Watts explained that the hackers are pragmatic rather than ideological, working to gin up support for politicians seen as favorable to Russian priorities, and in turn undermine those viewed as hostile to the Russian agenda.
"It's used right now against people on both sides of the aisle," Watts said.
In the context of the 2016 campaign, witnesses at the intelligence committee hearings uniformly agreed that Russia had played a significant role through a remarkably wide-scale and sophisticated campaign of research, targeted hacking and disinformation.
"They're doing very specific spearphishes to very specific people," said Kevin Mandia, CEO of the security firm FireEye.
The hackers chose their targets carefully, such as Clinton campaign manager John Podesta, and in some cases succeeded simply because of lax security hygiene.
"Had John Podesta had two-factor authentication the last month of the campaign would have looked very different," Mandia said.
Hacking social media with fake news
Watts described an elaborate and coordinated campaign that through a mix of human and computer-driven activity published and promoted fake news stories, propelling that content to the top trending lists on popular social media platforms thanks in part to armies of bots with profiles carefully crafted to match a target demographic, such as middle-class voters in a swing state like Wisconsin.
As those stories began to go viral on social media, ideologically driven news sites would pick them up, and sometimes mainstream news outlets would address them, as well, Watts said. As stories of nonexistent terrorist attacks, unfounded claims of voter fraud and other fictions built a critical mass, many internet users accepted them as legitimate news stories.
The Russian effort to skew the election, a digital update of a longstanding espionage and disruption strategy known as "active measures," succeeded in part because the winning candidate was all-too-eager to amplify some of the spurious claims, according to Watts.
"Part of the reason active measures have worked in this U.S. election is because the commander-in-chief has used Russian active measures at times against his opponents," he said. "He's made claims of voter fraud, that President Obama's not a citizen, that, you know, Congressman Cruz is not a citizen. Part of the reason active measures works, and it does today in terms of Trump Tower being wiretapped, is because they parrot the same lines."
But those efforts, while at the time executed in service of electing Trump, could just as easily swing the other way, depending on where the Russian interests lie.
"They might go after a Republican person in this room tomorrow and then they'll switch. It's solely based on what they want to achieve in their own landscape, whatever the Russian foreign policy objectives are," Watts said. "Let's say president Trump wins and turns against [Russia]. They will turn on President Trump as well. They win because they play both sides."
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