Don't let foreign adversaries turn Facebook against us

(U.S. Army photo)

Editor's Note: The following is an op-ed. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Task & Purpose.

Last week Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) shared with the country the findings of our two year investigation into foreign trolls who target troops and veterans online, which includes new evidence of foreign-born election interference related to the 2020 presidential campaign.

Macedonians took over and promoted a "Vets for Trump" Facebook page — spreading misinformation about voting along with racist and Islamaphobic propaganda, and engaging in Russian-style election interference, attacking democratic 2020 candidates.

Online entities from Russia, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Vietnam are persistently pretending to be our congressionally chartered veterans service organization — pushing hateful and divisive content alongside VVA-branded material that they're selling on websites which both scrape financial information from troops and veterans, and infect victims' computers with malware.

Trolls from Nigeria have a blossoming criminal empire that involves the identity theft of service members — names and photos of people who serve our country are then used as bait to lure elderly Americans into romance scams, costing some of them their life-savings, which has led several victims to suicide already.

This week, two more disturbing reports were released documenting the increasing dangers of predatory foreign entities online. Oxford University's Computational Propaganda Research Project showed us that at least 70 countries have experienced disinformation campaigns, and that the problem is growing.

Cisco's Talos Intelligence revealed that an imposter website made to look like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's "Hire Our Heroes" was infecting job-seeking troops and veterans' computers with a host of dangerous malware.

Despite the congressional hearings, the public demands for accountability, and the Mueller investigation — our 191-page report shows just how hostile foreign entities remain active on social media, spreading propaganda that we know was created by the Kremlin-connected Internet Research Agency, and continuing to spark conflict between Americans while earning a profit for doing so.

It's time for us to resist the foreign influence that makes us point fingers at our fellow Americans, and place blame squarely on the foreign entities who are turning American assets like Facebook and Twitter against us.

Service members and veterans, especially Vietnam veterans, remain a primary focus of these foreign-born disinformation and influence campaigns because, as a recent Oxford University study revealed, they're an economically efficient target for our adversaries. Veterans as a cohort are more likely to vote than the average American, and they've got a larger impact on the political beliefs of those around them than other demographics do.

Vietnam veterans are also part of the age demographic that's most likely to vote — and makes up the fastest-growing group of Facebook users. This age group is also more likely to click on and share both falsified news and links related to malware, as well as to fall victim to online financial scams.

That's why it's been necessary for VVA to have spent the last two years investigating and fighting against multiple entities from countries like Ukraine, Bulgaria and Vietnam who are persistent in their efforts to create online imposter accounts made to appear as if they are representative of our congressionally chartered veterans service organization.

While we need to hold Facebook and other social media companies responsible for the exploitation of their vulnerabilities, the federal government's primary focus should be outward and on deincentivizing the behavior of foreign groups seeking to disrupt our democracy and take advantage of Americans.

The State Department must prioritize working with foreign governments to ensure that cyber criminals who target Americans are interdicted by law enforcement wherever they are. Using a carrot-and-stick approach, America should offer assistance to bolster law enforcement in countries willing to prioritize the apprehension of cyber criminals abroad, and prepare biting sanctions against the internet infrastructure of countries who allow cyber criminals to operate uninhibited.

Facebook's motto used to be "move fast and break things." In 2014, the company changed it to the less-catchy "move fast with stable infrastructure" in recognition of the fact that with great power and influence comes a responsibility to prevent catastrophe.

As an American company with billions of users, Facebook ought to be concerned with protecting American values like truth, justice, and democracy across the globe — and preventing bad-actors from using the platform to create catastrophes both for individual targets of fraud and large-scale problems like election interference.

The power, influence, and responsibility that all social media companies have gives them a moral obligation to go further than simply closing accounts and pages found to be breaking their self-styled rules. They need to be working with law enforcement to get the criminals hiding behind the pseudonyms and anonymous avatars, and proactively work to purge their platform of known disinformation and Russian-generated political propaganda that remains online despite the takedown of their original sources.

Furthermore, social media companies and the federal government can't expect Americans' media-literacy and personal cyber-hygiene to improve without a massive organized effort. Private-public partnerships must be formed to educate the public so that they can more easily detect and reject falsified news and other internet scams.

With over 22 million veterans in the United States, the Department of Veterans Affairs would be the best place to pilot such a program. Considering that veterans remain a consistent target in cyber environments in large part because of their service to the nation, training should be offered at the VA alongside free cyber-security software.

Millions of veterans have already received identity theft insurance and credit monitoring as a result of the 2014 breach of the White House's Office and Personnel Management, which put at risk all of the information the U.S. government gathered for the purpose of issuing security clearances.

This information included names, social security numbers, address histories and more, and was allegedly obtained by a Chinese government-sponsored hacking group. While that information in the wrong hands will forever remain a liability hanging over the heads of affected troops, veterans, and other federal employees — Congress has only funded the insurance and credit-monitoring program through 2026.

Congress must make permanent these programs, as well as provide comprehensive cyber-security software which can help stop problems on the front-end rather than rely primarily on insurance to clean up after a successful attack.

American troops and veterans, especially from the Vietnam generation, didn't serve in uniform expecting to spend the rest of their lives as targets in a cyber-war, but that's where we are today. It's time for Americans to recognize the risks that we face as a result of hostile foreign entities online, to stop taking the bait by forming a circular firing squad.

We must face outward, and get our government and internet-based companies to respond effectively to protect us by imposing a cost on our foreign adversaries in cyber environments.

Kristofer Goldsmith is the chief investigator and associate director for policy and government affairs at Vietnam Veterans of America, a congressionally-chartered veterans service organization.

My brother earned the Medal of Honor for saving countless lives — but only after he was left for dead

"As I learned while researching a book about John, the SEAL ground commander, Cmdr. Tim Szymanski, had stupidly and with great hubris insisted on insertion being that night."


Editor's Note: The following is an op-ed. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Task & Purpose.

Air Force Master Sgt. John "Chappy" Chapman is my brother. As one of an elite group, Air Force Combat Control — the deadliest and most badass band of brothers to walk a battlefield — John gave his life on March 4, 2002 for brothers he never knew.

They were the brave men who comprised a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) that had been called in to rescue the SEAL Team 6 team (Mako-30) with whom he had been embedded, which left him behind on Takur Ghar, a desolate mountain in Afghanistan that topped out at over 10,000 feet.

As I learned while researching a book about John, the SEAL ground commander, Cmdr. Tim Szymanski, had stupidly and with great hubris insisted on insertion being that night. After many delays, the mission should and could have been pushed one day, but Szymanski ordered the team to proceed as planned, and Britt "Slab" Slabinski, John's team leader, fell into step after another SEAL team refused the mission.

But the "plan" went even more south when they made the rookie move to insert directly atop the mountain — right into the hands of the bad guys they knew were there.

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Conflict photographer Lynsey Addario's seen a hell of a lot of combat over the past twenty years. She patrolled Afghanistan's Helmand Province with the Marines, accompanied the Army on night raids in Baghdad, took artillery fire with rebel fighters in Libya and has taken photos in countless other wars and humanitarian disasters around the world.

Along the way, Addario captured images of plenty of women serving with pride in uniform, not only in the U.S. armed forces, but also on the battlefields of Syria, Colombia, South Sudan and Israel. Her photographs are the subject of a new article in the November 2019 special issue of National Geographic, "Women: A Century of Change," the magazine's first-ever edition written and photographed exclusively by women.

The photos showcase the wide range of goals and ideals for which these women took up arms. Addario's work includes captivating vignettes of a seasoned guerrilla fighter in the jungles of Colombia; a team of Israeli military police patrolling the streets of Jerusalem; and a unit of Kurdish women guarding ISIS refugees in Syria. Some fight to prove themselves, others seek to ignite social change in their home country, and others do it to liberate other women from the grip of ISIS.

Addario visited several active war zones for the piece, but she found herself shaken by something much closer to home: the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, South Carolina.

Addario discussed her visit to boot camp and her other travels in an interview with Task & Purpose, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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An Army staff sergeant who "represents the very best of the 101st Airborne Division" has finally received a Silver Star for his heroic actions during the Battle of the Bulge after a 75-year delay.

On Sunday, Staff Sgt. Edmund "Eddie" Sternot was posthumously awarded with a Silver Star for his heroics while leading a machine gun team in the Ardennes Forest. The award, along with Sternot's Bronze Star and Purple Heart, was presented to his only living relative, Sternot's first cousin, 80-year-old Delores Sternot.

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U.S. special operations forces are currently field testing a lightweight combat armor designed to cover more of an operator's body than previous protective gear, an official told Task & Purpose.

The armor, called the Lightweight Polyethylene (PE) Armor for Extremity Protection, is one of a handful of subsystems to come out of U.S. Special Operations Command's Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) effort that media outlets dubbed the "Iron Man suit," Navy Lieutenant Cmdr. Tim Hawkins, a SOCOM spokesman, told Task & Purpose on Wednesday.

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