The Russian connectionExtremist content and Russian disinformation online: Working with tech to find solutions

By Clint Watts

Published 10 November 2017

“It’s been more than a year since my colleagues and I described in writing how the Russian disinformation system attacked our American democracy. We’ve all learned considerably more since then about the Kremlin’s campaigns, witnessed their move to France and Germany and now watch as the world worst regimes duplicate their methods. Yet our country remains stalled in observation, halted by deliberation and with each day more divided by manipulative forces coming from afar. The U.S. government, social media companies, and democracies around the world don’t have any more time to wait. In conclusion, civil wars don’t start with gunshots, they start with words. America’s war with itself has already begun. We all must act now on the social media battlefield to quell information rebellions that can quickly lead to violent confrontations and easily transform us into the Divided States of America.”

The following statement was prepared by Clint Watts — Non-Resident Fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, Robert A. Fox Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and Senior Fellow, Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, the George Washington University — for the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism.

A decade ago, al Qaeda in Iraq littered YouTube with violent videos. A few years later, Twitter became a playground for al Shabaab’s violent tirades in Somalia and the devastating Westgate shopping mall attack in Kenya. During this same period, I watched from my laptop and cell phone as thousands of young men and women used Facebook, Twitter and later Telegram to join ISIS, helping pave their way to becoming the Islamic State and executing never before seen terrorist attacks on many continents. During that social media research, I encountered Russian influence efforts. In the nearly four years since, I’ve watched as they’ve employed social media at a master level to perpetrate the largest and most successful information attack in world history – a campaign that continues to harm our country even today.

Every few years social media becomes the playground for bad actors - criminals then terrorists and now authoritarians - who exploit the vulnerabilities of these information systems and our nation’s civil liberties and freedoms to harm our country. Terrorists’ social media use has been acute and violent, but now authoritarians have taken it to the next level using social media more subtly to do something far more dangerous – destroy our democracy from the inside out through information campaigns designed to pit Americans against each other.

With features like account anonymity, unlimited audience access, low cost technology tools, plausible deniability – social media provides Russia an unprecedented opportunity to execute their dark arts of manipulation and subversion known as Active Measures. Russia has conducted the most successful influence operation to date by infiltrating, steering and now coordinating like-minded audiences across the Western world to subvert democratic governance. The rapid spread of Russian disinformation enflames electoral divisions and employs indigenous American audiences to support the Kremlin’s foreign policy of breaking all unions and alliances that challenge their rise. The Kremlin disinformation playbook will also be adopted authoritarians, dark political campaigns and unregulated global corporations who will use this type of social media manipulation to influence weaker countries, harm less educated, vulnerable populations and mire business challengers.