DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. My guest Clint Watts has spent a fair chunk of his professional life battling terrorism - some of it using a home computer and a credit card. Watts is a former army officer and FBI counterterrorism agent who devoted some of his time as a civilian to tracking and engaging terrorists on social media - and more recently, researching Russian efforts to influence American elections.
Watt's new book recounts some of those experiences and reflects on the power of social media to shape opinions and propagate false narratives when manipulated by actors with a political agenda. The Senate Intelligence Committee summoned Watts to testify about Russian meddling in the election, where he warned that the country needs a comprehensive program to combat the problem. Clint Watts is a Robert A. Fox fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a senior fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University. His new book is "Messing With The Enemy: Surviving In A Social Media World Of Hackers Terrorists Russians And Fake News."
Well, Clint Watts, welcome to FRESH AIR. You have an interesting resume. You went to West Point, served in the 101st Airborne and then left the military and went to the FBI in 2002, worked in counterterrorism, left the FBI, went and did graduate work in international studies, went back to teaching at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, returned to the FBI in 2006 - right? - again working on counterterrorism. What was it about the government's efforts at counterterrorism that just didn't work, at least for you?
CLINT WATTS: Yeah, I've had an interesting career. And I can't figure out if I can't hold down a job, or it's just been an interesting pathway that sort of worked out. I think with counterterrorism - in the FBI in 2002 and '03, the organization was in tumult. If you remember, this is after 9/11. And the organization was moving quickly to try and get its hands around the counterterrorism mission. And counterterrorism was very different then. We were still in the reactive mode of the 1990s and '80s that you would see if we were chasing bank robberies.
And what's been remarkable during the FBI Director Mueller's tenure, which was the entire time was there - both times - is the transition to intelligence-driven operations. And the second time I came back, that's what we are doing in counterterrorism. And I think that's why our country has been so well-protected since 9/11. And we've seen so little violence on our homeland. It's because of the great work and the great transition the FBI made. And so it was two different experiences. And the second one was more of what I expected than the first, I think.
DAVIES: You left the FBI and worked as a cybersecurity consultant, right? And you started a blog. And you say you conducted social media experiments to engage terrorists. How did you connect with them? How did you get their attention?
WATTS: It happened by accident for the most part. I first went out on to Twitter. And this is in the early days of Twitter when it was actually a nice place to be. And you met communities of people where you could discuss topics. In those early days around 2010 and '11, I was interfacing with people that were doing other counterterrorism work. And you'd have great dialogues on Twitter. And I would write about it on my blog. But what I started to figure out is there were actual terrorists or terrorist sympathizers out there in the world that would read these things too. It was very similar to what we saw with al-Qaida people - wanting to actually look at Combating Terrorism Center's website. They're very curious about themselves. And they have a certain kind of narcissism, which powers their movement in certain ways.
And so I would write up these articles. And when I would write these articles or post - trying to analyze the currents of terrorist and where they were going, the future of al-Qaida - I started drawing in a few actual terrorist or terrorist sympathizers. And they would provide me feedback. And so I always looked to the crowd if you think about it. Crowdsourcing was big during the period after 2010. And the idea was you can ask any crowd a question. They'll give you the best answer. And I tried applying this in terrorism analysis. And I was failing. But I found these outliers in the mix, which were oftentimes people who are living overseas or knew a foreign language or were actually in these organizations. And they would provide me feedback. And that allowed me to sort of write a forecast over time of what eventually became the Islamic State overtaking al-Qaida.
DAVIES: So this is amazing. So you've sort of created this intellectual community of private citizens, researchers, think tank people, people in the intelligence community, who want to study how to stop terrorism, as well as terrorist sympathizers and terrorists themselves all engaging in shoptalk.
WATTS: Yes. And what was fascinating is it was the same formulas or techniques that I have been trained for intelligence analysis in the government. But you just have very few sources. You know, you just have very few people you could discuss this with. When you go to the open-source world of social media, you use the same sort of techniques and ideas. But you actually ask a very diverse community all across the world. You can get so much more in terms of rich answers that you really gain a lot of clarity on it.
And so sometimes I would even put out what I thought was probably wrong - or an 80 percent solution - on my blog. And terrorists would be so quick to tell me I was wrong - or terror sympathizers would be - in what I got wrong. And so they would provide me feedback. And I would just change my estimate based on their feedback. And same with the people doing counterterrorism research. They would provide their input. If I had emailed them all and asked them to contribute, I would have not heard from them. But as soon as I put something out on social media, everyone's a critic. And they like to tell you wrong. And I would just deliberately do that and let them provide feedback to me.
DAVIES: So you'd post a question - like, after the death of Osama bin Laden, what happens with al-Qaida? That would be kind of an example. And then what would you learn from the answers?
WATTS: Yeah, what I started to learn - and this is what really played out over the next few years - is how social media was really powered by biases and that your community really shapes how you think about things. So I thought when I would put that question out there, which seemed like an inevitability - it actually came from one of my colleagues, a guy named Will McCants. What happens if, you know, bin Laden dies tomorrow? Does this just all end, or does it turn into something else? And across the board, the answer was always just kind of like it's not a big deal, or it doesn't matter.
But I would get these fringe responses, which were from the Middle East or sometimes South Asia. Or sometimes it would even be Americans that just had studied abroad, and they had a different perspective. And I would aggregate them. And I essentially developed this system I called the wisdom of outliers. I'd look at these outlying possibilities and weigh them against each other and then try and look for indicators of when their prophecy - you know, their version of the future would come. And that really played out. That survey was fascinating because I put it out right before bin Laden was killed. And it was interesting to see how the world unfolded right after he was killed. And some of these outliers got it exactly right.
DAVIES: Yeah, so what did the outliers tell you? And what did that help you conclude about the terrorist world?
WATTS: What they were telling me - when I'd look at a lot of the terrorist sympathizers, they were looking for what was the next thing after al-Qaida. What was it going to be like when we don't have this head shed that's governing us? When will we pursue a caliphate? And it's fascinating. Within just a few months really after the death of bin Laden, you saw these emirates pop up, you know, in Yemen, Mali, you know, the Sahara and then later in the Islamic State. And they were trying to go ahead and pursue this dream because there was no real person stopping them.
Bin Laden used to always say, we need to use caution. Be patient. Don't try and implement your will on the people. And if you just fast-forward three years, we saw the Islamic State do this in a devastating and aggressive way. They moved very quickly. And they did this because they had won a social media nation that overtook the establishment. They essentially had such popularity. They could mobilize people online or on the ground to pursue their vision. And they did this in such short order. And I think that's what came from the survey - was there were people hinting at the fact that after bin Laden dies there's going to be a social movement. There are people that are ready to move. And he's really just a lid on a pressure cooker that's out there.
DAVIES: A lot of passion and violence that was ready to be unleashed.
WATTS: Exactly. And it wasn't just the passion and violence. It was the barrier to entry. If you were a member of al-Qaida in the early days. You had to go to a training camp. You had to speak Arabic. You had to learn the ideology. You had to be indoctrinated. If you fast forward to about the time when Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American cleric who went and joined al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, you start to see him recruit people in a very different way. He was doing it through social media. He was doing it through short bursts, not these long diatribes that we would see bin Laden or Zawahiri give. And most importantly, he was doing it in such a way that he was recruiting people in the English language.
And this was different. You didn't have to learn Arabic to access this violent ideology. You could just use your own language. If you look at what the Islamic State did, they lowered the barrier to entry. Everybody could participate. They did videos that were super short - almost like action videos or video games. And the other thing that they did was they translated into many different languages. They were speaking to everyone. The focus was on violence more than ideology. And it recruited so many more people into their ranks. And it really fueled the Islamic State - the building of an actual caliphate, something bin Laden always talked about but was always hesitant to pursue.
DAVIES: Clint Watts' new book is "Messing With The Enemy: Surviving In A Social Media World Of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians, And Fake News." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF PAQUITO D'RIVERA'S "CONTRADANZA")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Clint Watts. He's a former Army officer and FBI special agent who worked on counterterrorism operations. His new book about the use of social media by terrorist groups and Russian actors seeking to influence American politics is called "Messing With The Enemy."
You developed a special interest in a young American who'd gone to Somalia. You had something of an expertise in the Horn of Africa. And this guy had settled in with the terrorist group al-Shabab. Tell us about this man and what kind of relationship he developed.
WATTS: Omar Hammami was from Daphne, Ala. And so he was a fascinating character. During the time when America was fighting in Iraq - this is after 9/11 - he became very adherent to the faith of Islam. And he also became more militant in his views. And he essentially would challenge other Americans in Alabama, in his high school, about why bin Laden was right or that he had the right to attack the United States and that America was wrong or essentially deserved the 9/11 attacks. And this is a very controversial stance, not only today but even more so back right after 9/11. And he continued to pursue it despite all the sort of pressure against him.
He moved from there to Toronto and then Toronto to Cairo. And Cairo - instead of going to Iraq like lots of other foreign fighters of the time, he went to Somalia. And there was a group called the Islamic Courts Union. And he was known for being, really, one of the first people on social media to draw a following. He did it, as well, by being American. He was known as the American jihadi who could do raps. And he would record these on YouTube. And this is when we saw, the first time, a real clash of culture. It was the American culture merging with jihadi ideology to try and recruit people in America, which was very different.
And he was doing this from Somalia. And he thought he was becoming quite notorious. And so from that, he became so emboldened and they promoted him so heavily as really a recruitment tool that he thought he was bigger than the people that were in charge. And so when the Islamic Courts Union became al-Shabab, he really became a player - or thought he was. And when he challenged the boss, a guy named Godane in Somalia, to try and lead and help guide Shabab, he was pushed out of the group and onto the run.
And that's where I encountered him, was not in Somalia but on Twitter. He took to Twitter, YouTube and some other platforms to really get his story out there because he feared he was going to be killed by his own terrorist group. And that's when I started interacting with him because he saw myself and many other people on Twitter as a way to get his story out there.
DAVIES: So you have this young man who has kind of become a little bit of a celebrity, at least in his own mind, as a terrorist leader but is suddenly on the outs. What kind of relationship did you develop with him? What strategy did you employ? What were you trying to do?
WATTS: What was interesting about Hammami was I couldn't figure out what he was trying to do. Was he still supporting al-Qaida and jihadi ideology now that his terrorist group had turned on him? Or was he just trying to save his own skin, you know, by staying alive and keeping the public aware of his message? He would reach out to me and many others on Twitter. And a lot of people in the Twitter landscape then thought - oh, we can talk to him, and maybe we can talk him down from his violence.
But I saw it as a much different way. Omar Hammami was a great vehicle to discredit other people, other potential foreign fighters that are in the social media space that might want to come and join - other future recruits who want to come and join. So I just wanted Omar to tell his story. And Omar wanted to tell his story because he wanted people to know that he was a big deal. Jihadists tend to be big narcissists. They have to. They have to spread word of their victories and their cause.
And I knew every time he talked about his situation, he was eroding the brand of al-Qaida and al-Shabab. He was hurting jihadists because he's talking to an American, he's talking to an American in English and he's revealing that there are lots of cracks in the foundation of that terrorist group. They don't all get along. And so I wanted recruits not to go to Somalia, not to look up to Omar Hammami. But I wanted Hammami to tell us why they shouldn't do that.
So I would just engage Omar on Twitter. But I also remembered, back from my FBI training days, that whether you're a car salesman or someone doing an interview or a journalist like you, Dave, you want to build rapport, you know, with whoever you're discussing. And so rather than talk to Omar about why he made such a bad choice, I would talk to Omar about what it's like to be an American and the things that he and I shared in common. I grew up in Missouri; he grew up in Alabama. He played soccer as a kid; so did I. He liked a lot of the same TV shows that I liked. And so I focused on that because what I wanted him to really do is tell me that al-Qaida, as an ideology, was bankrupt and that it wasn't what everyone thought it might be if they were looking to join.
DAVIES: OK. This is what's odd about this. Right? You're a guy with a history in the intelligence community. You were an FBI agent. He is a guy who believes in death to America and jihad. So even if you're having some kind of friendly conversation, if he tells you how miserable his life has become since he made this choice to go to Somalia and embrace al-Shabab, you write about it in the blog to dissuade others from thinking, this is going to be a wonderful choice to make. Doesn't he see this? And doesn't he say - hey, that's not the message I want to get out?
WATTS: He does. But his narcissism, I think, ultimately trumped his ideology. One of the posts that I wrote that really got his attention was called "6 Reasons Not To Join Al-Shabab: Courtesy Of Omar Hammami" (ph). And what I did was I read one of his bios. He would document in these long diatribes, you know, his experience in his bio as part of this jihadist movement. And I just picked out all the reasons why this is a silly escapade that he had gone on. But I used his own words. You know, I sort of laid it out. And he couldn't really argue with it in the end because I was talking to what he had actually said. This is what you said, Omar. This is my take on it. But then he would, you know, offer back other reasons why he thought he should pursue it. And so each one of those exchanges just gave me more insight into it.
And probably over about a six-month period, what was fascinating was I could start to ask him questions in a very deliberate way. Do you see yourself as a member of al-Qaida? And what was fascinating, he was kind of a forerunner of what was to come. He said, I don't see myself as a member of al-Qaida, but I believe in what they're doing. He essentially was saying he wasn't part of it. And then when I challenged him a little bit further, he was saying after al-Qaida - and this was one of his famous tweets, to me, was post-al-Qaida equals broad-based jihad. He was signaling that after this is over, it will be the people's jihadist movement, a social media-powered populist movement. And it's eerie how similar that looks to what actually happened. The Islamic State, you know, which was ISIS before, really took over what al-Qaida started and took it into a very different direction. And they used social media to power it.
DAVIES: You didn't hide who you were, and if they were potential terrorists reading this, reading your Twitter feed and can figure out where you are and may not appreciate your denigrating the choice of being a jihadist, were you looking over your shoulder? Did you worry?
WATTS: Yeah. I think I've been looking over my shoulder for the last decade on social media. And that's definitely the case. You know, there were times that I worried about it, but I also felt like by being myself, at least to a certain point, maybe I'm resonating with some of those same people that are terrorist sympathizers. And yeah, I was very concerned about it. Around the Boston bomber time, I didn't live far from the Boston bombing, only about a mile or two away. And so I was concerned at that point because this was around the Omar discussions timeframe. And so, you know, I was well-trained in the military and law enforcement. I keep my eye open and, you know, I watch for things, but it was a concern.
DAVIES: What became of Omar?
WATTS: Omar was killed. Omar was killed by his group, al-Shabab, and it was coming. He would go intermittent on social media and vanish for some time. And I always assumed that he would either be detained or killed by al-Shabab. I was hoping that he would turn himself in or that somebody would turn him in to U.S. authorities because I thought it'd be great to have a law enforcement end, you know, to Omar without it always being about war and killing. But he was hunted down and killed in Somalia. I believe it was in 2013.
DAVIES: And did this interaction with Omar or other conversations and writings that you engaged in, do you think they struck a blow against terrorism? Did they tell counterterrorists things they didn't know?
WATTS: I don't know. You know, I don't know from inside government what was gained from it. I feel like at some point there must have been someone watching these conversations. And the more they became aware of Omar Hammami - and not just my conversation. There were plenty of other people out there talking about it, too. But the more they saw Omar's experience, the more they realized this prophecy of jihad that's oftentimes preached on the Internet or pushed on social media was bogus and that it wasn't something worth pursuing. So I'm hoping at some level - and I'm pretty confident that it was - there were people that saw those conversations and said, you know what? I don't know that I want to make that jump that Omar Hammami did.
With that, though, I wouldn't - I would be remiss if I did not mention that this is the same time the conflict in Syria was picking up. Even in its best case, maybe I helped deter somebody from wanting to go to Somalia, but maybe they didn't go to Somalia and they just chose to go to Syria. One of the things that Omar eerily would talk about was he has a Syrian heritage. And so he would say it's messed up here with Shabab in Somalia, but you know where it is going - right? - and that's Syria. And he would point to what the Islamic State was building. It just wasn't quite there yet, but there were already movements of foreign fighters heading towards the Syria battlefield then.
DAVIES: Clint Watts' book is "Messing With The Enemy." After a break, he'll talk about his tracking of Russian efforts to influence American politics and why he says it's hard to combat fake news when our own government officials lie so much. Also, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a reissue of a classic 1991 album by Anthony Braxton and his quartet, and film critic Justin Chang reviews the new thriller "Hereditary" starring Toni Collette. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with former Army officer and former FBI counterterrorism agent Clint Watts. His new book is about his efforts as a civilian to engage with and undermine terrorist networks and to track Russian meddling in American politics. His book is called "Messing With The Enemy."
So in March of 2014 you write - and this is two years before the presidential campaign - a petition was posted to the whitehouse.gov website. And I didn't know this, but apparently, it's common to post petitions to that site. This one had the title Alaska Back To Russia, which is kind of an odd thing to be advocating. What did the activity around this particular petition reveal?
WATTS: Yeah. That petition was odd because it was being promoted, sent around and amplified in the same network that was trolling me about Syria. And what was interesting is sometimes they would even tweet in the Russian language, and so that was curious. And then when you looked at the numbers, there were about roughly 40,000 signatures to this at the time. And we just couldn't figure out who the 40,000 Alaskans or Americans were that wanted this action to happen. And so when you pulled out the actual accounts that were sharing this link, they followed a very different pattern. If you went to most any petition that's at the White House website, it's basically a bell curve. Some people have some followers and a lot - are following a lot, and vice versa, some people are - you know, have lots of followers and are only following a few. And in the middle, it's about 50-50.
But this was different. When you pulled out those accounts, they were an algorithm. They all had a certain increment of follower and following to where it almost looks like lines, like a set of blinds over a window. And that was one of the first social bots really that I had stumbled onto that was in an organized way, that with my colleagues, we could see this wasn't just some basic effort. This wasn't just recruiting and radicalizing extremists to go to Syria and Iraq. This was an organized effort to change people's perceptions, and it was aimed at the United States.
DAVIES: Right. So if I'm - get what you're saying, when you looked at the accounts that signed on to endorse this petition - let's give Alaska back to Russia - what you saw were indications that they were mechanically controlled; they weren't real human beings; they were robotically controlled.
WATTS: That's exactly right. With social bots, what you tend to find is they tweet at extremely high volumes at nearly all hours of the day, something a human could not do. And they also tend to have pictures that are innocuous, or as I always tell people, if you go and buy a picture frame at the store and you see that weird sort of picture of people, you know, in it that look too happy to be normal - it was those kind of pictures where you can instinctively look at it, and you're like, this is inauthentic; there's something not there to it. And that burst, that storm would change direction and share content almost instantaneously and in a very deliberate way. And so the next thing we sort of did was we observed them over time, and they would share links to the same news stories, the same news articles. So the content of those news articles almost always pushed back to a very pro-Russian foreign policy agenda. And what was also interesting is some of the top links that always surfaced were RT and Sputnik news, which were two state-sponsored news outlets of the Russian government.
DAVIES: So - right. So what you were really seeing here is an early look - earlier than most of us were aware - of this Russian effort to influence American politics. Give us an example of one of these efforts that related to domestic issues or politics in the United States.
WATTS: Right. So what was fascinating going from '14 into '15 is, they wanted to talk a lot less about foreign policy and much more about U.S. social issues. And this is when we really realized they were using the old Russian active measures playbook, which is, talk about generally four themes - social issues, financial issues, political issues or calamitous issues, which are inciting fear. And they would stay on these themes and sort of mix them in there. So one of those always interesting to me was the Bundy ranch. They would talk pretty heavily about the Bundy ranch. Black Lives Matter protests were a big issue they would discuss and amplify.
And the one that really struck with me that I started to believe that this might be gaining traction was Jade Helm 2015. This was a military exercise that was happening in the Southwest of the United States, and the way it sort of came out onto the Internet was that this was a plan by the Obama administration to declare martial law and take everybody's weapons through use of the military. I don't think the Russians created that, but they amplified it to such a point that it really increased the level to which people both saw it and they believed it.
And it was the first time I saw a physical reaction in the United States where I saw people engaging with the content. And when they showed up to protest, I oftentimes would wonder, did they think there were going to be hundreds of people at this rally because they saw such widespread support, which was actually false, in social media? And this was kind of the way to do it. The idea of Russian active measures, which is a Soviet reboot - you know, a reboot of the Soviet era - is to use the force of politics rather than the politics of force to win over audience and your adversary and amplify the divisions between them so that they're fighting against each other rather than against you. And this is that sort of social media judo that they were doing in 2015.
DAVIES: You know, I saw an interview with you in Mother Jones, and you were talking about ways to - you were asked about ways to inoculate against disinformation campaigns. And it quoted you as saying, it's increasingly hard because our government officials lie so much. What - is that true? What do you mean?
WATTS: Yeah. I think when I look since 2016 to now, my lesson is that in 2018, we don't need to worry about Russian disinformation. We need to worry about American disinformation. And it is in the social media space that we see everyone is essentially taking the same methods, the same techniques that are being - that were employed by the Russian disinformation system and using it for their own purposes. So are people creating their own information outlets, which spout their view on the world? Are they using social bots to amplify their message? Are they putting out forgeries or selectively leaked information to drive a political narrative?
This is information warfare, and I see it duplicated now more by American politicians, political campaigns, public relations groups than I do by Russian disinformation. And I think the real scary thing over the horizon is, Russia doesn't need to make fake news anymore. In the United States, we have plenty of fake news that we make that they can repurpose. And right now, just between the government and the mainstream media, there is huge debate about who is right and whose versions of facts are the real facts that we should be listening to. That's a very dangerous place, not just for the United States, for democracies across the world. If everybody uses this information strategy, there will be no unions left at the end. It will leave us, instead of the United States of America, the divided states of America.
DAVIES: That's a pretty sobering picture. Can you give us an example of one of these fake narratives that troubles us?
WATTS: Yeah. The most recent one I think is a great example is spygate. We've heard a lot about spygate over the past couple days, and it's really been this narrative that the Obama administration put a spy in the Trump campaign. That is completely false. And it is a narrative - a false narrative - that has moved around in social media to such a degree that I'm confident many people believe that there was a spy from the Obama administration put into the Trump campaign. Yet we've seen representatives from Congress go, we've actually reviewed what the FBI did. And we saw from both sides the aisle now - Representative Trey Gowdy from the Republicans - say, there is nothing here; there was no spy, and this is actually good work on behalf of the FBI. But that refutation, again - it came so much later that that false conspiracy has already been spread around. And whether it's that - the notion that Trump Tower was wiretapped - or probably a half a dozen other large conspiracies, that false information moves around the ecosystem, and you see competing bubbles - partisan bubbles - take those false narratives and push them back and forth against each other.
DAVIES: Right. So in a better world, how is that, you know, truth squaded (ph) effectively?
WATTS: The only way we can beat disinformation is leadership. And it really takes our elected leaders, regardless of their position, to put country over party, to put truth over fictions and not use these political opportunities to push a conspiracy against a certain component because those conspiracies, they don't just hurt their opponent, it hurts Americans. It hurts American trust in democratic institutions, hurts American trust in elected officials. And it actually is to gain for our foreign adversaries who love to see us fighting amongst ourselves and spreading conspiracy. It opens the door for them to reuse a conspiracy or to create another one right behind it.
DAVIES: What's the role of, you know, social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook? They obviously have a huge impact. Are there changes that would make them a more positive force?
WATTS: Yeah. A year ago, I would have been more negative about the social media companies. But I have to say, if I look at all the actors involved in what has happened, social media companies have moved forward quite a bit in the last year. I think Facebook has devoted a lot of resources to quelling disinformation, trying to keep advanced manipulators off their platform. I even, you know, Twitter I've been hard on at times because I feel like they really missed the Russian disinformation effort. But they've made some real positive changes lately in times - trying to think about how you change the nature of conversations, you know, so that they're not so derisive on their platform. And they've instituted some terms of service and some controls to try and change that. But, you know, they can only do so much.
What I see from the best manipulators on social media, the most nefarious of them, is they play within the terms of service. And they move from one platform to another based on shutdown. So if we think back to terrorists, we were closing them off Twitter and then they were moving to Telegram. Same kind of thing happens with disinformation is you can shut them out of one platform, but they tend to move or migrate to another. So this will be an enduring battle for the social media companies. And ultimately, what they need to do is restore trust with the users. And I think they're trying to institute those controls.
Now, the question is, will it be too little too late? Or will social media just descend into partisans on both sides who yell back and forth at each other? And really, for the main consumer, it becomes a negative user experience. I think, you know, we're still another year or two from knowing that. But I do feel like they've' made some gains in recent months.
DAVIES: OK. Clint Watts, thanks so much for speaking with us.
WATTS: Thank you.
DAVIES: I spoke to Clint Watts yesterday. His new book is "Messing With The Enemy: Surviving In A Social Media World Of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians, And Fake News." Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a reissue of a classic 1991 album by Anthony Braxton and his quartet. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWBERN'S "WHEN WAR WAS KING")
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton composes operas and pieces for diverse ensembles and is an NEA Jazz Master. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says, on the jazz side, one of Braxton's great groups was the quartet he led between 1985 and 1993. Here's Kevin's review of a reissue from that classic lineup.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANTHONY BRAXTON QUARTET'S "NO. 40M")
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Anthony Braxton on alto saxophone with pianist Marilyn Crispell, bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Gerry Hemingway. That's from Braxton's album "Quartet Willisau 1991 Studio" (ph), back out on two CDs from hatOLOGY. The title's prosaic, but the album's a classic. The quartet plays some new pieces and a few evergreens Braxton had written in the 1970s like composition "23c," with its expanding form. Every time the melody goes around, another phrase gets tacked on like that Christmas song with the pear tree.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WHITEHEAD: Braxton is known for his brainy compositional procedures, and this quartet was his great workshop. But players were steeped in his methods and always clear in their interactions. They could jump in and out of each other's written parts by design or on the fly. Braxton's pieces can be complex, but they're often practical. He writes complications your ear can follow. On composition "40a," the bassist switches between plucking and bowing every eight bars, a switch mirrored by the drums in various ways. Meanwhile, flute and piano play slightly out of sync, creating the illusion of a second flute.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANTHONY BRAXTON QUARTET'S "NO. 40A")
WHITEHEAD: Things get even more involved on some new compositions where the players spin together and apart part in less obvious ways. On the whirlwind composition "159," Braxton's solo keeps cycling back to one spiky phrase, a catchy repeat like a hook in a pop song.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANTHONY BRAXTON QUARTET'S "NO. 159")
WHITEHEAD: Braxton's quartet was an intricate marvel, and Graham Lock wrote a whole book around their methods called "Forces In Motion." I wrote helpful notes to the album "Quartet (Willisau) 1991 Studio." The music covers a lot of ground, from atmospherics to dense sound collages that layer one composition over another to zigzag tunes that sound like a Charlie Parker 78 broken into pieces and glued back together.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANTHONY BRAXTON QUARTET'S "NO. 40B")
WHITEHEAD: Anthony Braxton's quartet achieved a kind of perfection in the early '90s. And then he broke it up, partly to compose for larger resources. Marilyn Crispell, Mark Dresser and Gerry Hemingway have also lived a few musical lives since then. The concepts and strategies at play in this quartet have influenced a couple of generations of ambitious composers and improvisers. It's an important band, but I also really like the sound that it makes.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure. He reviewed the reissue of Anthony Braxton's classic album "Quartet (Willisau) 1991 Studio." Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new supernatural horror thriller "Hereditary." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANAT COHEN'S "NIGHTMARE (FEAT. PAQUITO D'RIVERA)")
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The supernatural horror thriller "Hereditary" scared audiences silly at the recent Sundance Film Festival where it had journalists invoking classics like "Rosemary's Baby," "The Exorcist" and "The Shining." "Hereditary" stars Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne and Ann Dowd and was written and directed by Ari Aster. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "Hereditary" is the most emotionally devastating horror movie I've seen in ages. Or maybe it's the scariest family drama I've seen in ages. The sensationally talented writer-director Ari Aster knows that what upsets us and what terrifies us are often one and the same. His masterful debut feature will tie your stomach in knots even before all hell breaks loose. It's a searing portrait of grief of a family slowly coming apart as one tragedy follows another. It also has a brilliant lead performance from Toni Collette as Annie, a professional artist who is about to bury her 78-year-old mother, Ellen, as the movie opens. It appears to be no great loss. As Annie notes at the funeral and later at a support group meeting, Ellen could be an intensely private, difficult and demanding woman.
In the days that follow, Annie tries to move on, focusing on her work and her family. In a way, her work is her family. She builds and paints intricate dioramas, miniature dollhouse versions of her own wood-side home, each one reconstructing a key moment from her past. Annie has two kids with her supportive but somewhat low-key husband Steve, played by Gabriel Byrne. Their son, Peter, played by Alex Wolff, is like a lot of teenage boys - bored, inattentive, interested mainly in sex and pot. He's better adjusted than his younger sister, Charlie, an odd, withdrawn 13-year-old played by Milly Shapiro from the Broadway musical "Matilda." Charlie likes to draw creepy pictures of animals in her notebook and walks around in an orange sweatshirt that reminded me of the red-hooded killer from the 1973 horror classic "Don't Look Now," one of many obvious touchstones here. As Annie points out before bedtime one night, Charlie was unusually close to her grandmother.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HEREDITARY")
TONI COLLETTE: (As Annie) You know you were her favorite, right? Even when you were a little baby, she wouldn't let me feed you because she needed to feed you - drove me crazy.
MILLY SHAPIRO: (As Charlie) She wanted me to be a boy.
COLLETTE: (As Annie) You know, I was a tomboy when I was growing up. I hated dresses and dolls and pink.
SHAPIRO: (As Charlie) Who's going to take care of me?
COLLETTE: (As Annie) Excuse me. You don't think I'm going to take care of you?
SHAPIRO: (As Charlie) But when you die.
CHANG: The mystery in "Hereditary" concerns the precise nature of Ellen's legacy. It's a movie about the good and the bad - but mostly the bad - that we end up passing on to our descendants. When Annie looks through her mother's boxes, she finds a few books on spiritualism and the occult. She also finds a letter that her mother has left for her containing the ominous sentence, our sacrifice will pale next to the rewards. I wouldn't dream of revealing what that sacrifice turns out to be. Suffice to say that all four of the central characters are swiftly plunged into a waking nightmare so cruel and so vivid that it takes your breath away. Aster has some fun playing with genre conventions. There are strange noises, eerie lighting tricks, candle-lit seances and hair-raising dream sequences. Annie is befriended by a concerned older woman who - as played by Ann Dowd out of "The Handmaid's Tale" - is clearly bad news.
But "Hereditary" is no cheap exercise in jolts. The pacing is slow and deliberate - the surprises in no hurry to reveal themselves. As Annie and her loved ones moved through their personal stages of grief, you get the sense they are not just enacting the rituals of the bereaved but that they are being manipulated, like chess pieces, by forces beyond their comprehension. The cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski often frames the actors from a distance in long shots, reducing them to the scale of Annie's dolls. Those dioramas, which once served as a therapeutic outlet for Annie, become a striking metaphor for her family's entrapment.
But if the characters are shackled, the actors are fully liberated. Alex Wolff is heartbreaking as Peter, who is in some ways the story's most anguished victim. He's an unformed mass of guilt and resentment. And he internalizes each emotional blow as only an alienated teenager can. But the movie belongs to Toni Collette. This is her first major return to horror since her Oscar-nominated work in "The Sixth Sense" nearly 20 years ago. And it's been a long time coming. Collette plays Annie like an instrument going slowly out of tune, exposing more and more nerve endings in every scene. It's one of the most emotionally fine-grained performances I've seen this year - a mesmerizing reminder that the devil really is in the details.
DAVIES: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times. On tomorrow's show, actor Nick Offerman joins us, best known as Ron Swanson on the sitcom "Parks And Recreation." He stars in the new film "Hearts Beat Loud" as a single father who starts a band with his reluctant daughter before she heads to college. Hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEN ALLISON'S "GREEN AL")
DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEN ALLISON'S "GREEN AL")
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.