Scholars in the News

Clint Watts in The Verge on Russia’s Social Media Meddling

The Verge

But one of the most interesting parts of yesterday’s proceedings actually came after the big companies had left the room, and a national security researcher named Clint Watts took the floor. Watts is one of the most respected figures in the nascent field of social media manipulation — and when it came time to diagnose root of Russia’s platform meddling, he put much of the blame on the decision to allow anonymous accounts. As long as Russian operatives can get on Twitter and Facebook without identifying themselves, Watts diagnosed, foreign actors will be able to quietly influence our politics:

“With features like account anonymity, unlimited audience access, low cost technology tools, plausible deniability – social media provides Russia an unprecedented opportunity to execute their dark arts of manipulation and subversion…Today, anonymous sites rife with conspiracy theories, such as 4Chan and Reddit, offer unlimited options for placement of digital forgeries that drive Kremlin narratives. Graphics, memes & documents litter these discussion boards providing ammunition for Kremlin narratives and kompromat. Anonymous posts of the Kremlin’s design or those generated by the target audiences power smear campaigns and falsehoods that tarnish confidence in America and trust in democratic institutions.”

The point is clear enough: if you’re fighting Russian interference on social media, anonymity is a big problem. In some ways, it’s the original sin, creating space for that first lie that lets trolls enter the conversation unnoticed. “Account anonymity in public provides some benefits to society, but social media companies must work immediately to confirm real humans operate accounts,” Watts told the committee. “The negative effects of social bots far outweigh any benefits.” It’s a common insight among bot-hunters, and one that’s become particularly popular amid this week’s hearings.

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