Russian Bots Tweeting Calls To Fire McMaster, Former FBI Agent Says
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
This week, it was Steve Bannon's turn, the latest White House staffer to lose his job. A Twitter campaign this month, though, would've had the national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, ousted instead. You may have seen the hashtag on Twitter #FireMcMaster. Turns out there was a Russian hand in the mix. The #FireMcMaster hashtag was promoted by computer software known as bots, according to our next guest. He's former FBI special agent Clint Watts. And he's devised a tool to monitor fake news, a dashboard that he's calling Hamilton 68.
CLINT WATTS: So Hamilton 68 - we picked that because, in the Federalist 68 paper written by Alexander Hamilton, he talks about the need for the country to protect itself against foreign meddling. And so based on the foreign meddling we'd seen going on in the lead-up to the 2016 election, we thought that was an appropriate name. What the dashboard seeks to do is to illuminate how Russian influence works in the social media space.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Let's pick this apart a little bit. What's the evidence that Russia is using bots to spread stories against McMaster, and how certain can you be of the source?
WATTS: So we start with Russian state-sponsored outlets. We look at what they're talking about. We then move to what we see are overt Russian supporters. These are people that openly declare and state that they're pushing Russian propaganda and Russian interests. And then over time, we watch as this community grows. And that's when we start to pick up on the bots that amplify it. Once we can identify the message, we essentially do a key network monitor. We build out some algorithms, and we zero down on what is being amplified the most. That's where we pick up on the bots.
What we see there and what is sometimes confusing for people that come to the dashboard is that they see topics that are very American. And what people need to understand is, to do influence, you just don't come in as a foreign country or a terrorist group or a set of criminals and start pushing your content into the target audience. It doesn't work that way. The audience will reject the content that you're sending in. The first thing you have to do is infiltrate the audience. And that's why, if you look at the top hashtags, oftentimes, they're very common hashtags you would see of a very pro-Trump audience.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So they're camouflaging themselves, essentially.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to look at the #FireMcMaster issue in particular, though. What's the point of attacking McMaster? And what's the point of this particular influence campaign?
WATTS: The long view of the Russian active measures program is chaos and disunity among the American government. Anytime there is a rift - it doesn't matter if it's at the White House or the local level - they want to amplify those rifts. The reason the #FireMcMaster topic is so potent is it's one of the key themes that you consistently will see the Russians push. One is anti-EU. They want to see the EU break up. The other one is anti-NATO. And they want to see the U.S. back away from both of those alliances. McMaster's very much about staying engaged in those alliances, which is different from other people in the White House.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How effective, though, is this, really? The people that engage on Twitter - normally journalists - or are interested in politics or other issues. It doesn't reach the vast majority of Americans.
WATTS: I disagree. And here's why. One, Twitter is the means by which you can disseminate a message globally the fastest. If you put something out on Twitter, mainstream news, TV producers, global media outlets - they are watching Twitter because they're all trying to stay ahead of the news cycle. They then take news that comes from these sources. And then they build their stories out on mainstream outlets. So you'll often hear Americans say, well, I'm not on Twitter, so I'm not being influenced. Actually, that's not exactly how it works. Twitter is the best way to propagate a message across all social media. It is the best platform that you can use to get global dissemination.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Clint Watts is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. Thank you so much.
WATTS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.