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Veterans Groups Warn of Social Media Disinformation and Other Targeting of Veterans

NBC Washington D.C. logo NBC Washington D.C. 7/24/2021 Scott MacFarlane and Rick Yarborough
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There are growing fears about efforts to manipulate military heroes and heighten political tensions from the 2020 presidential election.  

A News4 I-Team review found dozens of military veterans, and at least one active-duty servicemember, among those charged with crimes from the U.S. Capitol insurrection.

Veterans service organizations told the I-Team the growing efforts to target vets for propaganda likely motivated some veterans to be part of the Capitol riot. They said some bad actors are using the political divide caused by the insurrection to further mislead and inflame vets.

"They're targeting veterans because they're influencers,” said Kristofer Goldsmith, a U.S. Army veteran who has researched online targeting of vets. "As a veteran, I am more likely to influence my immediate social network. I’m not talking about Facebook social network. I'm talking about my friends and my family."

The U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee said it scheduled a formal hearing on Domestic Violent Extremist Groups and the Recruitment of Veterans.

The committee had recently reported increasing concerns of “spoofing” attempts to mislead veterans. In a “spoofing” incident, bad actors mislead veterans by pretending to be a reputable veterans organization while sharing incendiary or controversial content online. In a 2020 report, the committee noted, “A successful spoofing scam that results in a veteran or veteran service organization unknowingly distributing or endorsing a piece of disinformation can yield greatly increased, and sometimes even exponential, results due to the added credibility imparted to that disinformation by virtue of its approval by the veteran.”

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Committee Chairman Mark Takano (D-Calif.) said the recent wave of social media disinformation includes evocative and powerful images of veterans and military families alongside heated political messages.

“it’s pretty effective, because Americans respect veterans as they should,” Takano said. “Americans have a high regard for veterans.”

The growth of social media disinformation likely led to some of the participation by veterans in the U.S. Capitol insurrection.

“Misinformation is one of the biggest problems we're dealing with in a country, regardless of the topic that you're talking about. It definitely applied to Jan. 6,” said Jeremy Butler, a spokesman for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.    

“It doesn't mean that the overall military veteran community is damaged, but it means that there's an issue there that we need to make sure that we're tackling," Butler said.

The I-Team’s review of court filings from the U.S. Capitol insurrection cases, shows dozens of defendants have prior connections to military, including those accused charged with conspiracy and assault against police.  

Landon Copeland, a former U.S. Army sergeant charged with assaulting police on Jan. 6,said he consumed all of his news through social media. Copeland has not yet entered a plea in his case, though he told the News4 I-Team he does not believe he committed a crime while making physical contact with police outside the Capitol. Copeland said he has long suspected bad actors were conducting malicious “cyber-operations” on social media, specifically targeting veterans.

The U.S. House Committee said it plans to question the VA about its efforts to protect vets during this month’s hearing.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said, “VA recognizes that veterans are targets of social media and other forms of misinformation. Making sure that veterans have access to reliable information that allows them to make informed decisions is key to supporting the veteran community. Currently, VA has no dedicated program or office in place to specifically combat extremism or radical behavior. However, the department is thoroughly assessing this concern in the veteran community and how VA can continue to support whole of veteran care.”

Editor's Note (July 24, 9:35 a.m.): This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Kristofer Goldsmith's name.

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