Marcus Laird has served in the United States Air Force. He presently works at Headquarters Air Force Reserve Command as a Strategic Plans and Programs Officer. He can be found on Twitter @USLairdForce. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group. Divergent Options’ does not contain official information nor is it affiliated with the Department of Defense or the U. S. Air Force. The following opinion is of the author only, and is not official Air Force or Department of Defense policy. This publication was reviewed by AFRC/PA, and is cleared for public release and unlimited distribution.
National Security Situation: Foreign Actors are using Social Media to influence Servicemember and Veteran communities.
Date Originally Written: December 2, 2021.
Date Originally Published: January 3, 2022.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The author is a military member who has previously researched the impact of social media on US military internal dialogue for professional military education and graduate courses.
Background: During the lead up to the 2016 election, members of the U.S. Army Reserve were specifically targeted by advertisements on Facebook purchased by Russia’s Internet Research Agency at least ten times. In 2017, the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) also detected social media profiles which were sophisticated mimics of their official web pages. These web pages were created for several reasons to include identity theft, fraud, and disseminating disinformation favorable to Russia. Further investigation revealed a network of fake personas attempting to make inroads within online military and veteran communities for the purpose of bolstering persona credibility to spread disinformation. Because these mimics used VVA logos, VVA was able to have these web pages deplatformed after two months due to trademark infringement.
Alternatively, military influencers, after building a substantial following, have chosen to sell their personas as a means of monetizing their social media brands. While foreign adversary networks have not incorporated this technique for building an audience, the purchase of a persona is essentially an opportunity to purchase a turnkey information operation platform.
Significance: Servicemembers and veterans are trusted voices within their communities on matters of national security. The special trust society places on these communities makes them a particularly lucrative target for an adversary seeking to influence public opinion and shape policy debates. Social media is optimized for advertising, allowing specific demographics to be targeted with unprecedented precision. Unchecked, adversaries can use this capability to sow mistrust, degrade unit cohesion, and spread disinformation through advertisements, mimicking legitimate organizations, or purchasing a trusted persona.
Option #1: Closing Legislative Loopholes
Currently, foreign entities are prohibited from directly contributing to campaigns. However, there is no legal prohibition on purchasing advertising by foreign entities for the purpose of influencing elections. Using legislative means to close this loophole would deny adversaries’ abuse of platforms’ microtargeting capabilities for the purpose of political influence.
Risk: Enforcement – As evidenced during inquiries into election interference, enforcement could prove difficult. Enforcement relies on good faith efforts by platforms to conduct internal assessments of sophisticated actors’ affiliations and intentions and report them. Additionally, government agencies have neither backend system access nor adequate resources to forensically investigate every potential instance of foreign advertising.
Gain: Such a solution would protect society as a whole, to include the military and veteran communities. Legislation would include reporting and data retention requirements for platforms, allowing for earlier detection of potential information operations. Ideally, regulation would prompt platforms to tailor their content moderation standards around political advertising to create additional barriers for foreign entities.
Option #2: Deplatforming on the Grounds of Trademark Infringement
Should a foreign adversary attempt to use sophisticated mimicry of official accounts to achieve a veneer of credibility, then the government may elect to request a platform remove a user or network of users on the basis of trademark infringement. This technique was successfully employed by the VVA in 2017. Military services have trademark offices, which license the use of their official logos and can serve as focal points for removing unauthorized materials.
Risk: Resources – since trademark offices are self-funded and rely on royalties for operations, they may not be adequately resourced to challenge large-scale trademark infringement by foreign actors.
Personnel – personnel in trademark offices may not have adequate training to determine whether or not a U.S. person or a foreign entity is using the organization’s trademarked materials. Failure to adequately delineate between U.S. persons and foreign actors when requesting to deplatform a user potentially infringes upon civil liberties.
Gain: Developing agency response protocols using existing intellectual property laws ensures responses are coordinated between the government and platforms as opposed to a pickup game during an ongoing operation. Regular deplatforming can also help develop signatures for sophisticated mimicry, allowing for more rapid detection and mitigation by the platforms.
Option #3: Subject the Sale of Influence Networks to Review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS)
Inform platform owners of the intent of CFIUS to review the sale of all influence networks and credentials which specifically market to military and veteran communities. CFIUS review has been used to prevent the acquisition of applications by foreign entities. Specifically, in 2019 CFIUS retroactively reviewed the purchase of Grindr, an LGBTQ+ dating application, due to national security concerns about the potential for the Chinese firm Kunlun to pass sensitive data to the Chinese government. Data associated with veteran and servicemember social networks could be similarly protected.
Risk: Enforcement – Due to the large number of influencers and the lack of knowledge of the scope of the problem, enforcement may be difficult in real time. In the event a sale happens, then ex post facto CFIUS review would provide a remedy.
Gain: Such a notification should prompt platforms to craft governance policies around the sale and transfer of personas to allow for more transparency and reporting.
Other Comments: None.
 Goldsmith, K. (2020). An Investigation Into Foreign Entities Who Are Targeting Servicemembers and Veterans Online. Vietnam Veterans of America. Retrieved September 17, 2019, from https://vva.org/trollreport/, 108.
 Ibid, 6-7.
 Gallacher, J. D., Barash, V., Howard, P. N., & Kelly, J. (2018). Junk news on military affairs and national security: Social media disinformation campaigns against us military personnel and veterans. arXiv preprint arXiv:1802.03572.
 Wertheimer, F. (2019, May 28). Loopholes allow foreign adversaries to legally interfere in U.S. elections. Just Security. Retrieved December 10, 2021, from https://www.justsecurity.org/64324/loopholes-allow-foreign-adversaries-to-legally-interfere-in-u-s-elections/.
 Air Force Trademark Office. (n.d.). Retrieved December 3, 2021, from https://www.trademark.af.mil/Licensing/Applications.aspx.
 Kara-Pabani, K., & Sherman, J. (2021, May 11). How a Norwegian government report shows the limits of Cfius Data Reviews. Lawfare. Retrieved December 10, 2021, from https://www.lawfareblog.com/how-norwegian-government-report-shows-limits-cfius-data-reviews.