3-Star: We Must Combat Russian Attempts to Influence Troops Online

A Marine works on his laptop
A Marine works on his laptop during the Cyber Guard 2017 exercise June 13, 2017. (U.S. Cyber Command photo/Dennis Herring)

Russian misinformation efforts are reaching into the military ranks, and it appears to have led some to view the country as more friend than foe.

A survey released last month shows that nearly half of military households -- 46% -- polled by the Reagan National Defense Survey in October said they view Russia as a U.S. ally. Last year, more than a quarter of active-duty households polled in the organizations annual survey said they had an unfavorable view of NATO.

The survey is commissioned by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to promoting the legacy of the late commander in chief. Voice of America first reported on the 2019 findings.

Marine Lt. Gen. Lori Reynolds is one of the top Pentagon leaders working on policies and strategies for operating in the information space. That includes what Russia might be doing to influence troops and their families on social media, smartphone apps and other sites.

Related: US Troops Using Russia-Connected FaceApp Urged to Be Cautious

"We need to do a better job of making sure that Marines of all ranks are understanding what the strategic environment really is," she told reporters at the Pentagon last week. "Our Marines are going to be victims of what's happening in the information environment as well as anybody else."

U.S. intelligence agencies found that Russia used sophisticated misinformation methods to influence the 2016 election. Kristofer Goldsmith, a chief investigator with Vietnam Veterans of America, has researched Russia's reach with the military and veteran communities.

His findings are detailed in a 192-page report called "An Investigation Into Foreign Entities Who Are Targeting Servicemembers and Veterans Online." It includes alarming examples of full veteran brands being created online -- only they're fake and managed outside the U.S.

One example Goldsmith detailed in his report was the "Being Patriotic" Facebook page with hundreds of thousands of followers that regularly posted divisive political memes under the guise of supporting troops.

But as Goldsmith notes in his investigation, the page was managed by a troll agency based in Russia that sought to spread that country's political and business interests. The "Being Patriotic" page was also cited in Robert Mueller's report on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

"When Russia creates, say, a fake Facebook page, they aren't only creating that single entity -- they're also creating supportive websites that look like news and reporting websites," Goldsmith said. "They create and use the same brand, so in the same way the Marines are really good at branding and having consistency across platforms and every piece of material that they produce, the Russians have also been really good at creating brands that over time ... become trusted."

Goldsmith has alerted both the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs to his findings on Russian influence among the active-duty and veteran populations. U.S. Cyber Command has been in touch with him since, he said, but follow-on action has been slow.

The Defense Department did not respond to questions from Military.com about foreign attempts to influence service members, the Reagan National Defense Survey poll results about favorable views of Russia, Goldsmith's report, or steps being taken to counter Russia's efforts.

Reynolds said training can't just start and end around an exercise. Marines must understand that threats in the information environment never end -- they are persistent and widespread, she said.

"People think Russia is a good guy, so how do we teach people?" Reynolds asked. "This is a whole-of-government issue that people need to understand. The environment has changed, and warfare has changed. ...The conditions are being set right now whether we want to accept it or not."

Goldsmith said Americans need to acknowledge Russia's efforts to influence U.S. elections and be more responsible about sharing and spreading false information.

"It is deeply offensive when someone thanks me for my service or defending democracy when I went to Iraq and then in the same breath will deny Russian major interference in our elections," said Goldsmith, a former soldier. "The core of American society is our democracy, our Constitution. The very sanctity of our American elections is the most important thing to maintaining our democracy."

People don't like to admit that they're duped and alert their followers that they've shared something that wasn't what it seemed, he said. While he'd like to see social media sites do more to show who's behind certain accounts, he said troops and veterans can do more to check their sources.

On Facebook, for example, he recommends checking the page transparency to see where the information is originating. That will tell users whether the posts are originating in the U.S. or a foreign country.

The military could also consider more widespread phone hygiene checks, Goldsmith said.

"As much as it might suck to have to show the Army your Twitter feed, he said, "frankly we've reached a stage where, if it keeps our soldiers safe, we should start making sure that their cyber hygiene is up to par."

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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