Foreign Targeting of Veterans And Disinformation

The digital age has brought massive changes to how information is used, and consumed. Earlier, we devoted an entire article to examining the power of information in a digital age, and how businesses can learn from the 2016 elections how to digitally and ethically use information to their marketing advantage.

The lessons available to businesses about digital information are not restricted to the 2016 election, however. A new report from a veterans organization shows that disinformation and digital campaigns are still prevalent, offering lessons for businesses that hope to use digital marketing to promote their products and services. 

VVA Report Summary

In mid-September of 2019, Vietnam Veterans of America, an organization committed in part to addressing issues of interest to veterans, released a report examining the ways in which veterans are being targeted by misinformation. 

The report was the result of a 2-year look into suspicious social media activity impacting veterans in the D.C. area. Here is a brief look at some of the highlights of the report. 

  • Interference wasn't just Russian.

Instead, according to the report, moderators of suspicious social media pages often hailed from other nations as well, including Ukraine, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Iran. Often, multiple nations were represented within a single social media page. VVA concludes that “This cooperation suggests an international conspiracy possibly related to and larger than the previously reported Russian disinformation campaign.”

  • Interference was not limited to paid ads.

Instead, interference took the form of what the VVA referred to as “organic content.” This content took the form of fake accounts, fake social media pages, and the posts and comments from these accounts and pages.  

  • Many instances of disinformation mimicked legitimate organizations.

Often, the trolls and fake accounts tried to achieve an appearance of legitimacy by adopting names similar to legitimate organizations or by using the logo or images from these legitimate organizations. For example, VVA found multiple instances of social media pages and accounts using VVA's logo and name. 

  • Many instances of disinformation preyed on veterans.

Perhaps most striking was the fact that these instances of disinformation particularly impacted veterans. Fake accounts claimed to be veterans and infiltrated veteran groups. Some social media pages pretended to be focused on veterans. 

All of these tactics place veterans at risk. So persuasive were some of these efforts that fake accounts and pages often gained more than 100,000 followers. 

The VVA report highlights the security risks inherent in this foreign targeting of veterans. The organization used their report to call for more efforts federally, from social media channels, and others to identify and counteract these foreign efforts to target veterans

Lessons for Businesses

This use of digital information to target veterans is the latest in an unrelenting wave of disinformation that gained notice around the 2016 presidential election. At that time, the focus was on Russian efforts to spread contention and misinformation among the American people. This disinformation campaign had many similarities to the current targeting of veterans. For example:

  • Efforts targeted specific groups of people
  • Efforts used trolls to spread disinformation.
  • Efforts masqueraded as real people and posts, instead of just ads

However, the VVA report also highlights some troubling differences between the two. 

  • Efforts to target veterans came from multiple countries
  • Efforts to target veterans impersonated legitimate organizations
  • The use of digital means to spread disinformation is ongoing.

What is a business interested in digital marketing to make of this new information? In our previous article, we outlined the ways in which digital information can be used to help businesses grow and improve their online presence. The ongoing use of disinformation highlights the ongoing power of digital means to influence how people perceive the world.

For businesses that want to influence their target audiences, there are two big lessons to be learned from the VVA report. 

There is a need for trustworthy digital sources.

The proliferation of disingenuous sources and false information leaves people skeptical and unsettled. What they crave are reliable digital sources, places where they can get accurate information.

When businesses can deliver an online presence that is proven to be reliable and trustworthy, they meet one of the biggest needs among their target audiences. And, when people can trust what a business says, they are far more likely to develop loyalty toward that company. Honest, ethical, reliable digital marketing can be just what your customers need in an era when not every online source can be trusted. 

Targeted digital marketing is effective.

While the deceptiveness of disinformation campaigns is appalling, some of their strategies are effective even for honest businesses looking to develop a compelling online presence. While we address many of these strategies in our previous article about disinformation, there is one lesson that bears repeating in light of the VVA report: The effectiveness of targeting. 

The bad actors behind the disinformation campaigns aimed at veterans know that their objectives cannot be achieved if they try to reach everybody. Instead, they target a particularly desirable population, veterans. All of their online efforts are then dedicated toward reaching that population. 

This focus allows you to develop strategies and messages that are carefully crafted to elicit the response you want from your target audience. When your resources are devoted to a single audience, you can develop better marketing techniques that deliver a better ROI. Make sure you know your audience, and then deliver digital marketing that is designed to get a response.  

Digital marketing can be extremely successful, when used properly. Unfortunately, it can be used for either good or ill. While ethical marketers will avoid the deceptiveness of the disinformation campaigns that continue to populate the online sphere, they can also learn how to make their own, more honest, efforts, more successful. Through honest, accurate information, and targeted campaigns, they can win over new customers and improve brand awareness.

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