Interview: Ex-FBI agent Clint Watts on Russian ‘disinformation’ and the Ukraine war
A former FBI Agent discusses Russian disinformation and its potential impact on the current Ukraine war
I recently sat down with Clint Watts, a former FBI Agent and author of Messing With The Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians and Fake News, known for his work on tracking Russian influence via social media and how that impacted US elections led him to give congressional testimony four times.
He offered his opinions regarding how he believes Russia perpetuates misinformation via social media, how he believes that misinformation is currently working during the war in Ukraine, what’s currently happening in the war, how the war will end, and how he believes Elon Musk taking Twitter private won’t do much to stem the tide of misinformation.
Clint Watts never planned on becoming a Russian cyberwarfare specialist. Growing up in Missouri, he originally wanted to be a pilot after watching 1983 movie The Right Stuff, a movie centred around the nascent years of the U.S. aeronautical program. Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be: “I couldn’t see well enough to ever be one”, he says wistfully. Instead, he attended West Point, a place that he says he felt “lucky” to attend.
After graduating and becoming an infantry company commander in the United States Army, Clint decided to start exploring other career options. In August 2001, he put in his application for the FBI. A month later, September 11 occurred. The FBI massively ramped up its recruiting, hiring “a thousand agents in one year which they had never done before” he tells me over our Zoom call. By October 2001, Clint was one of those agents, focusing on counterterrorism.
By the time I met Clint in January 2016 in New York City, he had left the FBI and joined the Foreign Policy Research Institute, where he remains a fellow. Although he no longer worked as an agent, he still looked and spoke like one. Cropped hair, tall, a trench coat, could easily outrun most people in a 5k, eyes forever assessing those in a room and never standing with his back to an exit. We chatted about all things Russia and Eastern Europe, which I, as a half-Ukrainian who at the time worked for a Russian investment bank, could spend hours talking about.
Clint, for his part, told me about his then-current work, which was social media disinformation and the role that the Russians played in perpetuating that disinformation. Asking what made him focus on this, he replies: “I didn’t decide on it. We stumbled onto it in January of 2013. I was working with a team. We were watching foreign fighters in Syria and we were watching them on social media. And when we were doing that, that’s when we bumped into these accounts that were behaving very weirdly and they were kind of masquerading like they were Americans and they would sometimes tweet in the middle of the night or post items on Facebook, things that just didn’t make sense about the fight in Syria. And so the more we watched, the more we came to realise that they weren’t really Americans, they were accounts that were trying to act like Americans, and we traced that activity back to Russia.”
It was this research that led him to write an article for The Daily Beast in August 2016, discussing how Russian propagandists distributed stories on social media that influenced foreign audiences, specifically Trump supporters. These stories were often focused on four main messages: being Pro-Russia, Anti-Ukraine, anti-NATO and purporting that the US elections were illegitimate. Then in November 2016, Trump was elected, and by 2017 Clint found himself giving congressional testimony as an expert witness. “I think what was surprising was that no one was interested in it at all until that time [after the election], they kind of didn’t believe it or they were a little confused about it. And then it was only after Trump won that people got very interested – how did this happen?”
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I ask how disinformation works on social media. “Social media has several flaws that make disinformation travel very quickly. And so the first thing is that it plays to the algorithm, plays the three biases that people have, and there’s no way to avoid it. The system is designed to play to those biases. The first one is confirmation bias. The more you click on things that you like on any of these systems, the more the system delivers you information like that, whether it’s true or not.
“The second is implicit bias. People want information from people that look like them and talk like them, that’s their tribe. You can see that all over in social discussions, scientific papers and whatnot. And so the way that plays out essentially leads to this herding effect where people get into digital tribes and they’re constantly receiving the same reinforcing information.
“And the last is availability bias, which means whoever prints the most content or creates the most content is most likely to be seen. if you’re creating false information on the volume that’s 10 or 20 times that of true information, that will be seen first. So those three things really play out in a way that makes false information confirm people’s biases, play to their digital tribes and then always surface very quickly. [They] are kind of a deadly combination for disinformation spread.”
It’s a fascinating topic in this age of social media, but also especially worrisome in the face of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the potential impact that a disinformation campaign could have on the current war. Clint says that many Russians believe “they’re justified attacking Ukraine, calling them Nazis and things like that when it doesn’t even make sense and that they’re winning. They just haven’t figured out yet inside Russia that they’re not winning. Without the disinformation space, the Russians wouldn’t be able to do this right now. If Russian people really knew what was going on, they would really, really struggle to keep this war effort going on inside Ukraine.”
And what of those on the far-right in the UK or the US, whom may mirror what Russia is saying? “I think what’s clear is they are saying the same things, but you can’t tell which one is the chicken and which ones the egg. It always comes down to two questions. Do they know where the information came from? The answer is usually no. And if they do know, are they willingly and repetitively sharing that information, are they doing the work of an adversary?”
We move on to the war in Ukraine. What was expected to have been a “three-day invasion” has lasted until the present, with the Ukrainian army out-performing expectations, and the Russian army under-performing. So far, NATO has stayed clear of joining, even as Ukraine begs for them to “close the skies” and atrocities such as Bucha continue to occur. Meanwhile, oil prices have shot up and the all-important wheat planting in Ukraine has been disrupted, which is globally critical as the country is the fifth largest wheat exporter.
It is a point of frustration to many Ukrainians that they are being attacked as other countries continue to stand by, with warnings from Ukraine that those countries will be next if Russia is successful. As of the time of writing, Russian troops have pulled out of Kyiv and have launched an offensive on the Donbass region. It is uncertain as to how the battle will play out, with questions raised as to how much military power Ukraine has to defend themselves and the Russian army’s own internal motivation.
So how does Clint see the war ending? “I don’t think he’s going to be able to serve up a real and legitimate final victory. Unless it’s just a massive disinformation campaign to sort of escape the disaster that he’s created in the home.” So then, what does he think the end game will be?
“I think what you’ll see is Russia will play to win in Donbass and try to secure some of that territory. And then separately, in addition to securing some of that territory, they’ll try and start negotiating. I think that’s where things will move from here. There’ll be some sort of period in the summer where negotiations will start and they’ll have to settle out by Fall when the Europeans need to have an answer for their energy needs going into winter.” He adds that he thinks Putin feels the need to “have a victory in some form. Anything short of a victory is unacceptable for him because he is worried about his place in history. Not about how many Russian soldiers are killed. He has to win something.”
Many people have been highly concerned about the use of nuclear weapons. On one hand, would Putin be so reckless that he would bomb the notoriously fertile farmland of Ukraine? On the other hand, can he stand losing? Clint believes that a short-range nuclear device isn’t out of the question as a way to bring everyone to the negotiating table, but Putin would likely aim it to “somewhere in Western Ukraine, along supply lines or somewhere to really do harm in a place that you would not want to take over or take control of. More towards Lviv. You don’t want to take control of a place that has that kind of nuclear damage to it. It is a sombre possibility. In the meantime, Ukraine will have to battle to keep the West’s interest (and the corresponding inflows of military and humanitarian aid) and the misinformation from Russia which might impact that support.”
We circle back to social media. Recently Elon Musk has proposed taking Twitter private. Would this impact the perpetuation of disinformation? “Twitter is not where most of the misinformation is happening right now. It’s all on Telegram”, he says, but: “It wouldn’t make it worse. The only thing harder than landing on Mars is governing a social media platform around the world. So, good luck to him trying to make everybody happy.”
And what’s next for Clint? “I would do anything to go take a nap for like seven days.” he says, stifling a yawn. He’s almost at his house, having driven from his office during our call. Since the war in Ukraine started, he’s been getting less than five hours of sleep a night due to heavy work commitments. I thank him for his time, and for his efforts in keeping disinformation at bay.
This article was written in and details correct as of April 2022.
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Feature image credits: Clint Watts