An Interview with Mr. Clint Watts
On November 14, 2018, Distinguished Research Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute Mr. Clint Watts gave a talk at The Fletcher School on the social media influences of the Kremlin. This interview was conducted by Markian Kuzmowycz, Senior Web Editor at The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs.
FF: Let’s start with some of your counterterrorism work. What has your experience researching al-Qaeda and ISIS taught you about the changing landscape of cross-border terrorism?
CW: The globalization of information and the media not only makes extremism spread more robustly but also more quickly, and while some ideas—as crazy or violent they might seem—may be off-putting to certain audiences yet appeal to another. It can change dynamically in months or years. I think that's the lesson of the Arab Spring in the Syrian conflict or in the rise and fall of ISIS. These groups form quicker, and they may be larger or more violent than they used to be but they can also fall away very quickly.
What we want to know in terms of international terrorism is whether the group is rising or falling. To figure this out, just look at the foreign fighters. If you're not recruiting foreign fighters you're a little insurgent group. And if you are recruiting international foreign fighters, then you’re accelerating and moving forward. This can change from one generation to another and from one fight to another.
FF: So, if an organization is in that growth phase and recruiting foreign fighters, it becomes much more of an international challenge for the FBI and other agencies to coordinate, correct?
CW: Yeah, and you need to be tracking the fluidity between groups of human manpower to understand where the dynamics are going. So, you'll always see there are some researchers that will say that a terrorist group is on the rise or is staging a comeback. You could go look right now and someone’s written an article about al-Qaeda’s comeback every year, but you can’t come back fifteen years in a row. That’s kind of silly.
The important thing is that ideas don’t die, but they wane or grow at different points based on pace and momentum. If foreign battlefields open up or if there’s repression from the government, then that’s an opportunity for extremist groups to grow. However, the presence of social media can accelerate this growth even more so than older kinds of media—like a movie—where it might take months to reach countries around the world.
So I think that's the thing that I'm always looking for: where people are going now.
FF: You led some really interesting social media efforts to undermine terrorist groups like Al-Shabab and ISIS, which you spoke about in your book. Have you employed any of these tactics to counter extremist threats like the alt-right or white supremacist groups within the United States?
CW: Mostly just with friends on Facebook, to be honest with you. So no, not on a largescale. Itry to talk one-on-one with those I disagree with, but not in a deliberative sort of way. The natural way to do that would be politics, but political campaigns loathe that sort of thinking, though maybe they won’t in 2020 — who knows? But when I talk to people about how to fight for a real value system, they get real squirmy. They want to do, like, cool Barack Obama bids. I’m like, ok, if you want to lose you can keep going that route, but you’re playing from behind. Your opponent is playing in a different game.
There are ways that you can take on a more sophisticated approach to influencing people without lying. You’re seeing it happen naturally, with things like the NowThis videos that are popular on social media. They are highly effective and all focused on policy. They go viral because they’re packaged right and they contain a real message. I think Beto O’Rouke’s campaign was very interesting. People are dying for anybody to be interesting in the political scene. They could benefit from this momentum, but ultimately they always seem to regress to the mean to play it safe.
FF: Do you think there are any kind of efforts that you've seen within the government to use any of your kind of tactics to deal with domestic extremism?
CW: Not with domestic extremism, but we did have some successes with international extremism. I’m extra hard on the government in the book out of frustration, but there were good efforts. However, a complicating factor here is the fact that declaring a group as domestic extremists just shuts a conversation down. There’s the mentality in our country — who are you to say what I think is wrong? International terrorism is doable because everyone hates ISIS and al-Qaeda. Not everyone hates domestic extremists. Their views often times receive a lot of sympathy in the US, so politicians struggle to amass a wide appeal around any of those issues. Every case is treated as a one-off, as if they’re disconnected when they’re often not.
FF: Pivoting now to Russia, one unfortunate effect of everything that's happened with Russia in the last few years is that we seem to have created a bit of a boogeyman. We now look for Russian influence in anything online or in unfavorable news. Do you think we overstate Russian capabilities, or is it more a fact that Russia just holds a mirror up to us and shows us who we really are, and lets us do all the damage?
CW: I'll tell you, the latter is their explanation. Awareness was not there in 2016. No one really was paying attention to it. Even less so in 2015 and 2014. So it took a long time for the US to react to it. Then we do the typical US thing, where we react to it to the point where we freak out about it. Bizarrely, we really didn't do much of anything about it.
You know in this circle, we haven't really changed a whole lot. The other part is Russia has simply been outpaced by others at this point. I mean, what could Russia have said in 2018 that some American politician was not already saying? I mean they literally could not have made up more crazy conspiracies than a migrant caravan coming to the US and that we're going to deploy the US military.
I mean they probably would have loved to have done that, and looking at it afar they’re just doing it for us, right? I'm sure Russia is like, there is so much political dissent going on in the US that we’ll just leave it and amplify it. We'll push it where we can and other than that we don’t have to do much. I can't imagine what Russia could have said in 2018 that was more conspiratorial than what was already being said.
FF: Yes, and I think it speaks a little bit to what you said earlier today — that the social media landscape reflects less of a technological problem and more of a human problem. So, are there human solutions?
CW: Yeah, I’d want an information rating system with labels so you rate information over time and you get a rating every year. The composite is fact versus fiction publishing and reporting versus opinion, and you would let the user know what they’re consuming. Nutritionally labeled information is essential and then it can get re-rated in a year. But it’s on the consumer to decide what they want to consume. If you tell them they’re reading junk food, and that they’re getting mind fat from it, then that’s on them. But it also gives bearing to people in the middle to sort of police the fringes. They don’t really have anything to go to right now. So, the sooner a system like this is in place, the better. This would help the public sort of reset its role in informed consumption.
FF: Who do you think could operationalize that?
CW: It has to be an independent rating system. I’d call it “information consumer reports”. Consumer reports did this around product safety, so it has some precedent. I think it should be funded by the social media companies collectively and then they all offer the ratings to their users.
FF: In your book, you’ve talked about why people fall for disinformation. Beyond these incentives, what do you think are some of the deeper things that are going on here? Why do people want to believe these things?
CW: It’s an excessive amount of choice. We have to choose our entire world, down to just about anything to make you feel comfortable. And people will do that if they have the option, and it’s very hard to push them away from that. It’s asking somebody to put themselves in a position of discomfort and to deal with something that they wouldn’t otherwise have to. If they’ve got friends that make them feel badly, they can just block them, right? You can just shut them out forever if you want to. You have these options now, where you didn’t have them before.
If you look back in the early ages, and consider why we have democracy and social capital, it is to survive and to fulfill a basic hierarchy of needs. “I want to continue to farm, but I won’t talk to anybody who I disagree with.” Well, good luck — you’re not going to last.
For example, labor unions were created because workers were getting taken to the cleaners by their boss and they wanted rights. There was a collective belief that you were being treated badly at work, which led people of different ethnic groups or religious beliefs to come together to demand workplace rights. You don't have to do that anymore. With social media platforms, you can tailor your whole life and cocoon yourself. That sort of individual preference is throwing people off, and it hurts the collective in a way that we haven’t really learned how to handle yet.
FF: Yeah, that’s sort of part of that social media nationalism that you talk about.
CW: Yeah — that you identify with something that’s half real and half false, or, not false, but in your own imagination. That’s really my biggest fear going forward for the youngest generation. That they’re going to fall more in love with their virtual reality than the actual reality, and their nature of allegiances will change. Why should you be loyal to your fellow citizen if you don’t have to talk to them? If you’re spending hours upon hours on social media or your phone, then who cares about everyone else?
I always tell younger audiences — you won’t be overtaken by the Matrix, you will enlist in it. You will yearn for it, because it will be way better than anything that happens in your real life.
FF: Do you cringe a little when you hear people talk about the solution being maybe like cyber information literacy needing to be taught?
CW: No, I think evaluating information sources, regardless of medium, is good. That’s one of the first classes they teach you in intelligence analysis in government, ironically. It’s nothing classified. It’s asking: What is the motive? What is the competency? What’s the source saying? All that stuff is laid out, and I think it’s a useful tool for everybody.
So that would be good. I don’t think more fact-checking is going to get you very far — that’s a real marginal effort. How much extra effort would it take for the New York Times to be even better at fact checking? It probably wouldn’t make a difference for readers. It’s already the best. So where you can make big differences is in helping people understand the consequences of their physical reality. So things like national service are important because these really create social capital. Not just the military, but also programs like Peace Corps or Teach for America. School is another important place where people come together. Where you’re seeing the social media nationalism play out is in places where people have always lived in one spot and have never left. They have the same friends and move around the same circles in real life that they have on social media. In this situation, it’s very easy to fall into this alternative reality where a “caravan” is marching on Mexico and is threatening our country.
FF: Just as a slight pivot — I’m a Ukrainian American myself. It’s interesting that a lot read happening here in the US has actually already been tested. Are there any other environments that we are looking at to see the evolving battleground, or to see what could be next?
CW: Yeah, I mean Ukraine was ground zero for the cyber informants’ convergence and the emergence of a new kind of warfare. It was a hybrid war.
I think China is where everybody should look for another aspect. There’s is a totally different way of doing disinformation. Those would be the two: Ukraine and China.
FF: I heard an interview of yours where you talked about how you only have five minutes to give a testimony to Congress and how you really needed to make sure that you hit the high notes and elucidated the threats that were in front of us. How can we be frank about the threats without it being politicized, depending on who is in power at that moment or who may stand to gain from any election interference of problem of that sort.
CW: It’s always going to be politicized to a degree, but ultimately we can elect leaders that are going to push that stuff aside, and that will really be decided in the next year by this new Congress. If the Democratic House just does what the Republican House just did, then it doesn’t work—the problem is reinforced. People have to put country over party and come to an agreement that they're not going to put up with this nonsense anymore. We all know that election machines should be secure. So why don't we pass this act which everyone agrees on? Honest Ads Act is another one. Why didn’t we pass it? It's just very, very basic. So, we'll see. If that doesn't play out, it’s super confounding.
What happens on Capitol Hill? Nothing. It’s a constant soap opera about nothing. It’s Seinfeld without the jokes. It’s just C-SPAN running and they’re all showboating or all racing to go get on the cable news channel. Congress as an institution is constantly devaluing itself and the system because they don't perform any of their functions. I mean, ultimately the public will react to that in a certain way but it will take some impetus.
FF: Was it discouraging as an expert in the field to testify before them?
CW: You know, I was more discouraged before I testified before the Senate Intel Committee than afterwards. I thought that they were very professional and bipartisan. There were only two senators that I thought were kind of out there to score points. It was good. I thought the committee functioned pretty well, and they were working with each other, but they’re a microcosm on that hill. They’re one of the least political committees, and they know more. They have classified briefings, so they’re on the inside of a lot of things.
FF: At the very end of your book, you have a beautiful summary of who you are and what you’re looking for from the American people to restore what’s been lost. Is there anything that gives you hope in the last few months or so?
CW: We had an amazing turnout for our midterm election—that’s great. There was a 50% increase in youth turnout, which was amazing. More activism in the last two years than maybe ever. I don’t know that even during the civil rights movement that this many people turned out. We have marches for all sorts of issues, that’s great. They’re not about people, they’re issue-based marches. I think that stuff is good.
My fears are a little bit different now, and that is Americans taking on disinformation now to win in politics, and how it can unfold in the 2020 run up.
Courtesy of the Chairman of the joint Chiefs of Staff / Flickr
Clint Watts is a Distinguished Research Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute as well as a Senior Fellow at the Center For Cyber and Homeland Security at The George Washington University. His research predominately focuses on terrorism forecasting and trends seeking to anticipate emerging extremist hotspots and anticipate appropriate counterterrorism responses. More recently, Clint used modeling to outline Russian influence operations via social media and the Kremlin’s return to Active Measures.
Before becoming a consultant, Mr. Watts served as a U.S. Army infantry officer, a FBI Special Agent on a Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), as the Executive Officer of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point (CTC) and as a consultant to the FBI’s Counter Terrorism Division (CTD) and National Security Branch (NSB). Mr. Watts earned a B.S. from the United States Military Academy and an M.A. from Middlebury Institute of International Studies.