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Russia hacked U.S. minds and undermined democracy, author says

“Russian trolls were different from normal trolls,” says Clint Watts, a former U.S. government intelligence analyst who observed how Russia deployed a campaign of disinformation to discredit Hillary Clinton and help elect Donald Trump. Nick Schifrin talks with Watts, author of "Messing With the Enemy," about what Americans can do to withstand future attempts by Russia to meddle in democracy.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, the combination of Russian meddling and social media and the effect on the 2016 election.

    Nick Schifrin reports on how they became a combustible mix.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Judy, thank you.

    Last year, the U.S. intelligence community concluded that, in 2016, Russia launched a campaign of disinformation to discredit Hillary Clinton and help elect Donald Trump.

    One of the sharpest analysts of Russia's so-called active measures is former U.S. government intelligence analyst Clint Watts, who, almost one year ago, testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

  • Clint Watts:

    Part of the reason active measures have worked in this U.S. election is because the commander in chief has used Russian active measures at times against his opponents.

    But until we get a firm basis on fact and fiction in our own country, get some agreement about the facts, whether it be, do I support the intelligence community or a story I read on my Twitter feed, we're going to have a big problem.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That problem continues today, and Watts has advised the Senate Intelligence Committee on its investigation into Russian meddling.

    He's also written a new book, "Messing with the Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians, and Fake News."

    And Clint Watts joins me here in the studio.

  • Clint Watts:

    Thanks for having me.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thanks very much.

    I want to get to today in a second, but let's go back to 2014. You're investigating terrorists. In fact, you're actually talking to some terrorists. And that's when you first encounter Russian trolls. Tell us about that.

  • Clint Watts:

    Yes. Russian trolls were different from normal trolls.

    I think everybody gets trolls if you're on social media, but they tend to not stick around forever. They — they're motivated usually whenever you're talking. But this was continuous.

    When you looked at the accounts, they were sharing basically the same message. They would share the same content or links. And they also looked to be almost uniformly have spread around the world and they would talk all hours of the night.

    And so it was the first time I saw this sort of sustained and persistent campaign that was — that looked larger, but when you really got to the core of it was just a few small actors. And that's when I knew I was on to something very different from the terrorism sort of field I had been looking at before.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And fast forward to 2016. Russia launched what you call the most sophisticated hacking campaign in world history. But they weren't only hacking our computers.

    They were hacking, you write, our minds. What do you mean?

  • Clint Watts:

    They were hacking to gain compromising information on targets, so that they could dump it out in the open and then use that in social media to influence people towards a particular policy position.

    This was very different. There was a lot of different targets in the U.S. and in the E.U., political parties, media personalities, anyone that was an opponent of Russia. And it was such a wide scale that it gave them really the ammunition, the nuclear fuel to power those narratives going into 2016.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You think that it was successful. And, in fact, you specifically write that Putin, that Russia helped give Trump Michigan and Wisconsin and, therefore, the presidency. What's your proof of that?

  • Clint Watts:

    Just from my analysis of watching it and looking at the votes. Essentially, those were the two closest contests in the United States.

    Those two states were states that Russia may very well have won because of several different factors. One, Bernie Sanders performed better than Hillary Clinton during the primaries in those two states, which was a surprise. The narrative that Bernie Sanders got a raw deal from the DNC came 100 percent from a Russian action.

    They stole the DNC's records. They leaked that action. And they powered that narrative. The other thing that we need to look at is, those are two Democratic states that have really turned towards a pro-Trump narrative. And even in the case of Jill Stein, you saw a lot of people show up to vote there.

    So, in a very close contest, the Russians can actually tip a state or two very easily because the margin is only 1 percent on any given Election Day.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Do you think the Russians will try it again this year?

  • Clint Watts:

    No, I don't think they have anything they really want, beyond sustaining audience and sustaining influences.

    The one thing we should know is Russia never got in the game to win one election or put one candidate forward. The idea was to undermine democracy, to make Americans lose confidence in democratic institutions and elected officials by turning every crack in our country into a chasm and pitting different race, ethnic groups, religious groups, socioeconomic groups, Second Amendment, abortion rights, whatever it might be where we fight, instead of being a unified front against them.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And that's one of the most important conclusions.

    You write that not only is there a threat to democracy outside, but it actually comes from inside. The threat is from America itself. So, how should America protect itself, not only from Russia or any outside influence, but also I think what you call narrow-mindedness?

  • Clint Watts:

    Yes.

    The biggest challenge we face moving forward isn't the Russians. It's really other Americans who see this technique and see the political gain that can come from it and adopt it on their own, meaning they come up with their own news outlets which maybe aren't telling the truth, but tell a truth that is preferred.

    We have started looking for alternative facts. We have to have a baseline of fact and fiction in this country, or you can't have political debate. We can't go to Congress and have good policies because we don't even agree what's actually happening in the real world.

    The reason social media influence works is because of bias. One, we go to social media for confirmation bias. We want to read things that confirm what we already believe.

    The second part is implicit bias. We like getting information from people that look like and talk like us. The Russians understood this very well. Tell people what they want to hear, and look like them, and they were more likely to take it, whether it's true or not.

    So, a way to get around that is to help the consumer. Rather than trying to have the government regulate everything or even have social media companies trying to determine what is good or bad news, is to create an independent rating agency that rates on two sort of axes.

    The first one is fact vs. fiction. What is — a rating period, how do they perform over time? And the other one is opinion vs. reporting. It's very hard on social media to know, is this an opinion article that I'm receiving or is this actually a reported article?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, lastly, a lot of people fall for fake news, including you. You admitted it, that you fell for fake news. Can you tell us the story about your daughter?

  • Clint Watts:

    Yes.

    I had a daughter who was severely autistic. When she was a small kid, the big theory then was if you have too many shots — or too many shots in a row or all on the same day, your child will get autism.

    And so I actually worked to space out my daughter's shots to make sure that she wouldn't get autism. Now, going into all the research now, that's been completely debunked. But I wanted to believe. You know, I wanted — that's my confirmation bias. I wanted to believe I could protect her.

    Implicit bias. I was talking to my friends who were also concerned about this, so I started to invest in it. And I chose news and information and outlets that were conspiracies, that weren't actually true. They weren't well-vetted.

    And so I think it's important for everyone to just admit that anyone can fall for false information, not to take it personal and try and double down and prove that you're right, but be open to the fact that, yes, anyone can be duped, and try and do better next time.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Clint Watts, thank you very much.

  • Clint Watts:

    Thank you.

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