Russia is trying to tear apart America’s veteran community. Don’t let them

Vultures' Row
Russian President Vladimir Putin (The Kremlin)

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.

A recent report from the Vietnam Veterans of America says that American vets are targeted by Russians and other adversarial governments online. Specifically, there are many Facebook pages and other social media catering to vets that are really operated by foreign entities.

Some may ask, so what? If the pages are fun, why does it matter who runs them? The intelligence officer in Moscow isn't running a Facebook page for American veterans because he has an intense interest in motivational t-shirts and YouTube rants in pickup trucks.

He's doing it to undermine the political and social fabric of the United States.

Veterans who interact with these fabricated sites aren't just filling their idle moments online. Wittingly or not, they're helping enemies of the United States accomplish their strategic goals.

Although Russia's military budget is barely a tenth of the United States', over the past couple of years, it has seen NATO disrupted and weakened more than the Warsaw Pact ever could have hoped. It has seen the American government become mired in chaos. It has accomplished all of that without sacrificing a single soldier.

Veterans aren't the only targets of Russian influence operations. Those efforts have been extraordinarily successful at finding fissures of all types in American society. Russians shove wedges into those fissures to split Americans apart. They've posed as both right-wing racists and as Black Lives Matter activists. They'll even pose as the worst of one group to instigate the worst elements of another and vice versa.

But regular civilians never took oaths to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

Vets did, and they should know better. The social status of vets is such that their posts have more credibility than most, so when a vet shares a fake story, it achieves an immense force multiplier effect for the foreign agent who planted it.

The Vietnam Veterans of America report gives plenty of ideas for corrective action to social media companies, the Defense Department, and the Department of Veterans Affairs. They all have their responsibilities in fixing this problem, but ultimately the responsibility to prevent vets from being exploited lies with veterans themselves.

It's very difficult to determine whether a particular site is being run by a foreign adversary simply by looking at it. But it's very easy to keep from being complicit with the goals of those adversaries. There are many methods to avoid fake news. Consider the source, the site quality, and use reputable fact-checking websites to confirm what it says.

But there's a bigger picture here: know your enemy. America's enemies want to instigate fights between us by appealing to the lowest elements of human emotions so that veterans share news that confuses and memes that divide. If you see a news story or meme that seems as if it was specifically written to outrage you and make you want to share it with all your friends, it probably was.

As urgent as you might think it is to alert the widest possible audience about this incredible story or meme about how crazy those transgender feminist vegan hipsters are, it can probably wait another five minutes, or forever. If it's a story, take those five minutes to see if it's somewhere on a reputable news source, and by reputable, I mean the kind that has a big sign on an office building in a major city, not one that has banner ads for all-natural male enhancement pills. If it's a meme, think about whether it's designed to spread hate or division.

A "ha ha" is appropriate. If it's an "I bet this will trigger…," then perhaps you should slow your roll.

Whether it's foreign in origin or not, obeying those rules would make this country a better place, and isn't that what we as veterans are supposed to do? As much as Russian social media efforts have become a referendum on Trump, their goals transcend any individual candidate. They don't really care about Ds and Rs. They just want America's people and government to be fighting amongst themselves.

Whether we wear red hats or rainbow flags, as Americans and veterans, we can agree that whichever direction we want this country to go, it's not toward hate and chaos.

Carl Forsling is a senior columnist for Task & Purpose. He is a Marine MV-22B pilot and former CH-46E pilot who retired from the military after 20 years of service. He is the father of two children and a graduate of Boston University and The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter @CarlForsling

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