Why Veterans Are Targeted by Radicals Online

Virginia National Guard Cpl. Jacob Fracker, left, and Army veteran Thomas Robertson, right
Virginia National Guard Cpl. Jacob Fracker, left, and Army veteran Thomas Robertson, right, were arrested in Virginia in connection with the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol. Fracker, who previously served in the Marine Corps, and Robertson are former members of the Rocky Mount Police Department. Photo via the Justice Department

Among the the Jan. 6 pro-Trump assault on the U.S. Capitol were veterans and active service members, highlighting a potential issue with extremism within the ranks.

This included Ashli Babbitt, a 35-year-old Air Force veteran, who was shot and killed by law enforcement at the Capitol during the insurrection. Following the attack, at least 12 National Guard members were booted off of the Capitol Hill security mission after investigators found them to have extremist ties. Jacob Fracker, an infantryman in the Virginia National Guard, was arrested after allegedly breaching the building with the mob; he was not on duty at the time.

At least 43 of the 357 individuals charged in relation to the insurrection as of March 31 had a military background, according to a review from the Combating Terrorism Center.

Kristofer Goldsmith, an Iraq War veteran who has been studying the issue for years, said there's no evidence that veterans are more or less susceptible to conspiracy theories or to delving into extremism. But they are uniquely targeted by disinformation campaigns because of their social influence and military training, he added.

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"Veterans are a force multiplier," Goldsmith said in an interview with Military.com. "There's no evidence to point to veterans being psychologically more vulnerable to being attracted to these groups. But veterans are economically efficient targets. If you convert them to believe what you want them to believe, [or] vote the way you want them to vote, [or convince them to] have a desire to commit violence against a population … you're also much more likely to take that person's family and immediate social network."

Goldsmith on Thursday launched Sparverius, a firm that analyzes domestic extremism. He said that extremists are growing more sophisticated, adding that modern leaders of far-right groups probably aren't what people imagine. They're often physically fit and financially successful, practice martial arts, and can be relatively well-read, he said.

He spends much of his time on radical message boards consuming extremist content in hopes of educating Congress, the media and potential clients about the dark corners of the internet.

Falling into extremism can be a slow and unassuming process, Goldsmith explained. Algorithms on websites like Facebook and Youtube can expose people to radical content, slowly converting them.

Even social media pages, TV shows and podcasts that are mainstream and generally inoffensive can have algorithms that create a breadcrumb trail to radical content, Goldsmith said. He likened such algorithms to drug dealers constantly recommending a stronger dose.

"You go to one place that's probably fine, that's like the drug dealer offering you a joint. You like it, and now that dealer, or algorithm, is offering more and more," he explained.

Veterans generally skew conservative and are more likely than the general population to be gun owners. Federal data shows that nearly half of all veterans own at least one firearm. That combination makes them prime targets for extremism, Goldsmith said, adding that mainstream right-wing media can slowly lead someone to more extreme media over time. He noted that there's nothing wrong with gun content or conservative media, but said extreme content and online conspiracy theories are often tied to otherwise unassuming material.

"I was clicking on ads for stuff like pistol grips," he said. "For the next few weeks I'm getting nothing but … not just ads for weaponry, but ads saying the world is ending and I need to prepare."

Goldsmith has spent years sniffing out extremism, online scams and disinformation. He has testified before Congress and published a 200-page report after a two-year investigation finding that foreign actors, most notably Russia, targeted veterans in 2016 election ads.

One example he found was a Facebook page called "Vets for Trump," which was run by foreigners and had 131,000 followers. It posted pro-Russian propaganda and anti-FBI content and frequently attacked top Democratic figures, he said.

The Defense Department published broad guidance for commanders to address extremism in their formations as they see fit. But the campaign to root out extremists has turned into a political minefield.

Republicans have all but dismissed concerns of white supremacy and other radical ideology concerns within the ranks, saying the Pentagon is pushing political correctness and policing thought.

-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.

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