Messing with the Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians, and Fake News.
By Clint Watts
Review by E. Phil Morgan
Clint Watts MAIPS ’05, has two objectives in his new book, Messing with the Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians, and Fake News: to chronicle the evolution of how bad actors are using social media platforms, and to identify the processes by which the illusion of increased preferences and choices actually influences the erosion of democratic norms.
A former military officer and FBI special agent who found himself in the world of counterterrorism before and after two years at MIIS in the mid-2000s, Watts became the operations manager of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. There he worked with a team trying to understand the canny ways in which terrorists communicated and recruited converts from the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s to ISIS in 2013–14. The structure of the book reveals the experimental methodology by which he tried to get into the heads of individual terrorists in his private time via email and later online to have direct conversations. These efforts complemented collective efforts to understand how quickly various jihadi groups adopted new communications methods. Bin Laden used print and audiotapes to build networks; al-Qaeda in Iraq used Yahoo Groups, private forums, websites, and online video; al-Shabaab in Somalia quickly moved on to social media; while ISIL and ISIS developed multiplatform social media and even their own apps.
It soon became clear that the Islamic jihadis were not the only ones using social media to troll foreign institutions and project disinformation. Before the Russians invaded Crimea in 2014, the chief of the general staff issued a policy shift on how warfare was to be conducted—less on battlefields and more in the cyber world. They cited the very success of social media by actors in the Arab Spring countries in mobilizing activists. The Russian media network RT and the military GRU activated information programs and collected data on political candidates, parties, and donors.
Watts moved out of government work and into consulting and writing in order to raise the alarm directly with the public and the Congress that the U.S. government was not very good at information warfare. He offers a solid analysis of how social media creates the illusion of choice through what he calls “preference bubbles” that lead to the hardening of beliefs and actions instead of debate and compromise. He calls this process “social inception.” “A hidden elite core will social engineer an unwitting crowd into choosing the policies, politics, and preferences of this elite …” This will occur via the very mapping exercises the FANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Alphabet, formerly Google) now use to collect data on one’s purchases, entertainments, chats, posts, and pictures.
How to counter these trends? Watts suggests a Consumer Report–type evaluation to certify a given media outlet along two measures: “fact versus fiction in the content it produces, and subjective opinion versus objective reporting.” He also suggests pushback using methodology he developed to communicate with bad actors: “target a troll, prank it, troll back, feed it misinformation, and otherwise trap it in an information battlefield where things are only partly what they seem.”
Middlebury Institute alumnus and counterterrorism expert Clint Watts testified before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on March 30 regarding Russian efforts to influence the U.S. presidential election.