity. Goldsmith sent the report to the FBI, Defense and Justice departments, Robert Mueller’s team when it was operational, the Federal Communications Commission, various lawmakers and other federal insiders. Since then, he said he’s only really received appropriate federal support from one branch of the government: Congress. 

“There are a thousand ways we need to address this problem,” Goldsmith said. “It’s really a whole-of-government and a whole-of-society issue that requires more than just the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.”

Though his investigation was primarily focused on veterans, Goldsmith added that there are all sorts of different subsets of society that are being targeted and manipulated online in exactly the same ways that veterans are. He sees it all as part of a much broader problem that encompasses national security, Americans’ media literacy, the nation’s election infrastructure, “and the dangers of branding things ‘fake news’ when there is a real threat of falsified news that has serious effects” on American society.

“So the primary thing that I hope comes out of this hearing is general awareness around the fact that we as a society—and especially American veterans—need to start taking seriously our own personal cyber hygiene,” Goldsmith said. 

The hearing is set to take place at 2 p.m. at the House Capitol Visitor Center in room 210.