Disinformation in the Evolving World of Cyberspace

Center for Cyber and Homeland Security Fellow Clint Watts discussed his new book and the manipulation of social media by Russia and other groups.

Clint Watts
CCHS Senior Fellow Clint Watts promoted his new book, "Messing with the Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians and Fake News," at GW. (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)
June 08, 2018

By B.L. Wilson

Entities that can aggregate individual’s personal data will define social media influence in the future, a senior fellow at the George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security (CCHS) said.

Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and terrorism expert who is also an analyst for NBC and MSNBC, said public relations firms, political campaigns and the global oligarchy would be among the groups vying for that influence.

That scenario will happen, he said, “if they can advance technology to harness that information so quickly that they can deliver the narrative that they know you want at the time you are most susceptible to it to advance their agenda.”

Mr. Watts was speaking Tuesday at GW during an event at the Marvin Center Amphitheater to promote his new book, “Messing with the Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians and Fake News.” The book examines the manipulation of information and propaganda wars being waged in social media.

CCHS Director Frank Cilluffo introduced Mr. Watts by tracing his association with him to the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point where he said he was impressed by Mr. Watt’s ability to impose structure on complex ideas.

“As much as technology changes, human nature remains consistent,” Mr. Cilluffo said, adding that he appreciated Mr. Watts’ “smarts” in understanding Russian adversaries and terrorists using social media. 

Mr. Watts said hackers were the first people to manipulate cyberspace. “It was all fun,” he said, but criminals quickly realized they were onto something. Next came terrorists seeking a larger audience, according to Mr. Watts. Though social media contributed to populist movements such as the Arab Spring and gave rise to al-Qaeda, he said, technology was also their undoing.

“The victory went to those who were best organized behind the scenes and had a ground game,” Mr. Watts said.

Nation states were the next generation to use social media to exercise influence, and no one has done it better than the Russians, according to Mr. Watts, because they’ve always understood information warfare better than Americans and other countries in the West.

“You can create a news source in a day,” he said. “You can create a new avatar in a second. You can make people look like and feel like the target audience, which is always the toughest challenge in influence.”

Even as Russians engaged in disinformation campaigns, he said, “social media nations” began to develop, based on filters and algorithms of preferences that feed us what consumers say they want.

“We were selective in choosing what we like and don’t like, what we retweet, what we forward and what we block,” he explained.

The risk he said is that the virtual nation may overtake the actual or physical nation. “The more people are tied more in hashtags, avatars, the way we saw with ISIS or even what we saw with our own political situation, the more dangerous it is,” Mr. Watts said.

In the conversation that followed, Mr. Cilluffo asked, “What can the government or social media companies do to push back?”

Mr. Watts said that “awareness is the first step.”

He said the Russian playbook has been less effective in Germany and France because people are now aware of it. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of Russians involved in trolling Americans on the internet during the 2016 political campaign also helped, he said, especially by providing specific examples of conversations that were intercepted during the investigation.

Mr. Watts said he is concerned that the U.S. government has not yet provided leadership around the issue or implemented a plan of action as it did with counterterrorism initiatives. Ultimately, he said, the response must come from Americans since the Russians have leapfrogged government and gone directly to the people.

“Victory in this fight will not come from the government. It will be civil society,” Mr. Watts said.

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James Clapper, former director of national intelligence, also called for social media regulation during a conference on disinformation and digital conflict at GW.