When he testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week, former FBI agent Clint Watts described how Russians used armies of Twitter bots to spread fake news using accounts that seem to be Midwestern swing-voter Republicans.
"So that way whenever you're trying to socially engineer them and convince them that the information is true, it's much more simple because you see somebody and they look exactly like you, even down to the pictures," Watts told the panel, which is investigating Russia's role in interfering in the U.S. elections.
In an interview Monday with NPR's Kelly McEvers, Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, says the Russian misinformation campaign didn't stop with the election of President Trump.
"If you went online today, you could see these accounts — either bots or actual personas somewhere — that are trying to connect with the administration. They might broadcast stories and then follow up with another tweet that tries to gain the president's attention, or they'll try and answer the tweets that the president puts out," Watts says.
Watts, a cybersecurity expert, says he's been tracking this sort of activity by the Russians for more than three years.
"It's a circular system. Sometimes the propaganda outlets themselves will put out false or manipulated stories. Other times, the president will go with a conspiracy."
One example, he says, is Trump's claim that he was wiretapped at Trump Tower by the Obama administration. "When they do that, they'll then respond to the wiretapping claim with further conspiracy theories about that claim and that just amplifies the message in the ecosystem," Watts says.
"Every time a conspiracy is floated from the administration, it provides every outlet around the world, in fact, an opportunity to amplify that conspiracy and to add more manipulated truths or falsehoods onto it."
Watts says the effort is being conducted by a "very diffuse network." It involves competing efforts "even amongst hackers between different parts of Russian intelligence and propagandists — all with general guidelines about what to pursue, but doing it at different times and paces and rhythms."
The White House has blamed Democrats for the allegations of Russian interference in the U.S. election, saying the theory is a way to shift the blame for their election loss. But Watts says "it's way bigger" than that. "What was being done by nation-states in the social media influence landscape was so much more significant than the other things that were being talked about," including the Islamic State's use of social media to recruit followers, he says.
Gabe O'Connor is a production assistant with All Things Considered. You can follow him @Galacticmule.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
If the story of Russian influence in the 2016 election makes you uneasy, Clint Watts will not make you feel much better. The former FBI agent is now a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week. He says Russia had used people and bots to pump out fake news hoping to influence voters. And when I talked to him earlier today, he said Russian misinformation campaign did not stop with the election of President Trump.
CLINT WATTS: If you went online today, you could see these accounts - either bots or actual personas somewhere - that are trying to connect with the administration. They might broadcast stories and then follow up with another tweet that tries to gain the president's attention, or they'll try and answer the tweets that the president puts out.
MCEVERS: Can you give us an example of a recent account that did that or a piece of information that was sent that way?
WATTS: It's a circular system. Sometimes the propaganda outlets themselves will put out false or manipulated stories. Other times, the president will go with a conspiracy, for example, wiretapping. When they do that, they'll then respond to the wiretapping claim with further conspiracy theories about that claim. And then it just amplifies the message in the ecosystem.
MCEVERS: And you mean - when you say wiretapping, you mean the president's claim on Twitter that he was wiretapped at Trump Tower during the campaign by the Obama administration?
WATTS: Exactly. Every time a conspiracy is floated from the administration, it provides every outlet around the world, in fact, an opportunity to amplify that conspiracy and to add more manipulated truths or falsehoods onto it.
MCEVERS: So it sounds like just like this constant feedback loop? You don't even know where the conspiracy began at some point.
WATTS: That's right. You don't know where it started. You don't know if it comes from the administration or if the administration picked it up from another outlet, which is part of the debate if you remember back when that claim came out. Did he hear that inside the government, or did that actually come from his news feed? And it sounds like the latter, it came from his news feed.
MCEVERS: What is your sense of like how centralized this is? Is it coming from one place, or is it possible that it's very diffuse and coming from a lot of different places?
WATTS: I think it's a very diffuse network where you have competing efforts, even amongst hackers, between different parts of Russian intelligence and propagandas, all with general guidelines about what to pursue but doing it at different times and paces and rhythms.
MCEVERS: I was going to say, it sounds like it's diffuse perhaps at the guidance of a centralized power.
WATTS: Yeah. It's diffuse by design.
MCEVERS: How long have you been tracking this kind of activity by the Russians?
WATTS: A little over three years.
MCEVERS: I mean, did your gut tell you even early on that this is something really serious? You know, I know that the White House has said that this is just sour grapes by Democrats trying to explain why they lost an election. Do you think it's something bigger than that?
WATTS: It's way bigger. What was being done by nation states in the social media influence landscape was so much more significant than the other things that were being talked about. If you remember in 2014 and '15, we were talking about the Islamic State's rise and how they would use social media to recruit young people. That's how we came onto this.
But when we watched the sophistication, that's when we were really fascinated by what was going on. And it's hard to detect. And therefore, it's also hard for people to get really a good understanding of. And I'm glad to see that discussion come in today.
MCEVERS: And there are three investigations going on - the Senate Intelligence Committee, the House Intelligence Committee and of course at the FBI - of this issue of, of Russian influence in the U.S. elections. Do you have confidence in those investigations?
WATTS: I think I have confidence in two of the three. But I have to say, the Senate's Intelligence Committee when I testified last week was amazing. It was exactly what I think America needs and also what is expected of senators, which is to rise above and be that check and balance on the U.S. government.
And in terms of the FBI, I have complete confidence. Don't take silence for them being inept. That's very much untrue. What they do is they are deliberate. They gather facts. And they don't talk about it. They're not open about these discussions. And they don't reveal anything till they can make good conclusions.
MCEVERS: Clint Watts, former FBI agent and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Thank you very much.
WATTS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.