Troll Watch: What We Learned From The Mueller Report Clint Watts of the Foreign Policy Research Institute tells NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer what he learned about how Russian Internet trolls operate from the redacted Mueller report.

Troll Watch: What We Learned From The Mueller Report

Troll Watch: What We Learned From The Mueller Report

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Clint Watts of the Foreign Policy Research Institute tells NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer what he learned about how Russian Internet trolls operate from the redacted Mueller report.


And now we want to spend a few minutes looking at a specific piece of the Mueller report. It's a large section about Russian troll activity and its impact on the 2016 election. That's today's topic in our regular segment called Troll Watch.


PFEIFFER: This is where we usually look at what kind of fake news and memes were pushed by trolls this week. Today, we're taking a slightly different perspective in asking what the Mueller report reveals about these operations. Joining us is Clint Watts, a former FBI special agent and now a distinguished research fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Clint, thank you so much for talking with us.

CLINT WATTS: Thanks for having me.

PFEIFFER: The Mueller report examines the activities of a big troll farm based in St. Petersburg, Russia. It's funded by a Russian oligarch. It's called the IRA, short for the Internet Research Agency. Give us a mini-tutorial on what the Internet Research Agency is and why it gets mentioned so many times in the report.

WATTS: The Internet Research Agency is essentially a central hub for the disinformation put out by the Russian state-sponsored disinformation system - meaning that it helps coordinate the bringing together of state-sponsored propaganda like how RT, Russia Today, is funding news headlines, go into the social media landscape - and then how audiences are infiltrated through the use of personas that are false but also look like and talk like the audience they're trying to influence.

PFEIFFER: Some of the information about this troll farm is redacted in the Mueller report, mainly because of ongoing investigations. But from what you were able to read, did you learn anything you didn't already know?

WATTS: There were things that I had assumed or sort of calculated over the years writing about their disinformation that I didn't know for sure. One was that in 2014, they were already starting to move to the U.S. audience base. They had also taken a field trip to the United States, which was a counter to the supposition that was put out in a lot of arguments that there must be Americans working for him.

In fact, they'd actually come to America. Something else that I thought was deeply frightening was we had heard about how the Russian troll farm had orchestrated protest inside the United States. But they had been doing that as early as 2015 and had done that after the election. This is a much longer period than we had known before.

PFEIFFER: The Mueller report contains specific examples of fake Twitter accounts controlled by this Russian troll farm. One was meant to look like an official account of the Tennessee Republican Party. Some of its tweets were critical of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren. It was even retweeted by Trump campaign officials and Trump's sons. Do you have any advice for regular people on social media for how they can spot when these accounts are fake, and you're essentially being manipulated?

WATTS: It's very difficult to spot a Russian influence account or a growing number of domestic misinformation accounts that appear around the elections. But things to always look for are, one, is it a verified account or not? I think the next part is, do you have a actual person's name? Do you know where they're physically located? Do they share media, live video, pictures of themselves that show them to be who they are? Oftentimes, the trolls would use flowers or dogs or pets - that sort of thing - or would take images off the web and use those. And people oftentimes would find themselves being used as a troll farm account.

So can you verify the identity of that? And if you can't, you should not necessarily trust the information they're sharing with you. You should not retweet it. And you shouldn't share with others unless you really know where it's coming from.

PFEIFFER: We obviously have another presidential election coming. Is there anything that you think can be learned from the Mueller report to try to prevent other foreign groups from influencing U.S. voters in 2020?

WATTS: One of the strange vulnerabilities of the Mueller report is that now that we've seen it, it actually alerts many actors to where the vulnerabilities still are in our country. One is election infrastructure. It's been talked about it a lot, but the Congress has still not been able to pass the Honest Ads Act or the Election Integrity Act. We need our institutions to be able to protect voting machines. We should have paper ballot backups. We should have verifiable audit trails. I think the next part is, in terms of social media, the social media companies have actually done far more than the U.S. government has to really build resilience going into 2020.

So the number one thing we need from our country, I think, at this point is leadership. Anytime falsehoods are levered for political purposes, that provides ripe ammunition for the Russian government or really any foreign actor to use that to divide us in this country. Russia won't need to write fake news in 2020. Americans are doing plenty of that for themselves. And Russia can just repurpose and reuse that information to divide us. And I think that's a vulnerability that really comes down to our leaders in Congress and at the White House.

PFEIFFER: That's former FBI special agent Clint Watts, now with the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Clint, thank you.

WATTS: Thank you.

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