Posts Tagged ‘Clint Watts’

Surviving in a Social Media World

December 20, 2019

The title of this post is the title of the final chapter in Messing with the Enemy an excellent book by Clint Watts. Go to Starbucks or any public space. The customers heads are down, peering at smartphones; rarely do eyes meet. Customers might stand in the same line with the same people hundreds of times each year and never utter a word or even remember each other’s faces.

HM attends professional conferences on psychonomics (cognitive psychology), the America Psychological Association, the American Psychological Society, and Human Factors and Ergonomics. Professionals come from all over the world to attend these conferences and to learn from other professionals with shared interests. HM sees groups of people, sitting together peering down at their smartphones. During talks, many are not looking at the speaker or the slides but are peering down at their smartphones.

Robert Putnam, in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, further defined the social capital concept pioneered by Tocqueville, dividing it into two types: bonding and bridging. Bonding capital involves Americans associating with people similar to themselves. Bridging capital comes when we make friendships and associations with people unlike ourselves. Putnam argued that these two types of capital, when combined together, power American democracy. The decline of bridging capital that is occurring signals an ominous future for the United States.

After publication of this book, Putnam not only defended his thesis, but worked to identify solutions for increasing American social capital. In 2001 his Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey sought to discover approaches for increasing social capital but instead revealed more troubling indicators for American society. The study noted: “Our survey results makes clear the serious challenges of building social capital in a large, ethnically diverse community. The more diverse a community in our study, the less likely its residents are: to trust other people…to connect with other people, even informally…to participate in politics…to connect across class lines.”

Watts writes, “Democracy dies in preference bubbles. That’s it, there’s no way for Americans to communicate, debate, compromise, and thrives as these bubbles diverge and insulate themselves from challengers. The United States, if it stays on this trajectory, ultimately may not endure. I’ve explored social media preference bubbles in great detail, but they drive physical-world preference bubbles as well. We all increasingly live in places where we walk like, talk like and look like one another. Members of the same social media preference bubbles move to places where they can reside with like-minded people who share the values, ethnicity, identity, and lifestyle of their social media nationalism. The Islamic State, while seen as extreme in the West, provides an early example of this phenomenon. Social-media-induced fantasies led young Muslims, entire families of women and children, to voluntarily move to a war zone in Syria and Iraq—the digital tail wagged the physical dog.”

Watts writes,”I’ve offered some thoughts on how the U.S. government can protect American against Russian interference, but the threat to democracy comes not from Russia but from America. The U.S. government will not save Americans from their preference bubbles, and since the election we’ve seen not just Russian active measures attempting to destroy our democracy, but American active measures tearing down our institutions. It will take Americans fighting for their own democracy to fend off the social media manipulators, the hidden core, who seek to hear them and coalesce them into a movement outside of their control and only partly of their own design. Public and civil society must come together, leaders must emerge, and civil society must be rebuilt—on the ground, not online”

Watts says the retired General Stanley McChrystal’s recommendation of a national service, beyond the military, would be an excellent way to bring citizens together through common cause and shared values. Here HM strongly concurs. HM was drafted and served two years. Initially this was regarded as a burdensome obligation. But it turned out to be, perhaps, the most rewarding two years of his life. HM worked for NCOs, who were black. One of his best friends was a poor white from Louisiana. He was so poor that he had plates of artificial teeth. When inducted his teeth were so rotten that they all needed to be removed. This was not an uncommon experience for new draftees. Absent the draft, HM’s chances of meeting, much less befriending, such individuals were virtually nil. Watts writes, “Ultimately real-world physical relationships will be the only way to defeat the online troll armies tearing democracies apart.

Watts and his colleagues have proposed the equivalent of Consumer Reports should be created for social media feeds. Information Consumer Reports would be an independent, nongovernmental rating agency that evaluated news outlets across all types of media during a rating period. Outlets would receive marks based on their performance as assessed on two principal axes: fact versus fiction in the content it produces, and subjective opinion versus objective reporting.

Watts notes that Finland fought Soviet disinformation for years, and Russian resurgence in this space led the Finns to develop a coordinated plan and trained personnel to deflect propaganda. They’ve also invested heavily in good public education, equipping their citizens not only to assess incoming information, but also to recognize falsehoods because they understand how their own government institutions and processes work. Americans enraged by WikiLeaks dumps, shouting claims of corruption or collusion, actually know little about the operation of the branches and the electoral process. Civic classes alone could enable Americans to better spot falsehoods.”

Watts also writes, Social media users can take several steps to survive in the modern social media world. First, and above all, ask whether the benefits of using social media outweigh the costs, and even if the answer to that question is yes, try to use social media less.”

HM blog readers should recognize this as a recommendation repeatedly offered in this blog.

From Preference Bubbles to Social Inception:

December 18, 2019

The title of this post is identical to half of a title in Messing with the Enemy an excellent book by Clint Watts. The second half of the title is “The Future of Influence.” In previous posts HM has mentioned the tremendous optimism regarding the internet that was written in this blog when it began in 2009. Physical boundaries no longer mattered. People passionate about chess, cancer research, or their favorite television shows could find like-known enthusiasts around the world wanting to share their thoughts and experiences. Those under oppressive regimes, denied access to information and the outside world, could leverage the web’s anonymity to build connections, share their experiences, and hope for a better world, either at home or elsewhere. All these sources of knowledge became widely available for those with growth mindsets.

Unfortunately, hackers and cybercriminals were some of the first actors to exploit the internet in pursuit of money and fame. Hate groups and terrorists found the internet an anonymous playground for connecting with like-minded people. Even though there were only a handful, or possibly only one, extremists in any given town, but with the internet, there were now hundreds and even thousands of extremists who used only internet connections to facilitate physical massing of terrorists in global safe havens or remote compounds.

The internet provided a virtual safe haven for bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, allowing a small minority of Muslims inclined to jihadi extremism to connect with like-minded supporters. As counter terrorists searched the earth for al-Qaeda’s head shed, the internet provided enough cover, capacity and space for the terror group to survive physically by thriving virtually. Watts writes, “This made al-Qaeda bigger, but not necessarily better—more diffuse and elusive, but vulnerable to fissures and difficult to manage.

Watts writes, “My experiences with the crowd—watching the mobs that toppled dictators during the Arab Spring, the hordes that joined ISIS, the counterterrorism punditry that missed the rise of ISIS, and the political swarms duped by Russia in the 2016 presidential election—led me to believe that crowds are increasingly dumb, driven by ideology, desire, ambition, fear, and hatred, or what might collectively be referred to as “preferences.”

Social media amplifies confirmation bias through the sheer volume of content provided, assessed, and shared. And this is further amplified by interactions with their friends, family, and neighbors—people who more often than not, think like they do, speak like they do, and look like they do.

Watts writes, “Confirmation bias and implicit bias working together pull social media users into digital tribes. Individuals sacrifice their individual responsibility and initiative to the strongest voices in their preferred crowd. The digital tribe makes collective decisions based on groupthink, blocking out alternative viewpoints, new information, and ideas. Digital tribes stratify over time into political, social, religious, ethnic,and economic enclaves. Status quo bias, a preference for the current state of affairs over a change, sets into these digital tribes, such that members must mute dissent or face expulsion from the group. Confirmation, implicit, and status quo bias, on a grand social media scale, harden preference bubbles. These three world-changing phenomena build upon one another to power the disruptive content bringing about the Islamic State and now shaking Western Democracies.

Watts continues, “Clickbait populism—the promotion of popular content, opinions, and the personas that voice them—now sets the agenda and establishes the parameters for terrorism, governance, policy direction, and our future. Audiences collectively like and retweet that which conforms to their preferences. To win the crowd, leaders, candidates, and companies must play to test collective preferences.”

This clickbait populism drives another critical emerging current: social media nationalism. Each year, social media access increases and virtual bonds accelerate, digital nations increasingly form around online communities where individual users have shared preferences.

Watts writes, “Social media nationalism and clickbait populism have led to a third phenomenon that undermines the intelligence of crowds, threatening the advancement of humanity and the unity of democracies, the death of expertise. Expertise is undermined by those on the internet who ignore facts and construct alternative realities.

Consider two preference bubbles, the ISIS boys, and Trump supporters. For the ISIS boys it was more important to have a caliphate than to do it right. It was more essential to pursue extreme violence than to effectively govern.

For Trump supporters, it is more important to win than be correct, more important to be tough than compromise and move forward. They appear to be living in an alternative reality that disdains factual information. The Republican Party can be regarded as one big preference bubble. To be fair, one might argue that the Democratic Party should also be regarded as a preference bubble, but one does not find the unanimity created in a true preference bubble.

Postmortem

December 18, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a post in Messing with the Enemy an excellent book by Clint Watts. The postmortem on Russia’s influence and meddling in the presidential election of 2016 may never end. Trump was completely unconventional, uninformed, unlikable in so many ways, and yet had become the leader of the free world. Fake news entered the American lexicon, and Watts pre-election detailing of Russian active measures on the internet became the subject of hot debate. Had fake news swayed the U.S. presidential election?

Social media companies began digging into the data. What they found spelled dangerous trends for democracy. Americans were increasingly getting their news and information from social media instead of mainstream media. Users were not consuming factual content. Fake news, false or misleading series from outlets of uncertain credibility was being read far more than that from traditional newsrooms. EndTheFed.com and Political Insider produced four of the five most read false news stories in the three months leading up to the election. One story falsely claimed that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump and another story falsely claimed that Hillary Clinton’s emails hosted on WikiLeaks certified her as an ISIS supporter. Throughout December, fears of Russian election manipulations grew, and each day brought more inquiries into how Russia had trolled for Trump.

The American electorate remains divided, government operations are severely disrupted, and faith in elected leaders continues to fall. Apparently, the objectives of Russia’s active measures have been achieved. Watts concludes that Americans still don’t grasp the information war Russia perpetrated against the West, why it works, and why it continues.

Watts writes, “The Russians didn’t have to hack election machines; they hacked American minds. The Kremlin didn’t change votes; it won them, helping tear down its less-preferred candidate, Hillary Clinton, to promote one who shares their worldviews, Donald Trump.

Watts continues, “Americans’ rapid social media consumption of news creates a national vulnerability for foreign influence. Even further, the percentage of American adults fifty and older utilizing social media sites is one of the highest in the world, at 50%. Younger Americans, aged eighteen to thirty-four, sustain a utilization rate about 80%. Deeper analysis by the Pew Research Center shows that U.S. online news consumers still get their information from news organizations more than from their friends, but they believe the friends they stay in touch with on social media applications provide information that is just as relevant.

A look at the Columbia Journalism Review’s media map demonstrates how social media encouraged information bubbles for each political leaning. Conservatives strongly entered their consumption around Breitbart and Fox News, while liberals relied on a more diverse spread of left-leaning outlets. For a foreign influence operation like the one the Russians ran against the United States, the highly concentrated right-wing social media landscape is an immediate, ripe target for injecting themes and messages. The American-left is diversely spread making targeting messages more difficult.

The Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, Russia bought $4,700 in advertising and through eighteen channels, hosted more than 1,000 videos that received more than 300,000 views.

The Russians created a YouTube page called Williams and Kalvin. The page’s videos showcase two black video bloggers, with African accents, appearing to read script that Barack Obama created police brutality and calling Hillary Clinton an “old racist bitch.” The Williams and Calvin page garnered 48,000 fans. Watts writes,”Russian influence operators employed most every platform—Instagram, Tumblr, even PokemonGo—but it was the Kremlin’s manipulation via Twitter that proved the most troubling.”

Watts concludes that U.S. government resources are needed to find a truly effective effort. Intelligence agencies, Homeland Security, and the State Department need to rally and coordinate. Rex Tillerson was late in using the $80 million Congress had set aside for counterpropaganda resources, and then used only half of the appropriated amount. This is just a start, and a small one at that, of what America needs to do against Russian influence. The last sentence in this chapter reads, “Kislyak was right, and Putin must still wonder, “Why hasn’t America punched back.”

Putin’s Plan

December 17, 2019

The title of this book is identical to the title of a chapter in Messing with the Enemy an excellent book by Clint Watts. In the fall of 2015 Russia’s dedicated hacking campaign proved to be unique in history. Unlike the hacking of criminals, Russia didn’t pursue indiscriminate breaches for financial gain. It sought information from politicians, government officials, journalists, media personalities, and foreign policy experts numbering in the thousands, according to government and media estimates.

The Russians had perpetrated cyberattacks as part of its military campaigns prior to invading Georgia in 2008, when it defaced and disabled Georgian government websites as part of a psychological warfare campaign. In 2014, a pro-Russian group called CyberBerkut surfaced alongside Kremlin hackers and penetrated Ukraine’s Central Election Commission, altering the nation-wide presidential vote in favor of Russia’s preferred candidate, Dmytro Yarosh. Fortnately, the Ukrainian caught the manipulation before the results were aired. Throughout 2015 and 2016, Ukrainian businesses and government agencies suffered endless cyber assaults. The Blackenergy attack struck power grids of the Ivano-Frankivsk region of Ukraine, disabling electricity during one of the country’s coldest periods. Watts writes, “These attacks, though, sought to damage infrastructure and undermine Eastern European countries through humiliation and confusion. The Russian-connected breaches surfacing in America, though, sought something different.

Beginning in the late summer of 2015 and extending through the fall, Russia undertook the largest, most sophisticated, most targeted hacking campaign in world history, breaking into the email accounts of thousands of American citizens and institutions. Analysts believe that the cyber offensive was perpetrated by two of Russia’s intelligence agencies: The Main Intelligence Directorate, known as GRU, and the Federal Security Service, known as FSB, which is primarily an internal intelligence arm, but is particularly sophisticated in cyber operations.

The GRU and FSB operatives act as Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs), a reference to their dedicated targeting and a wide array of cyber-hacking techniques. APTs have sufficient resourcing to stay on their targets until they penetrate the systems they want to access. They use a range of techniques, from the simple to the complex, employing all forms of social engineering and specifically tailored malware known as “zero days.”

These Russian APTs were known as APT28 (Fancy Bear) and APT29 (Cozy Bear). They represented competing Russian hacker groups seeking access and compromising information from democratically elected officials adversarial to Russia, media personalities (particularly reporters who interfaced with anonymous sources), military leaders, academic researches, and policy think tanks studying Russia. In other words, anyone and everyone opposing Russia was targeted in hopes that their private communications, if revealed, would undermine the credibility of a Russian adversary and/or sow divisions and mistrust between the targeted individuala and those they maligned in private.

“Spearphishing” is the most useful and common technique for gaining access to users’ accounts. Messages made to appear legitimate would tell them they needed to sign in to change their username, and users often complied.

In the fall of 2015 the Kremlin election hacking wave began. In September 2015, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) was breached. Both Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear breached the DNC in separate attacks. Separately, hackers penetrated the Democratic Congressional Campaign sometime around March or April 2016.

By 2016, Russia had advanced from spearphising of political parties to “whalephishing” of key political operatives and government officials. Whalephishing targets prominent individuals within organizations or governments whose private communications likely provide a wealth of insight and troves of secrets to propel conspiracies. The campaign manager of Hillary Clinton, John Podesta, proved to be the biggest whale hacked in 2016.

The troll army’s interest in the U.S. presidential collection gained steam toward the end of 2015. The following article in Sputnik caught Watt’s eye, “Is Donald Trump a Man to Mend US Relations with Russia?” At the time Trump’s campaign seemed more a celebrity stunt than a deliberate effort to lead the nation, but the post was curious, given that Russian disdain for both parties and their leaders had historically been a constant.

Watts writes, “From then on, the social media war in America surrounding the election prove unprecedented, and the Russians were there laying the groundwork for their information nuclear strike. Russian state-sponsored media, the English-speaking type, was quite clear: Putin did not want Hillary Clinton to become president. Aggressive anti-Clinton rhetoric from state-sponsored outlets, amplified by their social media trolls, framed Clinton as a globalist, pushing democratic agendas against Russia—an aggressor who could possibly bring about war between the two countries. The trolls anti-Clinton drumbeat increased each month toward the end of 2015 and going into 2016.”

Continuing, “Trump’s brash barbs against his opponents were working unexpectedly well. Kicking off 2016, the troll army began promoting candidate Donald Trump with increasing intensity, so much so that their computational propaganda began to distort organic support for Trump, making his social media appeal appear larger than it truly was.”

Wikileaks released Clinton’s emails. Five days after the WikiLeaks’ dump of DNC emails, Trump announced, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the thirty thousand emails that are missing…I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” Watts writes, “I watched the clip several times, and a sick feeling settled in my stomach. I’d watched the Russian system push for Trump and tear down Clinton, but up to that point, I hadn’t believed the Trump campaign might be working with the Russians to win the presidency. I’d given briefs on the Russian active measure system in many government briefings, academic conferences and think tank sessions for more than a year. But nothing seemed to register. Americans just weren’t interested; all national security discussions focused narrowly on the Islamic State’s recent wave of terrorism in Europe. I did what most Americans do when frustrated by politics. I suffered a Facebook meltdown, noting my disbelief that a U.S. presidential candidate would call on a foreign country one already pushing for his victory, to target and discredit a former first lady, U.S. senator, and secretary of state.”

Watts writes, “By Election Day, allegations of voter fraud and the election being rigged created such anxiety that I worried that some antigovernment and domestic extremists might undertake violence.” But there was no need to worry. Putin’s candidate had won.

Harmony, Disharmony, and the Power of Secrets

December 15, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in Messing with the Enemy, an excellent book by Clint Watts. In 2002, CIA director George Tenet created the Harmony data base as the intelligence community’s central repository for all information gathered during counterterrorism operations. This data base served as a single place for bringing together information of the conduct of the emerging field of DOMINEX (document and media exploitation). At first , the Harmony database assisted soldiers picking up clues about enemy whereabouts and communications from many different babble fields and helped support the prosecution of alleged terrorists.

A Major Steve saw al-Qaeda’s secrets from a different perspective. He focused on the strategic deliberations of terrorists, their biases and preference, expense reports, likes and dislikes, and successes and failures, as well as what they thought of one another. In sum these documents yielded insights into the group’s strategic weakness and internal fractures.

Major Steve moved to the Combat Terrorism Center at West Point, which offered an interface for the military and government to connect with top experts in new cultures, regions, languages, and politics challenging effective counters operations. Major Steve could unlock the Harmony database’s secrets, create am open-source repository for the public, and enlist highly educated military officers stationed at West Point to study and collaborate with top professors around the world. In 2005, the CTC launched the Harmony Program “to contextualize the inner-functioning of al-Qaeda, its associated movement, and other security threats through primary source documents. In addition to conducting initial research on the materials, the program aimed “to make these sources, which are captured in the course of operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and other theaters, available to other scholars for further study.

The first study was tiled Harmony and Disharmony: Exploiting al-Qaeda’s Organizational Vulnerabilities. The study reviewed the employee contracts which showed that Arab recruits were paid more than African recruits, and married volunteers with children received more benefits and vacation than single members. The report noted that ineffective terrorists, instead of being plucked off the battlefield, should not be removed from the network if they can be reliably be observed, even if they present easy targets. The report’s justifications for this recommendation were pulled from a 1999 email sent by Ayman al-Zawahiri to a Yemeni cell leader in which he scolded a subordinate, saying, “With all due respect, this is not an accounting. It’s a summary accounting. For example, you didn’t write any date, and many of the items are vague. Watts writes, “Nearly twenty years later, Zawahiri’s letter offers some insights into why terrorists in the ranks sought to defect to ISIS after bin Laden’s death: he was a stickler of a boss.”

The key recommendation from the report follows: “increase internal dissension within al-Qaeda’s leadership.” Communique’s between al-Qaeda subordinates challenged the direction put out by the group’s leaders and questioned whether orders should be obeyed. One member said that faulty leadership held the group back, asserting that bin Laden had rushed “to move without visions,” and asked Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, to reject bin Laden’s orders.

Another study using the Harmony Database found that al-Qaeda, as a military organization, had never been particularly strong, and its success as a media organization masked deep internal divides between its leaders over strategic direction.

The Russians recognized that transparency movements relied on content, and compromising information seeded to WikiLeaks provided a new method for character assassination.The Russian intelligence services forged ahead compromising adversaries in cyber through the late 1990s and early 2000s. They secretly placed child pornography on the computers of defectors and intelligence officers and leaked sex videos of political opponents on the internet, creating a media feeding frenzy. Outlets like Wikileaks were a perfect vehicle for widespread character assassination of enemies worldwide, an open-source vehicle for planting information that allowed for plausible deniability.

Watts concludes this chapter as follows: “Many of the great chess masters have been Russian, and their leader, Vladimir Putin, is a lover of judo. Both require strategy, and victory routinely goes to those who employ their adversary’s strengths against them. As Putin famously demonstrated his judo skills on Youtube, Edward Snowden settled into a Kremlin-provided safe house. Julian Assange stowed away in the Ecuadorian embassy. The Kremlin trolls practiced on audiences in Ukraine and Syria, and occasionally heckled me. As for the hackers swirling around the Syrian Electronic Army, some of them went offline, busy working on a new project. And Russia’s cyber team came together for a new mission, with some new methods the world had yet to see and still doesn’t quite comprehend.”

Rise of the Trolls

December 15, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in Messing with the Enemy, an excellent book, by Clint Watts. Watts writes that Andrew Weisburd was a natural social media savant. He could examine an online persona, spot it as friend or foe, and trace its connections to a host of bad act,ors online. In the 2000s, as a hobby, Weisburd began tracking al-Qaeda online from his couch. He identified and outed terrorists lurking on the internet so well that al-Qaeda fanatics mailed a white powder package to his house along with this death threat: “To the jewish asshole Aaron [sic] Weisburd, This is our donation to you. Either you close the website called Internet Haganah by next week or you will [be] beheaded. No anthrax was found and the website continued as usual.

Weisburd connected some of the trolls to a recent internet nemesis: The Syrian Electronic Army (SEA). The SEA presented itself as a new hybrid threat of the online world, embodying the spirit of more popular activist collectives such as Anonymous and LulzSec, but clearly in the bag for President Assad and the Syrian regime. Thus, the SEA effectively became the first nation-state cyber proxy force on the internet. Since 2011 the SEA had undertaken a string of targets by taking aim at many mainstream media outlets that were revealing the horrors of the Syrian civil war.

Effective troll armies consist of three types of accounts: hecklers, honeypots, and hackers. Hecklers lead the propaganda army, winning audiences through their derisive banter and content-fueled feeds. Hecklers identify and drive wedge issues into their target audiences by talking up online allies and arming them with their preferred news consisting of both true and false information, loaded with opinion, that confirms audience member beliefs. Hecklers also target social media adversaries and focus the angst of their cultivated supporters against opposing messages and their messages. For example, in the case of Syria anyone pointing out President Assad’s human rights violations might immediately be called a terrorist sympathizer and subjected to endless 140-character and taunts.

When hecklers alone can’t stop the challenges of the opposition, honeypots sweep in to compromise adversaries. In the traditional espionage sense, honeypots are attractive women who seduce men into compromising sexual situations. Females remain the predominant form on Twitter, but they can also assume the persona of an allied political partisan. Among the SEA, attractive females—or what appear to be women—performed the traditional mission befriending men in the target audience or sidling up to adversary accounts hoping to compromise personas or publicly embarrass them. “Can you follow me so I can DM you something important?” might be the siren song of one of these e-ladies. Lady honeypots in 2014 were seeking follower relationships with men, which would lead to privileged insights, but often contained a malware payload allowing them to gain entry to a target’s computer.

Behind the scenes, but still observable in the SEA social media storm, were hacker accounts. Examination of their follower and following relationships showed that they were highly networked with honeypot accounts, likely controlling the conversation between the loverly lady personas and their unwitting accounts. The message that honeypots delivered to unsuspecting men opened doorways to their phones and computers, causing them to give up their personal emails, corporate communications, and, in some cases, their contact lists allowing for malicious spam distribution.

In 2013 and 2014, honeypots and the hackers behind them waged a highly successful campaign across a swath of companies and Western personalities. Corporate America suffered as unwitting employees clicked onto malicious links and, in turn, coughed up access to private databases of subscribers and workers.

CRIME

December 14, 2019

This post is based on Messing with the Enemy an excellent book by Clint Watts. CRIME is an acronym used by Watts to describe the motivations and enticements an intelligence officer or law enforcement investigator uses to recruit an agent overseas or a street informant in America (Watts notes that the CIA uses the acronym MICE). They’re the reasons why people turn, or flip, when they begin reporting on a group they once declared allegiance to or betray an ally on behalf of their foe. C stands for compromise. Compromised people can be coerced into doing something they might not normally consider. A criminal charge, an outstanding arrest warrant, unpaid debts, a sick loved one who needs surgery—all provide avenues for convincing a person to provide assistance. He adds R for revenge. Watts writes, “Think Mandy Patinkin in The Princess Bride”: ‘My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.’ There may not be any other motivation that makes people as relentless in its pursuit. The unjust murder of a loved one, wrongful treatment of others, perceived injustice by a rival: revenge once pursued, usually can be countered only by death. Ideology constitutes the I and represents the purest motivation for any action. Those driven by ideology always prove the hardest to flip and most difficult to stop. M should indeed be bold: money. It’s the most common reason for betrayal and the flimsiest. Those incentivized by cash prove to be the easiest to recruit, and most likely to deceive or switch teams. Finally, the E is for ego. Fame and glory, the desire to be a hero, makes men do strange things, Empower and embrace the ego of a narcissist and he’ll be a cost-effective asset, a turncoat for good or evil, depending on the suitor.”

Not all terrorists communicate in Arabic. English is also used, which is useful for recruiting in the United States and other English speaking countries. Omar Hammami is an interesting terrorist. He was born and lived in the United States. But he moved to the Arab world and set himself up to be not only a terrorist, but also a leader of terrorists. Watts engaged Hammami. He did a quick assessment of Hammami’s motivations that were revealed so much on twitter. “The most obvious motivation for his endless disclosures was compromise. The more Omar got his story into the public regarding al-Shabaab (another terrorist) hunting him, the more likely he’d be able to survive, gain protectors, and push Shabaab into a no-win situation. If the terrorists killed Hammami, they’d hurt their brand in the eyes of future recruits and international supporters. Furthermore, each Shabaab attempt to hunt Hammami and quell his supporters increased Omar’s revenge response. A war inside was what I (Watts) wanted. I’d (Watts) amplify any of Omar’s resentments and accentuate his quest for revenge.”

Watts continues,”More subtle but still immediately apparent were Omar’s egoistical motivations. Hammami loved attention—loved it. He thought of himself as a future jihadi visionary and consistently sought to showcase his theological expertise, and pined for the attention of senior jihidas and well-known terrorist experts. Omar wanted to be famous, and I’d (Watts) help him do that. In so doing, I’d (Watts) undermine motivations others might have for heading of to Somalia and joining al-Shabaab.”

Continuing further, “There were also topics I wanted to avoid when chatting with Omar. Hammami wanted to be an ideological expert, and he’d spent time studying and pontificating, developing his own vision for the future of global jihad. As a non-Muslim lacking any theological expertise, I (Watts) risked empowering Omar by engaging in his religious rants and raising his profile among his supporters. I (Watts) wouldn’t be able to convince him that he was wrong about his religion, and I (Watts) stood to look quite stupid if I (Watts) tried and failed. A second area I (Watts) sought was to avoid was money, specifically his financial situation. He had left America to join terrorists in one of the most impoverished countries in the world. Sitting in prosperous America, I (Watts) didn’t want to glorify his financial sacrifice.”

Continuing still further, “I (Watts) took the three motivations I (Watts) wanted to amplify and then identified common ground I could make with Hammami for rapport building, He wanted to talk with me (Watts)—that was obvious—but I (Watts) didn’t want to speak with him strictly regarding terrorism. One heated debate would end our engagements. Persuading him to divulge more information or discuss his positions would mean first getting him to feel a deeper connection.”

“RPMs” is a discussion technique used to nudge guilty people toward a confession. R stands for rationalize so Watts would justify some of Hammami’s actions. P stands for projection in which he would saddle up to Omar’s position and take his side. M stands for minimize, minimize his actions which was difficult as he had killed people.

To cut to the end of this story, Omar Hammami never returned to the United States. Twelve years and a day after the September 11 terrorist attacks, al-Shabbab hunted him down in the forests of Somalia and killed him.

Messing with the Enemy

December 13, 2019

Messing with the Enemy is an excellent book by Clint Watts. He is a Robert A. Fox Fellow in the Foreign Research Institute’s Program on the Middle East as well as a senior fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at the George Washington University. He is graduate of the U.S Military Academy and in addition to his work as an Army officer, he also served in the F.B.I. He founded the Combating Terrorism Center at the Military academy.

He used the internet to study, or as he writes, mess with extremists half a world away. He observed their debates, gauged their commitment to terrorist principles, and poked them with queries from a laptop at home. He was also able to pose as a fellow terrorist.

The internet provided assistance to al-Qaeda operatives when Osama bin Laden was forced out of Tora Bora, Afghanistan. Hunted by the entire international community, his aides and deputies were constantly on the run. The internet allowed for communication between and control of these aides and deputies. Throughout the mid-to late nineties, websites and email chains provided a communications leap forward to terrorists (and the rest of the world), but they had a major limitation: they were one-way modes of information sharing. Bin Laden could only broadcast to audiences. They could not easily follow up with those inclined to join the ranks. All that changed with the dawn of the new millennium. With the emergence of vBulletin, commercially available software allowing group discussions and Yahoo groups, audiences now had a direct window to communicate with Islamist webmasters, clerics, and leaders. In 2001, the Global Islamic Media Front started a Yahoo Group and a related website. They required users to acquire a password to access the discussion page. Many others featuring general Islamist discussions with a sprinkling of jihadi messaging popped up and down toward the end of the decade. Watts writes that none endured for long before rumors of intelligence operatives penetrating them squelched their dialogue and counterterrorism arrests of forum administrators led to their closure. Two-way communication between al-Qaeda leaders and hopeful jihadis increased, but more content needed to follow to sustain audience engagement.

al-Qaeda created an official media group, al-Sahab, to fill the void and gain greater control of jihadi discussions. Bin Laden recognized the value of jihadi websites and began sending audio and written statements from top al-Qaeda leaders directly to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s leader, Yusuf al-Uyayri, and his site Al Neda. Websites and forums served as principal communication points for those around the world inspired by the incredible success of the 9/11 attacks and seeking to join bin Laden’s ranks.

Replication of sites and duplication of content became key features of online survival for al-Qaeda supporters. Openly available software and hosting services meant websites and forums could be created by anyone in minutes, and accessed by anyone around the world with an Internet connection. This lowered technical boundary for mainstream internet users meant relatively novice jihadis now had the power to create their own safe havens online.

In his book The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki describes how the internet provided a vehicle for crowds to make smarter decisions than even the smartest person in the crowd, working alone, could make. On-line Watts made the prediction on January 2, 2011 that Osama bin Laden would be killed that year. He made this prediction to work as a vehicle for crowdsourcing an important question. What would al-Qaeda and the world of terrorism be if bin Laden were no more? He used this New Year’s prediction to provoke the audience to answer this question. Watts was disappointed to find that rather than yielding great wisdom of important insight from experts, the results instead returned a pattern of answers of no consequence, “Nothing will change,” and “It doesn’t matter” became patent answers from the best thinkers in the field, regardless of the question.

So Watts took recourse in research that has been reported in previous healthymemory posts on Philip Tetlock. In his 2005 book, Expert Political Judgment he reported the survey of hundreds of experts in political thought over two decades. He determined that, en masse, experts were no more successful at predicting future events than a simple coin toss. He identified two kinds of forecasters. He borrowed from a Greek saying, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows but one big thing.” He classified those good predictors as “foxes” and poorer performers as “hedgehogs.” What differentiated the two groups’ success was how they thought, not what they thought. Tetlock’s foxes were self-critical, used no template, and acknowledged their misses. By contrast, hedgehogs sought to reduce every problem to a single theory, were not comfortable with complexity, we’re overconfident in their assessments, and placed their faith in one big idea, pushing aside alternative explanations. He saw a lot of hedgehogs in his online surveys,and occasional foxes to get insights. He developed a techniques to identify, in advance, foxes.

At this point, there will be a break in this narrative to mention that Tetlock has conducted additional research into intelligence analysis using a very large sample of analysts. There he was able to identify analysts who performed better than chance, and these analysts were, of course, foxes. These posts can be found by entering “Tetlock” into the search box at healthymemory.wordpress.com.

Returning to the current post on Alan Watts, he used the research of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (two authors oft cited in this blog) Their research identified a series of heuristics and noted the circumstances where biases emerged to make incorrect judgments. Long ago they identified the predictive missteps Watts had observed in his polls. Status quo bias, a belief that tomorrow will most likely look like today, ruled the responses. Loss aversion, a tendency to avoid anticipated losses rather than pursue equally likely gains, filled the results of counterterrorism policy questions. Herding, the tendency of large groups of people to behave the same way and pursue groupthink, drove Watt’s social media recruits to the same set of answers.

Watts changed his approach using Tetlock’s insigts and Kahneman and Tversky’s heuristics and biases. Instead of asking simple yes-no questions, he flooded respondents with as many potential outcomes as he could think of, making it challenging for non experts to wade though the responses. He identified novices and less innovative thinkers by playing to the status quo bias. Every question had a “no change” response option, surrounded by responses imitating common thinking stripped from Google searches, newspaper headlines, and cable news pundits. With every question he offered survey takers a comment box or allowed them to craft an “other”response.

The prediction he made was confirmed when on May 2, 2012, U.S. Navy SEALS killed Osama in Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The result was that his Twitter feed of only a couple hundred followers suddenly became more active than usual. For a brief Google search period, news of bin Laden’s death brought a world of visitors to his New Year’s prediction. His small blog suddenly had an audience, and he had a new opportunity for rater perspectives from a larger crowd.

Amplifying the Worst Social Behavior

April 4, 2019

This is the eighth post based on an important book by Roger McNamee titled “Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe.” Roger writes, “The competition for attention across the media and technology spectrum rewards the worst social behavior. Extreme views attract more attention, so platforms recommend them. News Feeds with filter bubbles do better at holding attention than News Feeds that don’t have them. If the worst thing that happened with filter bubbles was that they reinforced preexisting beliefs, they would be no worse than many other things in society. Unfortunately, people in a filter bubble become increasingly tribal, isolated, and extreme. They seek out people and ideas that make them comfortable.”

Roger continues, “Social media has enabled personal views that had previously been kept in check by social pressure—white nationalism is an example- to find an outlet.” This leads one to ask the question whether Trump would have been elected via the Electoral College if it weren’t for social media. Trump’s base consists of Nazis and white supremacists and constitutes more than a third of the citizens. Prior to the election, HM would never have believed that this was the case. Now he believes and is close to being clinically depressed.

Continuing on, “Before the platforms arrived, extreme views were often moderated because it was hard for adherents to find one another. Expressing extreme views in the real world can lead to social stigma, which also keeps them in check. By enabling anonymity and/or private Groups, the platforms removed the stigma, enabling like-minded people, including extremists, to find one another, communicate, and, eventually, to lose the fear of social stigma.”

Once a person identifies with an extreme position on an internet platform, that person will be subject to both filter bubbles and human nature. There are two types of bubbles. Filter bubbles are imposed by others, whereas a preference bubble is a choice, although the user might be unaware of this choice. By definition, a preference bubble takes users to a bad place, and they may not even be conscious of the change. Both filter bubbles and preference bubbles increase time on site, which is a driver of revenue. Roger notes that in a preference bubble, users create an alternative reality, built around values shared with a tribe, which can focus on politics, religion, or something else. “They stop interacting with people with whom they disagree, reinforcing the power of the bubble. They go to war against any threat to their bubble, which for some users means going to war against democracy and legal norms, They disregard expertise in favor of voices from their tribe. They refuse to accept uncomfortable facts, even ones that are incontrovertible. This is how a large minority of Americans abandoned newspapers in favor of talk radio and websites that peddle conspiracy theories. Filter bubbles and preference bubbles undermine democracy by eliminating the last vestiges of common ground among a huge percentage of Americans. The tribe is all that matters, and anything that advances the tribe is legitimate. You see this effect today among people whose embrace of Donald Trump has required them to abandon beliefs they held deeply only a few years earlier. Once again, this is a problem that internet platforms did not invent. Existing issues in society created a business opportunity that platforms exploited. They created a feedback loop that reinforces and amplifies ideas with a speed and at a scale that are unprecedented.”

Clint Watts in his book, “Messing with the Enemy” makes the case that in a preference bubble, facts and expertise can be the core of a hostile system, an enemy that must be defeated. “Whoever gets the most likes is in charge; whoever gets the most shares is an expert. Preference bubbles, once they’ve destroyed the core, seek to use their preference to create a core more to their liking, specially selecting information, sources, and experts that support their alternative reality rather than the real physical world.” Roger writes, “The shared values that form the foundation of our democracy proved to be powerless against the preference bubbles that have evolved over the past decade. Facebook does not create preference bubbles, but it is the ideal incubator for them. The algorithms that users who like one piece of disinformation will be fed more disinformation. Fed enough disinformation, users will eventually wind up first in a filter bubble and then in a preference bubble. if you are a bad actor and you want to manipulate people in a preference bubble, all you have to do is infiltrate the tribe, deploy the appropriate dog whistles, and you are good to go. That is what the Russians did in 2016 and what many are doing now.

Trump, Russia, and Truth (Cont.)

May 21, 2018

This post is a continuation of the post of the same title taken from the book by Michael Hayden titled “The Assault on Intelligence: American Security in the Age of Lies.” This is the third post in the series.

Gary Kasparov, Soviet chess champion turned Russian dissident outlined the progression of Putin’s attacks. They were developed and honed first in Russia and then with Russian-speaking people nearby before expanding to Europe and the U.S. These same Russian information operations have been used to undercut democratic processes in the United States and Europe, and to erode confidence in institutions like NATO and the European Union.

Hayden notes, “Committed to the path of cyber dominance for ourselves, we seemed to lack the doctrinal vision to fully understand that the Russians were up to with their more full-spectrum information dominance. Even now, many commentators refer to what the Russians did to the American electoral process as a cyber attack, but the actual cyber portion of that was fairly straightforward.”

Hayden writes, “Evidence mounted. The faux personae created at the Russian bot farm—the Saint Petersburg—based Internet Research Agency—were routinely represented by stock photos taken from the internet, and the themes they pushed were consistently pro-Russian. There was occasional truth to their posting, but clear manipulation as well, and they all seemed to push in unison.

The Russians knew their demographic. The most common English words in their faux twitter profiles were “God,” “military,” “Trump,” “family,” “country,” “conservative,” “Christian,” “America,” and “Constitution,” The most commonly used hashtags were #nuclear, #media, #Trump, and #Benghazi…all surefire dog whistles certain to create trending.”

It was easy for analysts to use smart algorithms to determine whether something was trending because of genuine human interaction or simply because it was being pushed by the Russian botnet. Analysts could see that the bots ebbed and flowed based upon the needs of the moment. Analysts tried to call attention to this, but American intelligence did not seem to be interested.

Analyst Clint Watts characterized 2014 as year of capability development for the Russians and pointed to a bot-generated petition movement calling for the return of Alaska to Russia that got more than forty thousand supporters while helping the Russians build their cadre and perfect their tactics. With that success in hand in 2015 the Russians started a real push toward the American audience, by grabbing any divisive social issue they could identify. They were particularly attracted to issues generated from organic American content, issues that had their origin in the American community. Almost by definition, issues with a U.S. provenance could be portrayed as genuine concerns to America, and they were already preloaded in the patois of the American political dialogue, which included U.S. based conspiracy theorists.

Hayden writes, “And Twitter as a gateway is easier to manipulate than other platforms since in the twitterers we voluntarily break down into like-minded tribes, easily identified by or likes and by whom we follow. Watts says that the Russians don’t have to “bubble” us—that is, create a monolithic information space friendly for their messaging, We have already done that to ourselves since, he says, social media is as gerrymandered as any set of state electoral districts in the country. Targeting can become so precise that he considers social media “a smart bomb delivery system.” In Senate testimony, Watts noted that with tailored news feeds, a feature rather than a bug for those getting their news online, voters see “only stories and opinions suiting their preferences and biases—ripe condition for Russian disinformation campaigns.”

Charlie Sykes believes “many Trump voters get virtually all their information from inside the bubble…Conservative media has become a safe space for people who want to be told they don’t have to believe anything that is uncomfortable or negative…The details are less important than the fact that you’re being persecuted, you’re being victimized by people you loathe.”

What we have here is an ideal environment for System 1 processors. They can feed their emotions and beliefs without ever seeing any contradicting information that would cause them to think and invoke System 2 processing.

Republican Max Boot railed against the Fox network as “Trump TV,” Trump’s own version of RT,” and its prime-time ratings czar Sean Hannity as “the president’s de facto minister of information. Hayden says that there are what he calls genuine heroes on the Fox Network, like Shepard Smith, Chris Wallace, Charles Krauthammer, Bret Baier, Dana Perino and Steve Hayes, but for the most part he agrees with Boot. Hannity gave a platform to WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange shortly before Trump’s inauguration, traveling to London to interview him at the Ecuadorian embassy, where Assange had taken refuge from authorities following a Swedish rape allegation.

Hayden writes, “When the institutions of the American government refuse to kowtow to the president’s transient whim, he sets out to devalue and delegitimize them in a way rarely, if ever, seen before in our history. A free (but admittedly imperfect) press is “fake news,” unless, of course, it is Fox; the FBI is in “tatters,” led by a”nut job” director and conducting a “witch hunt”; the Department of Justice, and particularly the attorney general, is weak, and so forth.”

It is clear that Trump has experience only with “family” business, where personal loyalty reigns supreme. He has no experience with government and is apparently ignorant of the separation of the three branches of govern, legislative, judicial, and executive. The judicial and legislative branches are to be independent of the executive.

Apparently the White House lawyer, Ty Cobb, asked Trump whether he was guilty. Obviously, Trump said he was innocent, so Cobb told Trump to cooperate with Mueller and that would establish his innocence quickly and he could devote full time to his presidential duties.

Obviously, he is not innocent. On television he told Lester Holt that the reason he fired Comey was that he would not back off the Russia investigation. In other words, he has already been caught obstructing Justice.

During the campaign he requested Hillary’s emails from the Russians. So he was conspiring with the Russians and this conspiracy was successful as he did indeed get the emails.

There are also questions regarding why is he so reluctant to take any actions against Russia? One answer is that it is clearly in Trumps’ interest for the Russians interfering in the mid term election as he is concerned that the Democrats could regain control of both the House and the Senate, which would virtually guarantee that he would be impeached.

A related question regards his finances. Why has he never released his tax forms? There are outstanding debts that are not accounted for, and he seems to be flush with cash, but from where? The most parsimonious answer to this question is that he is in debt to Putin. In other words, Putin owns him.

We do not know what evidence Mueller has, but it appears that it is very large.

And Trump is behaving like a guilty person. Of course he denies his guilt and proclaims his innocence vehemently, but this only makes him appear guilty. He is viciously attacking the government and the constitution to discredit them, since he will not be able to prove his innocence. And the Russians have and will continue to provide the means for helping him try to discredit the justice system, the intelligence community, and the press.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Research Ties Fake News to Russia

November 28, 2016

The title of this post is identical to a front page story by Craig Timberg in the 25 November 2016 issue of the Washington Post.  The article begins, “The flood of ‘fake news’ this election season got support from a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign that created misleading articles online with the goal of punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump, and undermining faith in American democracy, say independent researchers who tracked the operation.”

The article continues, “Russia’s increasingly sophisticated machinery—including thousands of bonnets, teams of paid human “trolls,” and networks of websites and social-media accounts—echoed and amplified right-wing sites across the Internet as they portrayed Clinton as a criminal hiding potentially fatal health problems and preparing to hand control of the nation to a shadowy cabal of global financiers.  The effort also sought to heighten the appearance of international tensions and promote fear of looming hostilities with the nuclear-armed Russia.”

Two teams of independent researchers found that the Russians exploited American-made technology platforms to attack U.S. democracy at a particularly vulnerable moment.  The sophistication of these Russian tactics may complicate efforts by Facebook and Google to crack down on “fake news.”

Research was done by Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute has been tracking Russian propaganda since 2014 along with two other researchers,s  Andrew Weisburg and J.M. Berger.  This research can be found at warontherocks.com, “Trolling for Trump:  How Russia is Trying to Destroy our Democracy.”

Another group, PropOrNot, http://www.propornot.com/
plans to release its own findings today showing the startling reach and effectiveness of Russian propaganda campaigns.

Here are some tips for identifying fake news:

Examine the url, which sometimes are subtly changed.
Does the photo looked photoshopped or unrealistic (drop into Google images)
Cross check with other news sources.
Think about installing Chrome plug-ins to identify bad stuff.