She’s a spy! (Isn’t she?)
Meet Dr. Caroline Orr Bueno, a world-famous researcher (and target) of Russia’s misinformation machine.
Journalism is too opaque and misunderstood. Chills gives a behind-the-scenes look at how dangerous investigative journalism gets made.
If you followed the Russian hacking campaign against Hillary Clinton, or if you’re on Twitter, you’ve likely heard of Dr. Caroline Orr Bueno. A behavioral scientist who researches social media manipulation, online information warfare, and far-right extremism, Orr Bueno may seem an unlikely candidate to gain a massive public following, but that is exactly what happened after she connected the dots between Roger Stone and Wikileaks in the lead-up to the 2016 election. It also didn’t hurt that Stone went off the deep end and publicly called her a “stupid stupid bitch.”
Orr Bueno and I have gotten to know each other over the past few years, partly because former President Donald Trump blocked both of us on Twitter, and because we’ve both been incessantly abused online by his supporters. While watching her rise, I wondered what it was like for her to go from being a little-known scholar to someone internationally recognized for her insights on massive political scandals. We spoke recently about how she has dealt with becoming a major social media presence — as well as a target of the very Russian hackers and disinformation campaigns she has spent her career writing about.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Lauren Wolfe: Why do you think so many people started listening to what you have to say, especially on Twitter?
Caroline Orr Bueno: I don’t really know, and I can’t exactly tell you, why so many people chose to follow me instead of somebody else.
As more people did, though, I changed my tone somewhat. Not that I think before my tone was wrong or anything, I’m just more aware, with 400-something thousand followers — I don’t even know how many people follow me right now [she has 438,000] — anything you tweet has the potential to drive a news cycle.
Oh, really? I’ve never heard of that! [Sarcasm. In January, The New York Times fired me over a tweet.]
Twitter is so closely tied into the news, and it really has the potential to have a huge impact on coverage. I’ve moderated my tone — that’s the best way to put it — because right now so much of what is wrong on the internet is super divisive. It’s hype, and I find that to be not helpful and not productive, and it doesn’t really lead to anywhere good. So I try not to contribute to that cycle.
Right. Like fighting with people.
Yeah, I try to not draw people into stuff, or quote-tweet people to make an example of them. In general, when I’m talking about something or see something going viral that might be somewhat misleading in the way it’s being presented, I’ll try to get people to tone it down, or think about what they’re doing.
There was a recent thing about how people who took ivermectin were becoming sterile. That wasn’t really accurate. It was a bad study, and low quality. It would never be accepted in mainstream science as a reliable finding. And it was going viral online. When information is of dubious quality, I don’t think that’s helpful.
You have all these independent interests. How were they connecting to what you actually study as your follower count began to rise?
Some of this is sort of happenstance in that I was a doctoral student during the Ebola outbreak studying a variety of different things on social media: communications and messaging around the outbreak. But during the process of analyzing the data on that, I ended up seeing what — I didn’t know at the time, but I now know — was the start of the Russia 2016 disinformation operation.
Wait. How did Ebola lead you to Russia?
The Russians were fear-mongering stuff about Ebola in the U.S. Our data around Ebola also contained other topics that intersected with Ebola, some of which were very predictable, some of which were not.
Take a person who is talking about Ebola. Some of that is going to end up in the Ebola data set that you end up parsing out, but a person talking about the disease may also end up talking about, for instance, Brexit. Or refugees. Or any other number of topics. Think about what any one user may talk about. So the work we were doing on Ebola spilled into this other stuff.
So Russia was involved in spreading disinformation in the U.S. about Ebola?
Well, remember how Trump was involved in that, too? We had a handful of Ebola patients here, in the U.S., and Trump was pretty much fear-mongering about that and tracing that to Obama, saying he was putting Americans at risk by letting Ebola patients into the U.S. It was a political thing. It was not a public health thing at that point.
I can see how one thing was leading to the next. But as your work became so public, how were you feeling as people started spending so much time focused on you?
I think about this still now. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the term “context collapse.”
No, but I like it.
It’s an internet-related term that basically refers to the flattening of multiple different audiences into a single, collapsed [kind of] context.
It’s an artifact of internet communication. If you think about Facebook, for example, you have all these people from all different parts of your life in one place. That’s not really a thing we’re used to dealing with. There are not many other situations where you have people you just tangentially know as well as people who know you intimately.
You’re expected to navigate this space where there are all these different audiences all at one time. It creates a lot of different problems and discomfort, and you just sort of have to give up part of your identity to figure out how to manage all of those different demands, constraints, and all these different influences and expectations if you don’t want people to know personal details about your life.
It also produces weird situations where somebody knows you for one thing you did. As in, you know of me because of the Roger Stone thing. They think that is me, basically.
The only thing some people know me for is being fired by the Times, which is totally irritating. It was one moment in my entire life.
Yes. That one day, that one event, it is the summation of all your however many years on earth. It gets to where people have these weird expectations and people get irritated when you don’t meet those expectations because you’re not actually that one thing.
I’ve had the same experience. I had people who tried to make me this voice of liberal cancel culture. It’s just bizarre.
I still get some right-wing folks who will try to attack me. Basically, their attacks, nine times out of ten, are based on what they think of as “a liberal leftist.” And that’s not me, so it kind of falls flat.
These days, if I write an explainer on different kinds of journalism, or about human rights journalism having a bias, there are actual New York Post stories written about how I’m admitting that all journalists are actually biased, even though I’ve said the opposite. People are just going to take what they think they know about me, read what I write and then twist it. It’s bizarre. It’s infuriating.
People get this idea, based on one point in time, and then you have different people who came to know of you through different things, so you have all of these different groups of people who know you as different things, none of which are actually you.
For me, it might be a particular issue I focused on, or got to be a quote-unquote thought leader on. So then people think that just because I focused on or wrote about something means I am an advocate for that.
People don’t always understand that not everything is opinion.
Right. To give you an example, I’ve written a lot, a lot, a lot about mis- and disinformation about antifascism in the U.S. I study mis- and disinformation, so it’s not unusual that I would write about a topic that is rife with it. But to some people, that means that I am a militant antifascist.
And then, of course, there are conspiracy-theory-type people who say I am a CIA agent, that I’m working for some shadowy, deep state — they think I can’t possibly not be part of that.
Oh god. I’ve gotten that for years. Decades.
[Caroline’s baby begins to scream in the background.]
She does that when she’s playing.
I’m going to write about how your child is locked in a room somewhere and share screaming recordings! People will not only call you a “sleeper agent,” but a child abuser as well! Sometimes I am terrified that this is exactly the kind of thing people are going to do to me. It’s so creepy.
[Laughing.] Yeah, like the threats and stuff often based on ideas and characterizations that are not me. I had one guy make a video of a group of us, a group of anti-fascism researchers. It was a kind of hit-list.
Have you ever been in a seriously dangerous situation because of your work?
A lot of things have happened as a result of my work. There have been attempts to hack my accounts. I get a lot of attempts to discredit me or my work through various disinformation campaigns, often emanating from people and organizations with direct links to the Russian government.
There have been a few times when people have managed to turn some people away from me or against me by offering a dishonest portrayal. They’ll take four tweets from four different years, put them together, and act like it tells a certain story. But it doesn’t.
It’s hard to combat that. And it’s a little bit disconcerting when you see a direct link to Russian state media and people who work for or closely with the Russian government.
I’d say so. I think of you as a private person, so I can imagine this kind of fame or infamy was not something you would have chosen. Do you regret how public you’ve become? Or do you just say, okay, this is part of what I do?
At different times, I have different thoughts on it. Yeah, it would be nice to not have to worry about sparking an international incident every time I tweet.
But this is why people are so fascinated with your life. It’s true — you could.
I am well aware that there is no way to have a profile that large without being on the radar of every government within the vicinity of the U.S. This sounds very bizarre, but, in a way, it gives me a little bit of a sense of security, because if I’m on their radar, then so are the people coming at me.
It’s true. At the Committee to Protect Journalists (where I worked 2007-2011) that was one of the things we’d think about. If there was a kidnapped journalist or a journalist in danger of arrest or beatings — was it better to publicize it? Was it better to have everyone aware of it so that there would be accountability, or was it going to make things worse?
In our situation, I think it makes it better. We can be loud as Americans and get that protection.
The way I look at it is, if you get it on multiple people’s radar, and some of them drop the ball or are not interested in helping you, then it’s still on somebody else’s radar. You’re not going to fall through the cracks.
I feel like we could talk forever, but we can’t. So, is there one more thing you want to tackle?
I guess it’s the sort of overarching theme here, that a lot of different people know me as a lot of different things, and I think all of them are probably incorrect in some ways. I don’t think any of the various notions of who I am or what bucket I fit into are correct, and sometimes it would be nice to be able to just be a person and let people see me for that, instead of seeing me for someone they think I should be, or that they want me to be.
I’m already thinking of great headlines for this Q&A: “Woman Without a Face.” “Secret Agent Orr.”
That would spark some new conspiracy theories! Honestly, to some extent, I do laugh when I see things about me being a secret agent. I laugh. There’s no real other reaction. I mean, I really am exceptionally boring sometimes.
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