Posts Tagged ‘Messing with the Enemy’

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.”

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.

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.