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Experts will warn lawmakers on Capitol Hill today that foreign actors have been targeting U.S. veterans across social media for at least eight years. As the 2020 elections approach, they'll say they're showing no signs of stopping.
“These operations are surgically precise, targeting influential people and organizations in the veteran community,” Vlad Barash, science director at the research firm Graphika, will tell members of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee at a hearing about online scams impacting veterans, according to prepared testimony.
Bad actors have homed in on topics that are important to the veteran community, such as mental health treatment or reintegration into civilian life. These campaigns, which can have a variety of aims, have been playing out across a range of social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, Barash said.
Officials from Facebook and Twitter will be in the hot seat and under pressure to prove to lawmakers they've taken steps to correct their past shortcomings to protect former service members. Veterans were a key target of Russia's effort to sow discord and spread disinformation ahead of the 2016 presidential election. Lawmakers are worried the same thing could happen in 2020.
Kristofer Goldsmith, the Vietnam Veterans of America's chief investigator, will warn that veterans are a prime target for online influence campaigns because they’re “more likely than any other demographic in the U.S. to vote, run for office, and motivate others to vote,” according to his prepared testimony.
He will tell lawmakers that his organization's analysis of the Russia-linked ads Congress released from the 2016 election found “at least 113 ads directed at veterans, or which used veterans as props in Russia’s mission to divide Americans,” according to his prepared testimony. Facebook's ad targeting tools allowed Russian actors to tailor ads to followers of veterans' organizations, he will also say.
Facebook security chief Nathaniel Gleicher, who will testify at the hearing, plans to say the company has been testing ways to spot and remove accounts impersonating some of the most frequently impersonated members of the military and veterans. Twitter public policy manager Kevin Kane will say the company has learned from its efforts to secure its platform amid global elections, as well as a retrospective review of 2016 interference.
“All people who use Twitter — including veterans — must have confidence in the integrity of the information found on the service,” Kane said in his prepared remarks. “We continue to invest in our efforts to address those threats posed by hostile actors and foster an environment conducive to healthy, meaningful conversations on our service.”
But Goldsmith plans to argue social media companies are putting the burden on veterans and groups representing them to detect online scams and interference, effectively forcing them to act as “an unpaid consultant” for platforms like Facebook. He complains that information sharing can often feel like a one-way street because Facebook, for instance, does not share similar threats with groups like his because of privacy concerns.
“Social media companies must be held accountable for imposing a cost on VVA, other veterans’ organizations, and individual veterans, who through their ineffective policies are forcing us to constantly monitor their platforms for criminals seeking to victimize Americans by exploiting our trusted brands and personal identities,” Goldsmith wrote in his testimony.
There are already signs veterans are struggling to address the same issues this election cycle.
In March, a Macedonian businessman hijacked the Facebook page “Vets for Trump,” where more than 100,000 veterans shared pro-Trump posts and conservative memes, my colleague Craig Timberg reported. As memes from North Macedonia appeared on the page, the group's administrator struggled to get in touch with Facebook to report the problem. The page's administrators told Craig they didn't regain control of the page until August, and Goldsmith, who studied the posts, believes the takeover was an effort to influence veterans' beliefs ahead of the 2020 election.
BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES
BITS: Russian military hackers struggled to publicize the trove of sensitive Democratic Party documents until WikiLeaks stepped in, according to a report released last night, my colleague Craig Timberg writes. The findings, provided to the Senate Intelligence Committee, underscore how Russian agents used fake think tanks as well as unwitting American journalists in addition to social media to spread their narrative ahead of the 2016 election.
Russian hackers tried to publicize the stolen documents on Facebook as early as June 14 of 2016 on a page called "DCLeaks," but unlike their counterparts at the Russian Internet Research Agency, the GRU operatives garnered little interaction on Facebook. Direct messages to American journalists through the fictitious Twitter persona Guccifer 2.0 generated initial covered of the hacked emails followed a week later. But it was WikiLeaks publication of the documents over a month later spread widely enough to cause scandal in the Democratic party and prompted its chairwoman to resign.
The report raises urgent questions about how U.S. officials and social media companies can prepare for similar operations in 2020.
"These big platforms need to do a better job of making sure they don’t become tools for Russian manipulation of American voters, and responsible actors need to take serious stock of how they interact with, rely on and amplify the information found on those platforms," said Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee.
“This report helps us better understand how the GRU conducts its information warfare operations," committee’s chairman, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), said. "It’s clear that the foreign influence threat is persistent and evolving, and we cannot flag in our collective effort to combat it.
NIBBLES: Federal regulators are looking into a controversial new partnership between Google and health-care system Ascension to harvest and analyze the data of tens of millions of patients, Rob Copeland at the Wall Street Journal reports. The Department of Health and Human Services has opened an investigation to determine whether the project meets the requirements of the federal health privacy law regulating how hospitals share patient data with business partners, HHS Office for Civil Rights Director Roger Severino said in a statement to the Wall Street Journal.
Google declined to comment on the HHS probe, but maintains that its partnership with Ascension falls within the guidelines established by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Google says the project aims to “modernize Ascension’s infrastructure.”
The project has also drawn scrutiny from members of Congress. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) expressed concerns that the company will not disclose whether it will use the data for profit or independent research — both of which could put Google's “Project Nightingale” in violation of federal privacy law.
“As science continues to drive technological innovation, we must not sacrifice privacy,” wrote Klobuchar, who used the report to renew calls for Congress to pass her Protecting Personal Health Data Act, which would introduce new health data regulations.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D.-Conn.) also slammed Google.
Google has secretly mined the health records of tens of millions of Americans to drive up costs to patients. Blatant disregard for privacy, public well-being, & basic norms is now core to Google’s business model. This abuse is beyond shameful. https://t.co/BO41AHyfDa— Richard Blumenthal (@SenBlumenthal) November 12, 2019
BYTES: Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi apologized to employees yesterday for his remarks referring to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi government as a “mistake,” my colleagues Faiz Siddiqui and Nitasha Tiku report. Khosrowshahi said he erred when he compared the government's actions to an incident in which an Uber self-driving vehicle killed a woman in an interview with Axios on Sunday
“I don’t believe that the Khashoggi murder is something to be forgiven or forgotten and I was plain wrong to compare it to anything that we have been through,” he said in an all-staff meeting, according to a transcript obtained by The Post and employees in attendance. “All of us have to take responsibility for what we do and be accountable, so I will take that accountability as your leader.”
Khosrowshahi's apology followed backlash, including renewed calls on Twitter to boycott the company. Saudi Arabia is Uber’s fifth-biggest shareholder, and Khosrowshahi praised the head of its sovereign wealth fund, who sits on Uber's board of directors, in the Axios interview.
The remarks were similar to a clarification Khosrowshahi offered Axios shortly after his interview. The CEO also issued an apology on Twitter on Monday.
— Microsoft President Brad Smith said he was “encouraged” by arguments in front of the Supreme Court yesterday in defense of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — an Obama-era initiative that grants work permits and shields qualified young immigrants who are in the United States illegally from deportation. The company, which employs 66 “dreamers,” is a plaintiff in one of the cases reviewed by the Supreme Court yesterday.
“I think one of the things that really came through so clearly to the justices was that this matters to employers,” Smith said. “It has now become clear that this matters to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of employers, either directly or as customers, and it matters to everyone else as well.”
While Microsoft is the only corporation going in front of the Supreme Court this week, the future of DACA has wide-ranging implications for the tech industry, as I reported earlier this week. Apple, Google, IBM and Amazon have all submitted briefings to the court contesting the end of DACA. (Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
— News from the public sector:
— News from the private sector:
— Tech news generating buzz around the Web:
- The House Committee on Veterans Affairs will host a hearing on “Hijacking our Heroes: Exploiting Veterans through Disinformation on Social Media” at 2 p.m. Eastern time
- The House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee will host its fourth hearing on online platforms and market power, focusing on the perspectives of the anti-rust agencies at 2 p.m.
— Coming up:
- The House Financial Services Committee will host a hearing on the role of big data in financial services on November 21 at 9:30am