The 2020 police killing of George Floyd and subsequent racial justice protests in the United States and around the world have prompted many communities and institutions to look harder at diversity, equity, and inclusion. Among these is the counter–influence operations community—a loose global network of investigators, academics, policy experts, philanthropists, and others who research and combat influence operations. Recent publications by Carnegie’s Partnership for Countering Influence Operations (PCIO) highlighted concern among this community’s members and leaders that the field is not demographically diverse. Similar challenges were identified by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, a major funder of the field, in its recent strategic review.
To better understand the barriers to greater diversity and to hear recommendations for making progress, the PCIO talked to several women and/or people of color working on various aspects of influence operations in academia, journalism, think tanks, and philanthropy.
Race and gender diversity were key concerns for our interviewees. Monica Ruiz, then a fellow at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, cited during a phone conversation in late 2020 the importance of a “continuous and active practice” to “involve people from different social and ethnic backgrounds and different genders and sexual orientations into the space.” But interviewees also identified other forms of diversity as particularly important for countering influence operations. These included the geographic and linguistic focus of research initiatives, the types of collaborations between researchers and organizations, and researchers’ disciplinary and professional perspectives.
Race and Gender Diversity: A “Lack of Understanding, Accessibility, and Opportunity”
Several interviewees said the counter–influence operations community needs more women and people of color. The field, much like adjacent fields such as cybersecurity, is “still predominantly white and predominantly male,” according to Ruiz, “and that’s not at all where it needs to be.” Ruiz believes this is due in part to a “lack of understanding, accessibility, and opportunity” within the field itself and its supporting institutions, such as universities that train and mentor young researchers.1 These problems, she says, are deeply rooted, beginning with a lack of clarity on fundamental terms needed to understand the field. “More clarity on what cybersecurity and [influence operations] actually are and what [they] mean for individuals would make [the fields] more accessible to those interested in pursuing these issues,” she said.
Ruiz also noted that talent pipelines for most national security–related careers have traditionally been gendered. “There are now efforts that are exposing and encouraging more girls to explore . . . national security issues, whether it’s cyber, whether it’s [influence operations], whether it’s something else. But we’re still not where we need to be.” Finally, Ruiz said, “there need to be increased opportunities for individuals to venture into this space. And this requires financial opportunities to pursue studies and certifications. This requires mentorship opportunities to promote growth. But it also calls for professional opportunities to grow networks and experience.”
The importance of mentorship was echoed by Dhiraj Murthy, founder and director of the Computational Media Lab at the University of Texas at Austin. “Many people enter [the influence operations field] because of a particular aspect they are interested in,” he said, and they seek contact with current experts in their area. Unfortunately, the demand for mentorship can sometimes exceed the supply. Although academics are busy and receive many inquiries about their research, Murthy said it should be “easy for faculty to send a quick reply.” Murthy noted that he has even heard from high school students interested in researching and countering influence operations. In one case, he said, “I had to stop and think, because actually, all of those emails I received were from diverse students, which is why I said yes to all three of them.”
Initial barriers to entry are not the only challenges facing underrepresented groups in this field. One issue we heard about was research appropriation—unfairly taking over or claiming credit for someone else’s work. Women and minorities are not the only ones who experience research appropriation, but some interviewees described how it plays out along lines of identity. For example, co-authors who are not from underrepresented groups may frequently take the lead on interviews, or someone might publicly rely upon the work of minority researchers without referencing them by name.
Saiph Savage, director of the Human Computer Interaction Lab at West Virginia University, described a previous incident where a disinformation practitioner asked to publish the research of Dr. Savage and her PhD students without crediting them.
“My PhD students and I had already told [the disinformation practitioner] previously, numerous times, she could not publish our work,” Savage said over a series of email interviews. “We advised her to do the work herself if she wanted to publish the piece. She refused to acknowledge our petition and instead went to the dean to ask him for permission to use our labor. My research scientists have Indigenous and Latinx backgrounds, I am also a woman of color (Latina).”
To Savage, this episode showed that opinions of women of color were devalued. Moreover, she said, the need even to address issues like research appropriation is an additional burden facing these researchers: “There is emotional labor involved and it is tiresome. In this case, we had to involve lawyers to safeguard our work. Meeting with the lawyers was time consuming and tiring.”
Geographic Diversity: “Everyone Just Seems to Study Russia”
Several interviewees told us that the counter–influence operations field should diversify its geographic focus. In particular, Russian influence operations targeting Western democratic processes have received far more attention than influence operations originating from, and affecting, other areas. “Everyone just seems to study Russia,” said Murthy. “It’s really easy to [say], ‘Oh, let’s work on the Russia dataset,’ because it’s, kind of, you know, more exciting.”
Some researchers have sought to correct this imbalance. Julie Owono, executive director of Internet Sans Frontières (ISF), said her organization began studying influence operations on the African continent at a time when “a lot of the focus was on Russia, the United States, the UK, and France.” ISF began “monitoring social media platforms in . . . West and Central African countries, and identifying potentially dangerous publications, . . . fake information being shared, and also hateful discourses.” Similarly, Murthy also tries to “hunt out those sorts of data if I can,” he said. “That’s why I worked on the Ghana and Nigeria data set, even though I don’t have any personal tie. . . I thought, in some ways, no one else is going to work on this data set.”2
Properly researching overlooked geographic areas requires sensitivity to the historical context of regions being studied. For example, Owono said that Facebook “inadvertently deleted legitimate voices that were legitimately criticizing facts and reality” during its 2019 takedown of Russian-linked accounts targeting several African countries. “Is it okay to suppress legitimate voices just on the grounds that they’re closer to Russians, who are, in turn, using something”—anti-colonialist sentiment—“that has been there for a long time?” she asked.
Consulting those with deep knowledge of a country can help prevent such mistakes, Owono said. “Who else can be aware of the context other than people who have been studying the relationship[s] between West and Central Africa and France and the former colonial empire?”
At the same time, some interviewees worried that researchers with diverse geographic knowledge and linguistic abilities can be pigeonholed, limiting their career opportunities. In academia, Murthy said, “there tends to be this issue, unfortunately, where if you have diverse members of faculty, they often get tasked with working on diversity initiatives, task forces, and diversity related topics.”
One solution is what Claudia Flores Saviaga, a PhD candidate at West Virginia University, called a “diversity of collaborations.” For example, a Western-based influence operations research organization could partner with a local civil society group in the affected country. Owono agreed, saying, “The organizations working in those countries are the ones that are seeing firsthand that something is wrong,” she said, “but they do not necessarily have the tools to understand that this is wrong.”
Diversity of Disciplinary Perspective: “Inherently Interdisciplinary”
Finally, interviewees cited the need to improve diversity of disciplinary perspectives and professional backgrounds. “I think at the university level, students, for the most part, are still forced to pick one aspect of cyber or [influence operations],” said Ruiz, “whether it’s computer science and engineering on the technical side or a focus on the social sciences side. But [forcing students to make a choice] misses the fact that these fields are inherently interdisciplinary and require practical experience.” Researchers may therefore fail to integrate diverse, relevant fields of knowledge, such as political science, communications, sociology, international relations, and psychology.
In particular, Saviaga told us that researchers often lack sufficient knowledge of vulnerable communities and how influence operations affect them. “When disinformation flows to groups with already marginalized voices or to those on the precipice of political alienation, the results range from chilling effects and disenfranchisement to psychological and physical harm,” she said.
One way to address this problem is by recruiting more people from underrepresented communities to work in countering influence operations. Interviewees told us that people who identify as, or have worked directly with, members of these communities can provide a unique perspective that goes beyond academic expertise. “There should be more people . . . that have a grassroots or civil society background,” said Owono. “It’s really important to understand, beyond the technical aspects, how these operations penetrate societies and the negative effect[s] [they] can have.”
There are already some efforts underway to address these problems. For example, diversity is a core value of the PCIO’s newly established Influence Operations Researchers Guild. To apply, organizations must demonstrate their diversity in the same key areas highlighted by our interviewees: researcher recruitment, geographic interest, disciplinary methods, and collaborations. Still, there is much more to be done.
As a nascent and fast-growing field, the counter–influence operations community might look to adjacent areas for models or guidance on fostering diversity. For example, there have been several recent initiatives in the cybersecurity policy field, like the R Street Institute’s Making Space in Cybersecurity pledge, which commits signatory institutions to increase the diversity of speakers at their public events, and the #ShareTheMicInCyber campaign, which helps Black cybersecurity practitioners gain more visibility on social media. In the broader national security space, membership organizations such as #NatSecGirlSquad, Out in National Security, and Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security offer mentoring and professional development opportunities aimed at growing and supporting a more diverse national security workforce.
Above all, our interviews confirmed the importance of hearing directly from a diverse set of voices on these issues. The women and people of color who spoke with us had multifaceted views of what diversity means for the counter–influence operations community and how best to achieve it. They were eager to broaden the conversation beyond demographics and consider how to diversify the field’s interests and methods. We also heard about hidden burdens faced by diverse researchers and about how some pro-diversity initiatives can create unexpected challenges like pigeonholing. As community leaders and institutions consider new diversity initiatives, they should be sure to learn from the real experiences and rich insights of their own diverse members.
The authors extend a special thanks to Dr. Saiph Savage and Claudia Flores-Saviaga for their help with this survey.
1 Racial and/or gender imbalances in the talent pipeline affect many other fields, too, and have a number of systemic causes. The U.S. university system as a whole has lower rates of retention and undergraduate graduation for students of color, which contributes to fewer graduating with advanced degrees. In the United States, data show the six-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time white undergraduate students is 64 percent, whereas the rate is 54 percent for Hispanic students and 40 percent for Black students. Still, our interviewees felt that academics who research influence operations can make a meaningful individual difference through mentorship efforts and the like.
2 These data sets were ultimately tied to Russia, as well. But because these Russian operations targeted and co-opted citizens of African countries, they did not receive the same level of sustained attention from researchers or the media.