National Security Expert Clinton Watts: How Russian "Potemkin Village" Twitter Bots Influence Mainstream Media

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Clinton Watts, former FBI agent and national security expert testifies to the Senate Intelligence Committee about the mechanic of how Russian Twitter bots influenced the media conversation about the 2016 election.

SEN. MARK WARNER: I've been talking a lot about the use of the internet trolls and their ability to then exponentially gain more power through creating these botnets. I would love you to kind of comment about what we can do to preclude that on a -- on a going forward basis, and perhaps you can explain this technique better than I have in my various public statements.

CLINTON WATTS: Sure. The first thing that I think we need to understand is it's not all automated and it's not all human. There is a combination of the two. So you have a series of humans that work in their psychological warfare groups that command both bots at the same time. And I like to -- as an anology, you can look at it like artillery. So you have someone engaging with you as individual, and at the same time, they can launch a bot to amplify that story forward...

You can create more personas in Twitter, for example, which makes it look like there are more people than there really are. It's a Potemkin Village kind of a strategy, essentially, that amplifies your appearance.

So what they do is, they launch those simultaneously as they begin the engagement or push of false news stories. Usually from RT and Sputnik News.

They do that in unison, which games the social media system, such that such a high volume of content being pushed at the same time raises that into the Trends that you'll see, if you looked at Facebook or Twitter or whatever it might be.

You see the top ten stories that are out right now. It pushes that up there.

As soon as it pushes that into that top ten feed, mainstream media outlets then are watching that and they start to examine that content.

So, for example, the attack I talked about, one of the key hash tags they pushed is media. The goal is to get that in the top of Twitter stream so mainstream media has to respond to that story. When mainstream media responds to it or looks at it without commenting on it, it takes over organically and you'll see it move over the internet like a virus.

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