In mid-September, the Vietnam Veterans of America published a 200-page report from a two-year investigation that exposed Kremlin manipulation in social media.
The investigation, which began in August 2017, shed light on the Kremlin-led manipulation campaigns, a Facebook fake network, the use of false identities and identity theft, as well as outright real-life manipulation of grants and much more.
The Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) is an organization recognized by the US Congress for veterans and military personnel that brings together approximately 86,000 veterans and military personnel across the United States.
Fake web pages on Facebook
The investigation was based on a Facebook web page, the Vietnam Vets of America, discovered in August 2017, which had no affiliation with any American Veterans organization. At the time of its discovery, it had approximately 195,000 followers. By comparison, the original Vietnam Veterans of America Facebook web page had approximately 122,000 followers.
The investigation uncovered a number of similar Facebook fake web pages for US veterans who illegally used trademarks created and registered by the VVA and other visuals to resemble a genuine organization page.
The fake web pages were active, steadily posting and using games and voting to increase the amount of followers. An analysis of the page administrators showed that the content of the pages was posted from about 30 different countries, mainly from Eastern Europe and Vietnam. The most read site was administered from Russia, Ukraine and Italy for example.
The purpose of the fake web pages was to influence the minds and convictions of US veterans, thereby influencing American society. The web pages featured lies and polarizing messages to the public, as well as politically leaning material.
For example, there currently still exists the FB’s webpage „Veterans for Trump“ which has about 130,000 followers and is gaining momentum through the attention given by other fake web pages. This web page is administered through individuals in Macedonia and the United Kingdom.
In parallel to the investigation, attempts were made to close the fake web pages, citing both illegal use of trademark and biased hateful content but these efforts have been unsuccessful so far. A few web pages have been closed but new ones emerge in their place.
Fake accounts and identity theft
The investigation also revealed an extensive network of fake veteran accounts created to integrate with representatives of veterans’ organizations and Social Media groups with directing discussions there. Fake accounts were used to promote FB fake web pages.
Additionally, a network of fake veteran accounts created by Chinese intelligence was discovered, with members trying to make friends with high-level US military personnel.
The study also exposed a number of identity thefts, using veteran and military identities as “Romance Scams”, in which, as a veteran or a military man, single Americans were approached to defraud money from them.
Many of these identity thefts also involved the use of personal information from deceased military personnel. In 2018, the FBI received approximately 18,500 complaints about such scams and estimated the total financial loss suffered by those affected to be approximately $362 million USD.
The report provided a very detailed overview of veteran-related manipulations, describing their detection, investigation, and origin and impact on society.
What can Estonia learn from this?
The report is a worthwhile read to understand how, by exploiting one highly valued and influential group in society, it is possible to channel the beliefs and assessments of society as a whole.
In the USA, veterans have a special place in society and are recognized as community opinion leaders. They are listened to and asked for advice, which also makes them a desirable target for all kinds of manipulation.
The findings in the report clearly illustrate how difficult it is to distinguish web pages created for Social Media manipulation purposes from those that are not manipulative, and all of which must be addressed in the interests of public safety.
The elimination of such fake web pages and identities in various Social Media environments remains a challenge. The manipulation of military personnel and US veterans was clearly proven and justified by the VVA, but that was not enough reason for Facebook to limit or close it.
Photos: Screenshots from the report.