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Facebook : An Army Veteran Wages War on Social Media Disinformation

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10/17/2018 | 12:02pm CEST

By Ben Kesling and Dustin Volz

Kris Goldsmith's campaign to get Facebook Inc. to close fake accounts targeting U.S. veterans started with a simple search.

He was seeking last year to gauge the popularity of the Facebook page for his employer, Vietnam Veterans of America. The first listing was an impostor account called "Vietnam Vets of America" that had stolen his group's logo and had more than twice as many followers.

Mr. Goldsmith, a 33-year-old Army veteran, sent Facebook what he thought was a straightforward request to take down the bogus page. At first, Facebook told him to try to work it out with the authors of the fake page, whom he was never able to track down. Then, after two months, Facebook deleted it.

The experience launched him on a hunt for other suspicious Facebook pages that target military personnel and veterans by using patriotic messages and fomenting political divisions. It has become a full-time job.

Working from offices, coffee shops, and his apartment, he has cataloged and flagged to Facebook about 100 questionable pages that have millions of followers. He sits for hours and clicks links, keeping extensive notes and compiling elaborate spreadsheets on how pages are interconnected, and tracing them back, when possible, to roots in Russia, Eastern Europe or the Middle East.

"The more I look, the more patterns I see," he said.

Facebook's response to his work has been tepid, he said. Company officials initially refused to talk with him, so he used a personal contact at Facebook to share his findings. Lately, the company has been more active.

Facebook didn't respond directly to a list of questions about Mr. Goldsmith's research, but a spokesman said the company had 14,000 people working on security and safety -- double the amount last year -- and a goal of expanding that team to 20,000 by next year.

In a statement, the spokesman said the company relied on "a combination of automated detection systems, as well as reports from the community, to help identify suspicious activity on the platform and ensure compliance with our policies."

About two dozen of the pages Mr. Goldsmith flagged, with a combined following of some 20 million, have been deleted, often coinciding with Facebook's purges of Russian- and Iranian-linked disinformation pages -- including a separate crackdown by the company last week on domestic actors.

The most recent suspensions included the page "Vets Before Illegals," with nearly 1.4 million followers, which Mr. Goldsmith's research showed had five page administrators in the U.S. as well as three in the Philippines and DcGazette, a page pushing conservative news that had attracted more than 400,000 followers.

Several of the pages Mr. Goldsmith has studied expressly catered to conservative audiences and frequently promoted divisive memes depicting President Trump favorably on issues involving veterans, illegal immigration and the National Football League. While posts didn't specifically discuss congressional candidates seeking election in next month's midterms, they often promoted Mr. Trump's 2020 reelection bid while disparaging Hillary Clinton as a criminal who deserved jail time.

But, based on his own research, he says the company needs to do much more. "They have a responsibility" to deal with manipulative accounts, Mr. Goldsmith says. "What you see on Facebook is your reality."

Mr. Goldsmith is part of a cottage industry of digital detectives investigating malfeasance on social media that extends beyond internet firms, journalists and academics to include ordinary citizens.

"They see me as a novice cybervigilante, and not someone with the reputation of a research university to back me up," Mr. Goldsmith said of Facebook. "Which, to be fair, is exactly the case."

What U.S. intelligence agencies say was a widespread effort by the Kremlin to influence the 2016 presidential elections -- and renewed warnings about attempts to influence the midterms -- have added urgency to their cause.

Facebook has vowed repeatedly to counter disinformation. Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg has called the effort an arms race, and said the company is banking on artificial intelligence to better detect manipulation campaigns.

The inner workings of Facebook's detection and takedown system remain opaque, making it hard to evaluate the effectiveness of its efforts -- even for those like Mr. Goldsmith, who has made it a mission to track webs of connected pages.

Lee Foster, who manages the internet firm FireEye's information operations intelligence analysis unit, a misinformation-tracking team, said his team of investigators often struggles to discern whether a Facebook page that appears fraudulent is a foreign-influence campaign, a financially motivated click farm, or something else.

Mr. Goldsmith's persistence and some help from congressional aides led to a phone call among him, Facebook and House Intelligence Committee staffers, and then a meeting at Facebook's office in Washington, D.C. Facebook has responded to some of his emails, but hasn't explained why some pages he has identified were removed while others remain or whether his research contributed to decisions to suspend certain pages.

The Facebook spokesman said veterans are among those who may be especially appealing targets to bad actors.

"Financially motivated scams, including romance scams, commonly rely on impersonating members of the public who are more likely to be considered trustworthy -- including members of the military, veterans, and other professionals," the spokesman said. "As a result, organizations like Vietnam Veterans of America are more likely to be targets of impersonation than most people on Facebook. We recognize this and are working to combat impersonation in a variety of ways."

One of Mr. Goldsmith's top concerns is that bad actors are determined to try to exploit veteran and law-enforcement communities. Mr. Goldsmith served more than three years in the Army, including combat in Iraq.

Researchers have identified veterans as a particular target of disinformation campaigns. A study from the University of Oxford in October 2017 found accounts tied to the Kremlin were targeting veterans and active military personnel on Facebook and Twitter with divisive political propaganda, likely because of their status as "influential voters and community leaders."

To Mr. Goldsmith's dismay, he has noticed that even friends and colleagues follow some of the pages he most distrusts.

One was Maureen Elias, who works on outreach and advocacy at Vietnam Veterans of America and unwittingly followed and then shared content from a page Mr. Goldsmith has pegged as bogus. She said she had followed the page only after seeing her own acquaintances following it.

"It makes me sick to my stomach to think I've shared content from these sites that target veterans and don't have our country's best interests in mind," said Ms. Elias, a 41-year-old Army veteran who specialized in counterintelligence. "It makes me feel even more foolish because I fell for this crap. Of all people, I should know better."

In addition to Facebook, Mr. Goldsmith has contacted at least 10 congressional committees and several federal agencies requesting help to investigate social media use by foreign actors that target veterans. The overtures largely were met with silence, though Mr. Goldsmith said he did hear back from some congressional committee staffers.

Mr. Goldsmith also has begun to examine suspect Twitter accounts. A Twitter representative told Mr. Goldsmith this month it had removed one account he had tracked, due to inactivity.

The representative declined to share information with Mr. Goldsmith about the origin of the account, but Twitter said to Mr. Goldsmith that his findings were promising and the company was interested in learning more. Twitter declined to comment.

After his initial discovery of the fake Vietnam veterans account on Facebook in August 2017, Mr. Goldsmith began noticing other Facebook pages that had no original content, that appealed to veterans, and that shared divisive memes, like one about African-Americans vandalizing veteran memorials. He logged examples of multiple pages sharing the same image and message -- minutes apart.

Some accounts have changed their names over time, testing what approaches garnered the most "likes" and follows. One he identified was named "Support Police Officer." It has more than 20,000 followers and posts American military and law-enforcement memes.

Using a Facebook feature that shows the history of a page's names, Mr. Goldsmith found that the page began in 2015 as "Europe, Balkan - Military Power" before changing to "Police & Military" and then "Support Police" before settling on its current name.

Another page, called "Nam Vets," links to a website whose domain is registered to a user in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, according to publicly available data.

Facebook in early September launched a new feature allowing users to see the country of origin for many, but not all, pages. Using this tool, Mr. Goldsmith found that of more than 100 suspicious, veteran-focused pages he had been following, over half had begun in a foreign country, and many in Vietnam, targeting Vietnam veterans.

"I've identified dozens of these pages, but it's already too late," Mr. Goldsmith said. "They're not just targeting the midterm election, they're targeting the electorate."

Write to Ben Kesling at benjamin.kesling@wsj.com

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