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Immigration, Chemical Attacks Among False Content Pushed By Fake Accounts Online

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we'd like to introduce a new segment on this program. We're going to call it Troll Watch. Since the 2016 presidential campaign, we've seen how social media can be used to amplify a fringe cause, hype up tensions over divisions that do exist or promulgate fake news, sometimes all at the same time. And it's not hard to find examples of this. With a simple Google search, you can find stories about how Russian trolls stoked skepticism about childhood vaccines, distracted from the Paul Manafort conviction and even organized a Black Lives Matter protest.

And even though they've been exposed, trolls continue to exploit these platforms, so we thought it would be useful to keep calling that out. We're going to tell you which stories are being pushed out by fake accounts on social media. Here to help us with this is cybersecurity expert Clint Watts. He's a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and he tracks Russian bots. And he's with us now.

Clint Watts, welcome back. Thanks for joining us.

CLINT WATTS: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So you've tracked these trends. What stories are trolls pushing out this week?

WATTS: I think there's two things to always think about in terms of trolling operations. One is, you have to mimic the audience that you want to be influencing. So oftentimes, you'll see them essentially take on whatever the themes, narratives, topics and even some of the stories of the audience they want to focus on. So whether it's immigration, which was a big one this week with the murder of the woman Iowa, Mollie Tibbetts, or if it's something going on with race relations, they will essentially amplify that. They don't create the story. They just use it as an opportunity because it suits their views.

MARTIN: We know that there have been fake stories pushed out in the past. Are you saying that that's no longer occurring?

WATTS: Less so because they don't really need to. One thing that's different that I see now from two years ago when we were going into the 2016 election is that they just use false or misleading narratives that are in the U.S. space that serve their purposes.

MARTIN: So if you could just amplify that point, I mean, how are these stories getting started and shared? Are they generally rooted in real events? Or are they picking up content, if we can call it that, from - well, we don't know where it's coming from - and just pushing it out, or both?

WATTS: I'll give you two examples. It's both, but it's predominately American stories first. So for example, if there's a story that discredits U.S. institutions - democratic institutions like the FBI, the Department of Justice or election systems, that might originate in the United States, and they're just amplifying it. One that was trending, though, this week that I saw was RT - it was an RT story that talked about John Bolton essentially calling on al-Qaida possibly to do a chemical attack in Syria so they could blame it on Russia. That was the context of the story. And so that wouldn't be a true story at all. Essentially, the national security adviser was pushing out in their - like, we would not, as the United States, tolerate chemical attacks in Syria. The frame through Russia's influence networks is always that that's a made-up story; it never happened; it was someone else. So that's an example of how both manipulated truths or false stories that are made in the U.S. can be amplified, and then sometimes Russia, through their state-sponsored propaganda, might push back a false or manipulated truth against the U.S.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, this week - because we're focusing on this week - as we've seen, that sometimes their messages are aimed at, you know, one political point of view or another, and sometimes they kind of balance each other out, is there any particular constituency, if I could put it that way, that they seem to be targeting this week?

WATTS: The networks that we've watched for many years are usually focused on the American right wing of the political spectrum. And so there's a heavy anti-immigration or pro-conservative, you know, social-media-companies-are-anti-conservative sort of angle. But I note that one of the top stories this week really took aim at John Bolton, the national security adviser, and was very focused on him essentially challenging the Russian agenda overseas. So it can be played both ways in the same week. Domestically, it might play to conservatives. But then internationally, it might be anti-conservative. And that's kind of what I saw this week.

MARTIN: That's Clint Watts. He's a distinguished research fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Clint Watts, thanks so much for talking with us.

WATTS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.