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Veterans have been targets of foreign manipulation. Now they’re fighting it before the election.

A message from the #Protect2020 effort. (Vietnam Veterans of America)

A joint effort by the Department of Homeland Security and a leading veterans group seeks to combat foreign disinformation in the final days before the election, more than a year after a report issued to lawmakers concluded that veterans are economically efficient targets of such efforts.

Vietnam Veterans of America, a nonprofit advocacy group, has said a cabal of foreign entities, including Russian operatives and others, focus disinformation campaigns against service members and veterans because they have high levels of social trust, vote at high rates and may persuade others who admire their service.

Now the U.S. government and VVA are marshaling veterans in a similar way, asking them to help amplify warnings about sharing disinformation on social media and to educate others about spotting such content and warning friends and family that information about the 2020 election is prime for online foreign interference.

The campaign, which includes graphics that veterans can post on social media, carries the theme “America needs its veterans now more than ever.” The initiative began Friday, said John Rowan, the national president of VVA.

“We encourage all veterans to take note of the tools provided and to use this information to combat foreign interference from wherever it comes,” he said in a statement. “This is psychological warfare taken to an extreme, and it impacts our national security.”

The effort comes as U.S. officials have said Russia and Iran have launched efforts to undermine voter confidence in the presidential election, aiming to sow confusion and mistrust in institutions that oversee the process.

Kristofer Goldsmith, VVA’s former chief investigator who wrote last year’s report, said he welcomed the project, though he said it only appeared to break through bureaucratic inertia after reporters inquired about its status.

“This campaign is unfortunately launching far too late to have a real effect on 2020,” he said. “But this campaign is important for every day beyond the election. It’s an education program that I hope is not just a flash in the pan.”

Goldsmith’s report found that adversarial governments and foreign troll farms created memes, over-the-top political comments and false news articles on social media specifically for veterans to consume online.

Veterans and service members are economic targets for manipulation, he said, because they can be influential with friends and family, and adversaries know the military has for years been the most trusted institution in the country.

Some pages are wildly popular, with some followings numbering in the hundreds of thousands. One fake VVA page generated about a quarter-million fans, which quickly dwarfed the real group’s Facebook following.

Other groups mimic veteran pages for financial reasons, Goldsmith concluded, like turning followers into buyers of cheaply made merchandise.

Goldsmith said one objective of the report was to alert federal agencies and veterans groups and aim to work together.

But a lack of response from the Department of Veterans Affairs has been notable, he said. The agency did not contact VVA after the report was published in September 2019, Goldsmith said, and he criticized VA for allowing DHS to take point on the response.

Adding to the problem is the coronavirus pandemic, which has pushed many lives online more, he said. That includes VA, which has advised veterans to use video-based appointments and to follow hospital closures and other developments online.

“For [VA Secretary Robert Wilkie] not to respond in a year just shows he does not prioritize the full health and well-being of veterans,” Goldsmith said. “We are overexposed to the Internet. These threats are a much bigger problem right now.”

VA spokeswoman Christina Noel said “policing or regulating election-related content is not part of the department’s mission.”

The joint campaign, launched in conjunction with DHS’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, includes ways veterans can be proactive about spotting foreign disinformation by watching how social media pages evolve.

Some pages designed to draw in veterans begin with innocuous posts, the campaign said. “Once they have a large audience, they begin to share more extreme and divisive messages,” according to the campaign.

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