How governments, companies and the media are manipulating us online

Former FBI agent Clint Watts details the new and sophisticated ways in which fake news is affecting our thoughts and actions.

Clint Watts is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute

“You are entering a dangerous new world,” says Clint Watts, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at the George Washington University.

“There are now lots of actors and methods involved in attacking individuals and organisations, and it’s no longer about hacking and defending systems.”

Trolling-as-a-Service – disinformation for hire

“You know what your competitors might do and the lengths they might go to. Those competitors can do your brand reputational damage with fake news stories. Someone putting out false information can undermine your products.”


“The most sophisticated technique I see now, whether it’s a nation state, corporation or wealthy media outlet is identifying social media influencers and inserting a narrative into their speeches. They go out and make their videos and the same message can be dropped in there over and over again. Then someone can go and amplify that with bots on social media.”

Pseudoscience Firms and Alternative Universities

“Building these fake universities and think tanks takes time. You have to put together the content and do just enough to make it believable. There’s a whole industry right now building false information. In fact, you might get a CV dropped in at your company and you could click on all the links on that CV and be taken to a website that looks just like a university in a foreign country. But how often do you call that foreign university to find out if it even exists or if the person graduated? Very rarely do we do that.”

Cross Platform Computation Propaganda

  • From ‘social-bots’ to social ‘bot communities’

“We’ve heard a lot about bots but they’re really changing. With social bots, when I used to get trolled, I would fire back at them and the cheapest bots wouldn’t even answer. The more sophisticated bots might answer every once in a while but one operator would be managing up to 100 bots at a time and not have time to respond. But what if I created a bot that’s an entire community of fake accounts that talk to each other? If you enter into that conversation it will be almost impossible to know that you’re not in a conversation with real people. If I operate all of these personalities with just a little bit of machine learning getting them to talk back and forth with each other it would be very hard to know that you’re in a fake reality.”

  • Shallow fakes to deep fakes – challenging reality

“Shallow fakes and deep fakes. Synthetic media and the ability to alter this. It doesn’t just lead to people being fooled. It leads to apathy. Regarding the coronavirus, I was looking at some of the information about it and saw lots of videos uploaded to social media. I quit looking at it because I couldn’t tell which ones were real. We need solutions – blockchain verification kind of solutions, so we know what’s real.”

  • Crowd funding as a pathway

“There are lots of people out there in this new gig economy that are happy to fund themselves and their research through a crowdfunding website. If you are a manipulator then this is the greatest thing in the world. You can actually fund an alternative media outlet or media influencer. Just give them money and tell them “I really like that video you made. Do more like that”. This is an interesting pathway to being an exploiter right now in terms of influence. How can we ever catch a disinformation outlet if there’s no record of a disinformation outlet?”

  • Clint Watts is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at the George Washington University. He is also the author of the book ‘Messing with the Enemy’.

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