Clint Watts’ World: How America’s top Russian disinformation expert pushes disinformation to justify censorship

When I challenged the high tech flim-flam man behind the Hamilton 68 Russian bots tracker, he ducked my questions. Then his fans asked me if I was a Russian asset.

By Ilias Stathatos

“Nothing is as evil as what Russia manages to pull off… We [Americans] just focus on extremists. Everything I have seen is democracy promotion. I haven’t seen the US creating fake personas.”

These were the words of Clint Watts, a self-styled counter-terror expert who has emerged through the passion play of Russiagate and hailed as “the pre-eminent experts on Russian influence operations via social media.” Watts has warned that computational propaganda has placed America on the verge of civil war, and suggested before a Senate panel that censorship of online media might be necessary.

“America’s war with itself has already begun,” Watts proclaimed earlier this year. “We all must act now on the social media battlefield to quell information rebellions that can quickly lead to violent confrontations and easily transform us into the Divided States of America.” 

Watts is currently on a book tour that has seen him earn fawning prime time treatment from Bill Maher while avoiding uncomfortable questions from the public about his work. In fact, Watts has not encountered a single critical question since he released his book, “Messing With the Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians and Fake News,” this May.

And he should have, given his record. Watts was the moving force behind the Hamilton 68 Russian bot tracker, which maintains a dashboard claiming to expose Russian influence on everything from the NFL’s anti-police violence protests to the anti-fracking movement to the Parkland shootings.

But after the dashboard was exposed as a high-tech flim-flam that refused to name the supposed bots it tracked, and which was forced to admit that many of them were real people, Watts conveniently distanced himself from the whole operation.

“I’m not convinced on this bot thing,” Watts told Buzzfeed. He went on to called the narrative that he helped manufacture “overdone,” and admitted that the accounts Hamilton 68 tracked were not necessarily directed by Russian intelligence actors.

“We don’t even think they’re all commanded in Russia — at all. We think some of them are legitimately passionate people that are just really into promoting Russia,” Watts conceded, essentially disowning the entire moral panic that he helped start.

Now that Watts’ book tour has begun, he’s swept the candor aside and set out once again to terrify audiences with future hellscapes of Russian hackers, alternative media mavens and ISIS operatives covertly influencing Americans to battle it out in the streets of their previously placid hometowns.

The fake news horror show

I watched Watts keynote a “Fake News Horror Show”, organized by New York City’s Media Lab on June 7 and 8th. Marketed as a “science fair of terrifying propaganda tools — some real and some imagined, but all based on plausible technologies,” the gathering brought together an elite group of researchers, entrepreneurs and journalist types, all obsessed with the implications of online misinformation apparently united in their belief that Russia had disrupted their country’s democratic process through a sophisticated set of hybrid warfare tactics.

Though Watts’ claims were more than easily debunked, he was safely ensconced within his own echo chamber.

I attended the event to present him with what might have been his first public challenge, and to question him about some of the more dubious claims he made before Congress. Our exchange was as revealing as I expected, not only because Watts could not provide evidence to back up his stunning information war stories, but because of the hostility I encountered from some of his admirers, who immediately assumed I was a Russian bot come to life.

A dubious expert

    In his NYC Media Lab speech, despite the fact that the initial parts of his address were dedicated to online extremism and then at the immensity of Russian propaganda/active measures, Watts insisted that the conversation should be about how these active measures will be, and already are, being popularized within the West.

He claimed that everyone across national lines and political ideologies will use and repurpose the toolset pioneered by the meddlesome Russians in order to serve their goals. Indeed, according to Watts, “everybody is duplicating the (Russian) system.”

He forecast a terrifying future where countries like the US could wreak havoc on their enemies and adversaries alike. But in Watts’ world, America’s malevolence was ultimately the fault of Russia, which taught it how to hack and interfere.

Watts posited Russia’s supposedly unique meddling techniques as the foundation for all information warfare to come, and warned that with “these different groups (affected by Russian disinformation) fighting inside you, there’s no need for us to meet on the battlefield.”

He painted a dystopian vision of an electronically fractured world, of different biases imposed and amplified by social media, leading to the breakup of social bonds, institutions and at the end of the US. In this dystopian scenario, the fracture ends up manifesting itself physically.

In one nightmare scenario, according to Watts, a Democrat takes the presidency in 2020. In the election that follows, “there are people campaigning for the break-up of the United States. They will not win,” he predicted, “but if they manage to do well in some states, then the future for the United States is starting to look bleak.”

Watts seemed intrigued by levels of activism “unprecedented since the 60’s,” and the fact that left and right “extremes are sharing the same content.”

He then reiterated a policy prescription he made to Congress, calling for the establishment of an agency to assign “nutritional labels” to media organizations — a separate, non-government entity outside of the Beltway, albeit with unclear classification criteria, funding sources and staffing. In short, a media censorship ministry.

Claims to Congress: debunked

Watts was the subject of a separate investigation by Max Blumenthal at The Grayzone Project earlier this year. It is worthwhile to briefly revisit the article, as it reveals how many of the claims that Watts is famous for are simply baseless, or are, at best, deceptive representations of half-truths.

I intended to challenge these claims, and demand evidence, even though it was fairly clear he had none. Hardly surprising for a figure whose career was nurtured from within the bowels of one of the most comically militaristic think-tanks in the country.

Before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Watts claimed that RT and Sputnik fabricated news of the US Incirlik Airbase in Turkey being “overrun by terrorists”, a claim that was repeated by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen on the Senate floor. In fact, every single Turkish print news outlet reported on protests descending on Incirlik and RT’s and Sputnik’s reporting was entirely true, relied exclusively on Turkish sources, and made no reference to any terrorists. Moreover, RT embedded a tweet from a US security firm declaring there was no coup taking place.

Watts also co-authored an article titled, “The Good and Bad of Ahrar al-Sham, An Al Qaeda-linked group worth defending“, where he claimed before Congress that he was mercilessly attacked by Russian trolls on his social media accounts after Foreign Affairs published this almost self-satirically headlined article — which openly argued for the US to arm and fund a militant group infamous for his sectarianism, human rights abuses and off-and-on friendship with the largest Al Qaeda franchise in the world. But there is no evidence anywhere of even any negative comments on his Twitter post, on the article, or anywhere else.

The hunt for Red fake newser

    When I rose before the crowd and asked Watts to address these inconsistencies in the testimony he delivered before Congress to prove the menace of Russian disinformation, he sheepishly accepted that the entire Turkish press also reported on the demonstrations but claimed that in his testimony he raised the wider issue of Russian active measures in its totality. In other words, he dodged the question.

Regarding the Foreign Affairs article marketing Ahrar al-Sham, he initially let out a sigh and muttered, “not again,” before dismissively claiming that he presented an approach towards Islamists that was away from drone strikes. It must be tiring to root for death-squads and not get the slaps on the back you deserve.

Watts left the substance of my question unanswered, refusing to say just where the Russian bots that swarmed him were.

Throughout his talk, Watts painted himself as an Malcolm Gladwell for the infowars era — someone who seeks solutions by crowdsourcing the question, dismissing the majority, and paying close attention instead to the outliers. However, in the hyper-regulatory system that he proposed, the media outliers are necessarily suspect and must be labelled as such or formally censored.

And because I was perhaps the only outlier inside the New York Media Lab who dared to ask Watts critical questions, I was angrily interrogated after the Q&A by a staffer from the Center of American Progress (CAP), the Democratic Party’s unofficial think tank in Washington. The clearly enraged think tanker demanded to know if I was sympathetic to the Kremlin and if I had worked in the past for Russian media.

He continued by asking me what I thought about contemporary Russian-Greek relations, and the funding of Greek political parties by the Kremlin, possibly trying to deign if I was a recipient of this very funding. Out of the three people participating to the Q&A session, I was the only one who was asked to identify himself.

The condescending prejudice that journalists face for asking basic, critical questions is what makes the culture of mainstream media so terrifying, and why so many are turning off to it. Legitimate public and journalistic concerns about propaganda and misinformation are been channeled into, and co-opted by a politically charged orthodoxy of the opinion elite, which propose as a solution the institutionalization of a narrow set of opinions, and all others as suspect.

The degradation of truth-telling as a journalistic value cannot be addressed by seeking sanctuary within convenient and dominant tropes. This will only widen an already massive cultural rift between journalists and the public and accelerate the unravelling of professional journalism.

In Russia, this process has been long underway, as Natalia Rudakova’s book, “Losing Pravda: Ethics and The Press in Post-Truth Russia,” made clear. Here in the West, we are rapidly approaching a no less troubling scenario where insidious information warfare experts get to legislate the truth and the outliers are driven into oblivion. It is Watts’ vision, where censorship defends democracy and a passive media culture is the best defense against “active measures”, that brings us closer to a landscape that open societies are supposed to resist.  

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Ilias Stathatos is a journalist. He has reported for numerous Greek print and online media, focusing on international news and labour journalism. He was the London correspondent for two national newspapers, an Investigative Journalism fellow at the University of London and is currently based in New York. You can reach him @ilistathatos