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Troll Watch: Why Veterans Are Targeted By Spreaders Of Misinformation


And now another story in our Troll Watch series.


MARTIN: In this program, we've been trying to keep track of the ways that Internet trolls, especially those directed by foreign governments, have been trying to influence American voters by pushing fake stories or hyping up stories with a partisan or mean-spirited edge. Now we've heard about an Army veteran who's trying to eliminate disinformation on Facebook that targets service members and veterans. He's flagged about 100 Facebook pages that have millions of followers, and he's with us now.

Kris Goldsmith is the assistant director for policy and government affairs at Vietnam Veterans of America, and he's also founder and president of High Ground Veterans Advocacy, and he's with us from NPR's bureau in New York.

Kris Goldsmith, thanks so much for talking to us.

KRIS GOLDSMITH: Hey. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So let me - I'm going to ask you to walk me through this. Now, this started because you were trying to understand how well your legitimate Facebook pages were doing. And then you realized that somebody had - what? - stolen your logo and was pushing content with it and had more followers than you? Tell me about that.

GOLDSMITH: Correct. Yes. So I was just helping my communications team manage our social media pages, and I typed in Vietnam Veterans of America. And, one day, I noticed that there was another page that came up before ours, and it had an even larger following. So I investigated the page, found out that they had been using our logo, pretending to be us. But they were sending everyone to a European website - vvets.eu. But that was the first red flag, where it's - you know, these people aren't just trying to sell T-shirts or something. They're creating an entire environment to support the fake Facebook pages.

MARTIN: Yeah. Tell me about that. What kinds of things were they using their page to say?

GOLDSMITH: So most of the stuff that this particular group of trolls was pushing - we eventually located them in Bulgaria. One particular incident was there was a legitimate news story in rural Massachusetts. There was a Vietnam veterans monument that had been defaced. Some kid took some berries and rubbed it on it. But what they did was they took that local news story and looped the 58-second video for four hours as a Facebook Live video. And, over that, they put a phrase that said, do you think the criminals must suffer and encouraged people to respond.

Now, it was based in truth, but it was made to look more urgent, and it looked like it was happening live. This wasn't just, you know, one person in Bulgaria, you know, trying to build a following. This was a conspiracy. What I'm basically doing is leaving a trail of breadcrumbs so that Facebook's threat intelligence team can take the actual experts to analyze the data that I've found so that they can get more information about who's behind it.

MARTIN: What is it that you think is attracting people? Is it because they could combine it with this kind of deep patriotic sentiment? I mean, what's the appeal?

GOLDSMITH: So the reason why they are going to the right is because that's the type of content that the extreme right is producing organically, so it blends in. Their goal is to blend in with and amplify the extremes in this country. The ultimate goal here is not veterans. It is to make the United States in a permanent condition of paralysis. They want for us to not be able to function as a democracy, and the way that they do that is they sabotage any idea of bipartisanship - not just for our elected members of Congress but for the electorate.

And we, as a society, need to start educating ourselves on the issue of cyber-hygiene. We need to understand that it's very important. Everything that we share we need to make sure that the source is reliable. And, when it comes to politics, we need to make sure that it's generated from inside the United States.

MARTIN: That was Kris Goldsmith, the assistant director for policy and government affairs at Vietnam Veterans of America speaking to us from our bureau in New York.

Kris Goldsmith, thank you so much for talking to us.

GOLDSMITH: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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