- - Tuesday, June 5, 2018


By Clint Watts

Harper, $27.99, 304 pages

With the Internet’s technologically based cyberspace complementing how we operate in physical space socially, economically and politically, there can come peril.

Clint Watts’ “Messing With the Enemy” is a well-informed account of how non-state actors such as terrorists and criminals, as well as state actors such as Russia, are using the instruments of cyberspace to “hack our minds” and influence our political behavior.

While hacking by cybercriminals of personal, corporate and government computers for financial profit continues to be a threat, the author argues that a spectrum of the Internet’s social media platforms are being used by terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State to radicalize and mobilize new terrorist adherents.

And state actors such as Russia are employing sophisticated technological means to spread “fake news,” particularly in the United States, as part of measures to influence the course of American politics, including the outcome of the 2016 presidential election in favor of Donald Trump.

How are terrorists exploiting social media? Beginning around 2003, al Qaeda’s Iraq affiliate used password-protected social media forums to bridge the gap between online propaganda-based radicalization and physical recruitment into terrorism.

In one of their innovations, they employed low-tech software to create their websites, which any of their adherents could easily replicate. Thus, when an extremist website was shut down by a country’s security agency, the group’s adherents would be directed to a comparable website that would quickly pop up elsewhere.

In another advance, Mr. Watts explains how the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria introduced the use of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to openly broadcast videos of the group’s deadly rampages against adversaries — especially brutal beheadings — which went viral and extended their reach to Muslim diasporas around the world.

He writes: “Not only could terrorists upload their destructive operations on social media, but recruits, fanboys, and suicide bombers could increase their notoriety by posting video manifestos or martyrdom tapes.”

This development caught al Qaeda’s leadership by surprise, the author points out, as they “had founded their jihad as an exclusive, ideological elite created through attendance at training camps and hardened on the battlefield.”

With the Islamic State’s use of social media enabling anyone to “become their own imam, picking and choosing from sacred texts justifying any act of violence,” it quickly overtook al Qaeda by diluting its clerical authority, thereby “opening jihad to the masses via any means necessary as long as it achieved one goal: an Islamic State.”

This is one of the reasons that violent jihadi adherents in the West are likely to follow the Islamic State’s “brand” as opposed to “old generation” al Qaeda.

How can online radicalization and mobilization of recruits be countered? The author explains that the U.S. government’s ability to influence “terrorists to change their behavior in a positive way” remains a “deep challenge.”

“In the end,” the author writes, “the most effective way to counter terrorist influence has been to simply kill terrorists. Despite all the calls for American counter-messaging, when terror groups wane, their influence evaporates.” Thus, “As the Islamic State’s remnants now run scurrying from Iraq and Syria, the appeal of their social media has declined and the desire for newcomers to join has subsided a bit.”

Mr. Watts discusses how, around 2014, he began encountering Russian-led trolls and their Iranian and Syrian allies. Their “propaganda leverages social media to rapidly spread information supportive of a particular ideology.”

This is made possible “through the deployment of what are known as social bots — programs, defined by a computer algorithm, that produce personas and content on social media applications that replicate a real human.”

Russian agents exploited these bots to create “artificial accounts, emulating real people, that mimicked the conversations of target audiences in several geographies around the world” to disseminate pro-Russian “misinformation among mainstream media outlets” such as Facebook.

Other Russian-directed cyber-related active measures, according to the author, included the pro-Russian Wikileaks to hack into the computers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and expose politically sensitive information during the 2016 presidential election that would damage Hillary Clinton.

Did such Russian-directed “fake news” sway the U.S. presidential election? Mr. Watts writes, “In my opinion, Russia absolutely influenced the U.S. presidential election of 2016,” including helping Mr. Trump to win the closely contested Michigan and Wisconsin. It is here that Mr. Watts’ account becomes overly partisan since one can argue that Mrs. Clinton lost because of a poorly managed campaign.

In the book’s final chapter, “Surviving in a Social Media World,” the author provides a useful guide for evaluating the possible presence of “fake news,” based on the competency of a source’s information, the information’s motivation, the information’s media venue (e.g., whether print or social media), and how the information was acquired.

Despite some flaws, such as over-attributing the role of automated “social bots” in manipulating people’s behaviors, Mr. Watts’ account is an important reminder that the information disseminated in social media websites and other venues must be evaluated through a critical lens.

Joshua Sinai is a senior analyst at Kiernan Group Holdings (KGH), in Alexandria, Va.

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