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Russian Influence Operations

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, we know that social media was one of the tools Russians used to influence American voters during the 2016 elections. One of the first people to identify this phenomenon was former FBI special agent Clint Watts. He recently published a book called "Messing With The Enemy: Surviving In A Social Media World Of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians, And Fake News." We've called him to review what happened in 2016 and to give us an update.

Clint Watts, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

CLINT WATTS: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: First, I wanted to ask what you're seeing now on social media heading into the November midterms. What are you seeing? And how does this compare with the messages that you saw during the 2016 campaign?

WATTS: What's fascinating today as compared to two years ago is really the adoption of the disinformation approach and techniques by essentially everyone and every entity in the political landscape. And by that, I mean Russia's still there pushing their disinformation, whether it's around Ukraine, Syria, American politics or the poisoning in the United Kingdom.

But now you're starting to see essentially in American politics this social media influence take on a whole new form. There are several different entities out there that are messaging either for or against the Mueller investigation, for or against different candidates, that look distinctly American - not necessarily Russian. I think, for Russia, they don't need to make disinformation anymore or create conspiracies. They can just amplify American conspiracies that are already out in both the alternative media and the mainstream media at this point.

MARTIN: Well, give me an example of what kinds of conspiracies you're talking about here.

WATTS: I'll give you one from over the past year that continues to linger, which is that Trump Tower was wiretapped or that there was a mole or a spy inside the Trump campaign. And that is tied up with a lot of U.S. elected officials. They have advanced that at different times. We saw this week the president on his Twitter handle call the Mueller investigation a witch hunt. And you saw the minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia's Twitter account say, we agree.

The longer term goal of any Russian influence effort isn't just one candidate or another or pushing one policy. It's to actually erode faith in democracy, to make essentially the population so confused about fact and fiction that they don't trust their institutions, and they think they're all biased.

MARTIN: Well, the people who don't seem to find this alarming and, in fact, accuse other people who do of being hysterical - it makes you wonder, do they think that these measures would not be used against them?

WATTS: Yeah. There is a degree of cognitive - I call it cognitive dissonance, which is, people don't like to believe that they got duped. And, you know, in interviews that have gone on now with people who actually - were actually telephonically contacted by Russian influence operators, some of them still don't believe that they were Russian or don't believe that they were duped, that they would have probably done something like this anyways.

And I'm referring to, you know, the rally at a Cheesecake Factory down in Florida, the protest in Texas where they actually arranged for a pro-Muslim and - essentially anti-Muslim protest with both sides down in Texas. It's hard for people to admit that they've been taken, you know, or that they've fallen for something. And so, until Americans can really accept that maybe the ideas that they're hearing, what they're seeing, what they're thinking aren't entirely their own, they will not be able to essentially stand up to it or counter it.

MARTIN: Clint Watts is a distinguished research fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Mr. Watts, thanks so much for talking with us.

WATTS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.