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.
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 New York 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.
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.
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.