Clint Watts (@selectedwisdom) is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a Senior Fellow at the Center For Cyber and Homeland Security at The George Washington University, and author of Messing with the Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians, and Fake News.

What We Discuss with Clint Watts:

  • How our own cognitive biases are manipulated in an effort to destabilize trust in each other and our very way of life.
  • How hostile entities like ISIS and Al-Qaeda use social media for propaganda and recruitment.
  • Why Western governments can’t, even with their relatively infinite wealth of resources, beat ragtag Somali Twitter pirates and ISIS shills.
  • How bias creates social media bubbles, what forms they take, and why this is dangerous.
  • How we can fix these issues or at least mitigate the effect they have on our lives.
  • And much more…

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Messing with the Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians, and Fake News by Clint WattsWhile the Internet’s been around for a while now, does it seem like it’s just recently become a force powerful enough to sow real-life division among friends and family in a way that beats Thanksgiving dinners, baseball games, and Black Friday sales — combined? It’s not just your imagination, and it’s not an accident — it’s by design.

In this episode, Messing with the Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians, and Fake News author Clint Watts offers a devastating and essential look at the misinformation campaigns, fake news, and electronic espionage operations that have become the cutting edge of modern warfare — and how we can protect ourselves and our country against them. Listen, learn, and enjoy!

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The shocking reality of social media, as we learned in our recent conversation with Jaron Lanier, is that it can be used to manipulate human perception and behavior in ways even its creators are only now beginning to understand.

Fake news, for all its coverage by the real news, is spread far and wide by weaponized social media — the guerilla warfare of an outfinanced enemy. It’s not sophisticated, and anybody can wield it to unleash untold damage instantly. Just ask former FBI agent and Messing with the Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians, and Fake News author Clint Watts.

“The idea of social media — and why it’s such an efficient way for good people or bad people to reach an audience — is it’s designed to give people what they want,” says Clint.

Clint recognizes the work done by Eli Pariser in his book The Filter Bubble, in which the power of algorithms to hide or reveal content based on what we search for is examined. But Clint has expanded this idea into what he calls a preference bubble — controlled in part by these unseen algorithms, but ultimately steered by our own conscious inclinations — which makes interference by outside forces especially potent.

“It’s really about your preference…you are choosing — over and over and over — things that you like. The system is designed to give you more of what you like. And you’re blocking out that which you don’t like, which…puts you in alternative realities. So you have shared perception, but not shared reality.

“Whether you’re a terrorist, or a Russian disinfo [agent], or a mass manipulator like we’ll see going into the 2020 election, you want to inculcate your audience in a world that you control based on what they believe is their own choice.”

In essence, we’re more easily manipulated by these nefariously calculating outside forces through social media and online platforms because they’re infiltrating our isolated bubbles of reinforced personal beliefs and swaying us with ideas we think are our own.

“You…take it on even more because, ‘I’m liberated! I’m choosing all this!’ But you don’t know that behind the scenes, whoever’s paying for the advertising, whoever’s pushing the products, whoever’s changing the words, whoever’s delivering you the video that you need to see — that’s specially edited or deep faked or whatever it might be — is manipulating you in some way.”

Clint points out that the potential for this type of abuse is even greater in highly populous and politically volatile third world countries.

“You’re talking about populations that have gone from no news or very minimal news or friend and family circles to mobile-enabled social media where the source of information is not actually a source, it’s their friend or family and they have trust based on communal relationships.”

In Myanmar, military personnel spread anti-Muslim sentiment through fake Facebook accounts and pages systematically over the course of several years in an effort to facilitate a mission of ethnic cleansing. As a result, more than 700,000 Muslim refugees have fled the country to escape a particularly convincing wave of completely fabricated fearmongering.

According to The New York Times, “One of the most dangerous campaigns came in 2017, when the military’s intelligence arm spread rumors on Facebook to both Muslim and Buddhist groups that an attack from the other side was imminent, said two people. Making use of the anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, it spread warnings on Facebook Messenger via widely followed accounts masquerading as news sites and celebrity fan pages that ‘jihad attacks’ would be carried out. To Muslim groups it spread a separate message that nationalist Buddhist monks were organizing anti-Muslim protests.”

Lest we kid ourselves into smugly believing the first world is immune to such large-scale and seemingly transparent manipulations, many people (some occupying top positions of power in the United States) still believe there was widespread celebration in the Middle East when the Twin Towers fell on 9/11 — though this “fact” has long since been discredited.

And where does Clint stand on the moral equivalency argument that, even though there’s evidence Russians deliberately interfered in the 2016 US presidential election, Americans are just as guilty of interfering in the elections of other countries?

“I’ve worked in the US government or with them for decades,” says Clint, “and I’ve never seen anything like what the Russians did. I’ve never seen Americans hack thousands of innocent Russians or any country, spill their secrets out timed in order to win the election by advancing it through bogus social media accounts that look like and talk like Russian people for candidates that we have picked along with the propaganda outlet that is pumping information into their population. I’ve not seen that.”

Listen to this episode in its entirety to learn more about how governments and interests hostile to Western interests churn out disinformation campaigns and what they aim to gain in the process, why the United States can’t utilize similar tactics, evidence of online trolling’s real-world effects, how even dating apps can be used for social engineering by nefarious sources, what we can do to defend against such manipulation, and much more.


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