Messing with the Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians, and Fake News - Book Launch, Clint Watts

On Tuesday, June 5th, the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security (CCHS) hosted Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Center, and author a new book titled Messing with the Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians, and Fake News. Watts conversed with CCHS director Frank Cilluffo about the exploitative use of social media against the American people, and engaged in Q&A with the audience.
Mr. Watts began the discussion by expanding on several of the main points he addresses in his book.  He finds that, although social media allows threats to be tracked in a distinctively different way, it also allows the United States to be targeted in a fundamentally new way: a threat actor can influence an audience using trolls, or automated social media accounts (most commonly through Twitter), that amplify fake news by aggressively re-posting or sharing links. 
Mr. Watts then introduced and expanded upon the concept of “filter bubbles,” which are algorithmic systems that feed us back the content that we want to see, based on the things that we self-select through our own likes, retweets, followers, etc. on social media. Mr. Watts addressed three new important threats that these filter bubbles create. First, in our follower-driven world, those with the largest audience (or the “most selected”), have a disproportionate influence on society. This is known as “click-bait populism.” Second, the creation of “social media nations” has shifted the way that people identify. Traditional qualifiers relating to politics, such as democrat or republican, are no longer as potent, while identities from social media associations have gained more relevance.  As virtual identities and relationships become stronger and more important relative to the identity/relationships founded upon and within the physical nation-state, cognitive dissonance arises, as many are unsure where their identities lie. Third, the death of expertise is occurring as those who control these bubbles’ audiences control the narrative. They create their own facts and “research” to support their claim—and without leaving the bubble, there is no evidence within, that these are false.
During their discussion, Mr. Cilluffo observed that it is “easy to destroy something, but hard to build something up.”  Mr. Watts agreed and elaborated that the US cannot use the same techniques that the Russians have used in order to combat them.  Using the same techniques in cyberattacks would lead to an “erosion of trust and confidence” among the American people, which would weaken the US in the long term.
Mr. Watts is not worried about what Russia is going to do in 2018, but rather, what other states or non-state actors trying to employ similar techniques to influence their audience, will do. Public relations firms, political campaigns, and other groups that operate by working to influence their audience, may take advantage of these techniques. In this context, Mr. Watts emphasized the importance of the citizenry.  He believes that “victory in this fight will not come from the government, it will be in civil society.” This is in part because the US does not currently have a consistent message that it would use to counter the information that Russia (or others) propagate.
In closing, Mr. Watts described some of what he would like to see in the future to help combat the flurry of disinformation from Russia and other malicious actors.  Although he believes that the future is in the hands of civil society, he believes the US government needs a plan and some sort of action to encourage civil society to move forward.  He believes that with direction and leadership, we will be able to enact change.  Mr. Watts also emphasized the importance of a “Consumer Reports” type of analysis and rating of news outlets, given the volume of disinformation that is circulating.  With some sort of rating system for reliability in place, the capacity to discern disinformation would be available to the public—if people wish to proceed in their bubble, they can, “but that is ultimately on you.”
Summary prepared by Thomas Dameris and Caroline Ritchey