Messing with the Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians, and Fake News
by Clint Watts
Harper Collins, 2018
Clint Watts' new book Messing with the Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians, and Fake News, is one of a spate of alarm-calls to appear in bookstores in the last two years, trying to raise awareness the incredible danger we've all allowed into our homes, our bedrooms, and our minds. That danger is social media, and the market interest in the subject is obvious: social media reaches everybody, influences opinions, and played an outsized part in the outcome of the 2016 US Presidential election. Social media splits families, ends friendships, and creates bubbles of confirmation bias. The nonstop flood of social media feeds – Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and the rest – now shapes the daily reality of virtually everybody in the United States. The dangers inherent in somebody manipulating that flood of information for some unstated end ought to be obvious.
Watts' book may be of a type with other such alarm-calls, but his credentials help it to stand out. He has been a US Army infantry officer, an FBI Special Agent, and a counter-terrorism consultant for the FBI's Counter Terrorism Division and National Security Branch. He has been deep into the mechanisms of how social media manipulation works, and how it can be shaped and weaponized by foreign entities ranging from ISIS to the Kremlin in order to sow distrust between people and the news they consume, between people and the government, and between people and their own friends and family (as Watts points out, in the world of social media manipulation, it isn't David or Goliath you need to fear – it's Judas). Watts himself admits that he thinks more like a Russian propagandist than a Pentagon administrator; “I'm a pain in the ass, but a hardworking one with a mission,” he writes, “and underneath my sarcasm I'm legitimately concerned about terrorism, threats to democracy, and technology tearing up society.”
In other words, short of an eloquent defector from a Russian troll farm, he's probably the best possible candidate as a guide to the terrifyingly seductive world he describes, a world in which the main driver of propagandistic opinion-shaping isn't online hecklers and hackers but rather their victims themselves. For this new breed of troll, Watts details, success isn't destroying a social system – it's sowing seeds of doubt that eventually cause the people inside that system to destroy it themselves. “Russia's method [of social media manipulation] represents not an information war, but a war on information itself,” he writes. “The active measures role of confusing fact and fiction is quite easy in the era of preference bubbles.”
Watts made headlines in 2017 when he testified before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence about the methods of Russian trolling in the 2016 election and startled the room by bluntly stating that one of the foremost users of Russian-style trolling techniques was Donald Trump – but Messing with the Enemy finds fault along the whole political spectrum of a country whose people have all but lost the ability to talk to each other:
For the ISIS boys, it was more important to have a caliphate than to do it right, more essential to pursue extreme violence than to effectively govern. For Trump supporters, it's more important to win than to be correct, more important to be tough than compromise and move forward. And for America's liberal left, it's more important to be sensitive, all-inclusive, and politically correct, rather than pragmatic about partnering with those who reject some of their views.
The author recalls the protocols by which incoming information was vetted in his old government jobs, particularly something he refers to as CMPP: Competency – “Is the source of the information capable of knowing, gathering, or understanding the information they are providing?”; Motivation – “Why is the source providing the information?”; Product – “What is the type of information being consumed?; and Process – how the information was acquired. Were the sources primary or secondary? “Did anything occur during collection of the information that could change or distort its meaning?”
It's important to point out the obvious here: the average American voter, home from a long day of work and pausing for 30 minutes before fixing supper and spending time with family and friends, is in no position to do any of these four components of CMPP. This is why they've traditionally relied on the news media to do those things for them. And the major news media organizations in the Western world are well-equipped and well able to perform exacting CMPP tests on everything before they decide to share it with the public. If even one news editor or producer decides there are ratings to be had in strengthening preference bubbles instead of popping them, a crack opens up in the firewall separating a well-intentioned but overwhelmed public from whole industries of people whose only aim is to make things worse.
The most unsettling message of Messing with the Enemy is its revelation of how easy it is to get that overwhelmed public to mess with itself, to do its enemies' work for them, unwittingly and unendingly. The impossible goal: for everybody to somehow make themselves as social-media savvy (and wary) as Clint Watts is.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.