How our love for social media makes us vulnerable to terror and manipulation
"Messing with the Enemy,” gets its title from author Clint Watts’ use of social media as a counterterrorism measure. Watts, who is a West Point grad, has spent years “messing” with al-Qaeda, isis and other terrorist organizations in his work for the U.S. government and as a private consultant. He shows how terrorists have used Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Tumblr and other social media platforms to expand their propaganda and recruiting efforts. Watts uses those same platforms to counter their efforts and mess with the terrorists.
The book also explores Russia’s extensive efforts to use social media to interfere in multiple western democracies. A Russian campaign titled “Active Measures” is an effort to defeat the West “through the force of politics, rather than the politics of force.” According to Watts, Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, moved from trying to defeat the U.S. from the outside-in, toward collapsing the U.S. from the inside-out.
Putin’s propagandists have achieved stunning successes. Their tactics are being duplicated by authoritarian politicians everywhere “to overwhelm democratic audiences with waves of conflicting information — fake news — designed to manipulate audiences for a hidden puppet master.” Watts details the tactics employed, including troll armies (that drive wedge issues), honeypots (that try to compromise adversaries) and hackers (who hack to influence, not just to steal). Then there are bots: artificial accounts that emulate people and rapidly spread falsehoods.
A common Russian goal is to get people to question everything. Making us fearful is another goal, for fear lowers our ability to distinguish fact from fiction. Typically, the intent of Russian activists isn’t to necessarily take a side on an issue, but rather to sow discord. Thus, the Russians will take both sides of issues.
In his book, Watts defines terms: Overt Russian-sponsored state media is known as “white” propaganda. Media established in foreign countries by Russia is known as “gray” propaganda. “Black” propaganda includes covert actions by Russia to plant false stories that appear to come from a local source. Through these shady efforts, Russians share and recycle conspiracies, craft misinformation and redirect attention to mislead Americans and get us fighting with each other.
Russia has multiple broad goals. One is to shift focus from Russian’s own domestic issues toward Western social problems and the flaws of democracy. Another is to weaken support for the U.S. government and its institutions.
Putin is also trying to make Russia more popular within the U.S. and it’s worked well: Polls show that Putin’s favorability rating has increased 166 percent since 2015 among Republicans, and 92 percent among Independents. Among all Americans, Putin’s favorability has doubled in just two years, even though he has launched an assault against our democracy.
Russian operatives seek out so-called “useful idiots” — people who are ripe for influence and manipulation. Useful idiots are typically driven by fame and fortune. Donald Trump classically fits the bill. Russian efforts to sway the election focused on “creating and sustaining a narrative of corruption, criminality and conspiracy that clouded the Clinton campaign from start to finish.” Watts states that “the Russians didn’t have to hack the election machines; they hacked American minds.” Although Watts doesn’t believe that Trump won solely because of the Russians, he points out that their efforts were one of multiple factors leading to a Trump victory. Without Russia, Trump would not have won.
Russia continues its effort to divide Americans by engaging in campaigns to pit us against each other. They are doing the same in other Western democracies, including France, Germany and Britain.
As social media grows, more Americans get their news from social media than mainstream media. Consequently, fake news has exploded. Watts believes social media is tearing the world apart. As social media users, we indicate our preferences and create what Watts labels “preference bubbles.” We become digital tribes, sorting ourselves into our preference groups and making decisions based on groupthink. Russia sees this as a “dream come true” in that we voluntarily provide them all the information they need to manipulate us as they work to destroy our democracy.
So, what should one do? Watts stresses the obvious: Be very cautious when online. “Treat everything as if the whole world is watching” and thoroughly vet your online sources to avoid false news.
Reading Watt’s book put a pit in my stomach. Will America wake up to this threat to our democracy? Will Facebook and other social media companies finally step up to counter these attacks? Will our government force them to? Clearly that won’t happen with the Trump administration in charge.
Currently, we risk Russian attempts to capitalize on the divisions created from last week’s impeachment. Now more then ever, Americans are ripe for Russian influencing while Trump supporters and Trump haters devolve into even greater antagonism toward each other.
At a time when America needs to heal, Russia will do its best to sow hatred. Hopefully Republican members of Congress will be willing to work with Democrats to keep this from happening.
Read the full Dec. 25 - 31 issue.
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