Category: Faculty News, News

Title: CERES Interviews New Adjunct Professor Jaclyn Kerr

CERES is excited to introduce to you our new Adjunct Professor, Jaclyn Kerr!

Dr. Jaclyn A. Kerr is the Senior Research Fellow for Defense and Technology Futures at the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) at National Defense University (NDU). Her research focuses on the current and potential effects of digital and emerging technologies on democracy, national security, and global politics. At Georgetown, she teaches a class on Russia’s approach to cyberspace that examines Russia’s relationship with the global Internet and its role in the evolution of domestic politics and foreign policy.

Please tell us a little about your background.

I work as a Senior Research Fellow and faculty member at the Center for Strategic Research at National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. (And let me just start by saying, since I am a federal government employee, everything I say here is my own views and not that of the U.S. government, Department of Defense, or NDU.)  My topic area is defense and technology futures, which includes studying emerging technologies and cyber. Mostly, I conduct policy-relevant research, but I also teach in a couple of NDU’s colleges.

My current role combines my interests in academic research and policy engagement. Before starting at NDU, I spent a year as an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the U.S. Department of State’s Office of the Science and Technology Advisor to the Secretary (STAS), where I advised on digital technology policy, particularly as it pertains to human rights, democracy and national security. I also spent three years at the Center for Global Security Research (CGSR) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where I led work on cybersecurity, cyber domain strategy and information conflict. 

I first got interested in this combination of studying technology and global politics while I was myself a student at Georgetown.  I did a Master’s and PhD in the Government Department – which, of course, makes it a lot of fun now coming back here to teach! These interests also drew on my background in Russian, East European and Eurasian area studies. I did my master’s in area studies and an undergraduate degree in Slavic Literature and History at Stanford. That’s how I became interested in the region.  

But before that, I studied mathematics in college as my first major. I also played around with physics and computer science. I was generally interested in technology and science. This was very much my focus. And of course being in Silicon Valley as a student during the dot com boom just bolstered that. But I also had an interest in society, politics and history that was not going anywhere, so I was not quite sure what to do with that second interest.  

In the early 2000s, I studied abroad in Russia during my senior year, and I got so fascinated I ended up choosing to complete a second major. I went to Russia and lived with a host family, and I got interested in the culture and people. It was my first time outside the US. Following my growing interest in world politics, I took a fellowship after college to study in Saint Petersburg for a year in Russian Universities. I studied social science for one semester each at the European University of Saint Petersburg and Saint Petersburg State University. It was fascinating to experience the contrast between the newly-established private university modeled after Western graduate schools and the state university, both among the most prestigious universities back then but very different. I was really lucky to have these experiences.

Then, I returned to Stanford for my Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies Master’s degree, finished that and thought, “So, what do I do with my life now?” I really wasn’t sure what one does with a background in math and area studies. I ended up working as a software engineer for a few years, but I continued to be interested in the region and in social sciences. I had a bunch of friends from the region from college, too. It was hard to be in math or software engineering in the 2000s without having frequent reminders of one’s interests in Russia and Eastern Europe – there were so many immigrants from the region working in these fields.

Ultimately, I went back to graduate school here at Georgetown to study Political Science. For a while, I left technology behind. I was focused on a number of other topics: civil society, social movements, state-society relations in authoritarian regimes, international relations theory and political theory,… how does democracy work?… what is democracy?… and how do different value sets overlap and intersect in politics. I also studied methodology – how do we understand what we do about society? From there, I had to pick a topic for my dissertation. I had become curious about the roles of technology in societies in relation to these other areas I studied – in state formation processes, in conflict, in national identity, and civic engagement… I ended up studying protest movements’ uses of technology and the government’s efforts to control them in non-democratic settings… how this picture was changing in the early 2010s… 

Everybody was studying Internet control in China and the Middle East back then. Very few were writing about Russia or what was going on in countries that were middle-regime types where there was not much overt censorship. So, I did a global statistical analysis of different regimes showing the wide variation in approaches. Then I did fieldwork in the former Soviet Republics. I spent a year based in Moscow as a fellow at the New Economic School conducting research on the evolving role of the Internet in state-society relations in Russia. I interviewed people involved in both Internet activism and governance. This included stakeholders in the digital rights community, civil society activists using the Internet, Internet regulators, people who ran the national domain name system, and even a Duma deputy involved in developing new laws. I was trying to understand what was going on from the top down and the bottom up and the relationship between the two. I also went to a lot of events – protest marches, civil society meetings, industry conventions, Internet governance conferences. It’s amazing how much you can learn about another society simply by spending time there and observing and talking to people.

I did similar research in Kazakhstan on a more compressed timeline during the summer. One of the things that caught my attention there at the time has become a significant international issue since. This was the advent of troll techniques as a way of manipulating online discourse around contentious social or political issues. I heard various reports there about the frequent use of false identities and paid comments, sometimes used as a tool of harassment against activists and independent journalists, or to manipulate discourse and public opinion, including, for example, around the incident of the violent crackdown on strikers in Zhanaozen and the protests that spread from it in 2011-2012. And all this was several years before the stories started to break about Russia’s Internet Research Agency or election interference. Some of these techniques were already widespread in the region.

Then, as I was finishing my dissertation based on this research on the role of the Internet in regime type evolution, I got pulled into issues related to its role in international politics and the development of strategic thinking around this. I had fellowships at Stanford and Harvard, at centers focused on international security and international relations, where they had new programs focused on thinking about international security and governance issues in cyberspace, about cyber conflict and cyber domain strategy… My project was more on state-society relations and regime type, but it related in various ways. I learned a lot through being in these programs. And of course they shaped my interests for some of what I’ve done since. I realized how important it was to understand the interdependencies between what was going on in domestic Internet governance, on the one hand, and how cyberspace was also coming to play an ever more important role in international power projection and contestation.

What are you looking forward to teaching and being part of the Georgetown community?

First, it is a pleasure to be back at Georgetown. My former advisor, Harley Balzer, originally suggested that I teach a course on this topic because the CERES program was looking to offer a course on Russia and cyber.. It seemed like a fun opportunity to frame a course around my interests that also was so very timely right now. It is also fun to teach at Georgetown, where I was a student. I love teaching at NDU, where I interact more with mid-career students who have come in with various areas of policy-relevant expertise as they have worked for years in government or the military. I learn a lot from those students. But it is also so fun teaching folks at CERES who are earlier in their careers and just starting to think about what they want to do. 

Second, and related to that, I also love teaching in an area studies program. I learn different things from my students in the CERES program based on the wide variety of backgrounds and interdisciplinary interests students come in with. I really believe in this form of interdisciplinary area studies curriculum. It played such an important part in my own intellectual development and building my ability to understand other societies. I think it’s so important, I’m glad to be contributing in some way to that!

With many things going on in Russian cyberspace right now, how are you orienting your students to keep up with everything going on?

I am trying to give students a background that allows them to have a deeper understanding of what’s going on right now. It is easy to get lost in the weeds with what’s happening today. It is so fast-moving. 

When the war in Ukraine started, I myself was staying up till three every night following Twitter, Telegram, Meduza,… — sometimes staying up later, driving myself crazy, following every possible news stream about what is happening in Russia, in Ukraine right now, because it is morning there. It is understandable. This is very real for anyone who cares about this part of the world and has spent time there. I knew people who were driving to the border in Poland and Ukraine, picking up refugees, helping them and driving them back to Germany every few days. I knew people who were American but of Ukrainian descent living in Ukraine. I had an acquaintance from Stanford who was trying to figure out how he could use his skills as a computer scientist to help and figure out logistics for getting donations where they needed to go in Ukraine at the time. 

I found that taking a step back and thinking about the big picture of how we got here and how the things I researched in the past can help me understand this moment and not just get sunk into the daily news cycle was helpful.

My hope is that it is helpful for students as well. Sometimes when things are chaotic in the world, when things seem almost out of control and awful, having tools for understanding the bigger picture can give you a sense of more agency and the ability to at least make sense of part of what’s happening. Ultimately, having more people who have that grasp is important and can have an impact.

And I believe it is crucial to understand both what’s going on in Ukraine right now and the international picture around it, but also the picture of what is going on in Russia and how we got here, and how these pieces relate. Of course, the piece that we’re focused on is cyberspace. But cyberspace is also a prism for understanding bigger dynamics. It has been a major locus of confrontation between different parts of Russian society over the last 20 years – on narrative, identity and communication, and between top-down control versus bottom-up activism. It has also been one of the major frontiers of international competition and conflict between states during that period.

Understanding that piece gives a better understanding of the bigger picture, too. 

Studying the Russian approach to cyberspace, what significant changes do you see in Russian Internet governance?

RuNet (the Russian Internet) changed considerably during the period that I have been watching it. When I first was going to Russia in the early 2000s, people would talk about Internet journalism as the last frontier because it was when traditional media forms like television and print were being brought under tighter control. Journalists would talk about the Internet as the last uncontrolled, unrestricted space for independent reporting. Internet use was growing quickly, and with it online media, discourse, and socializing. By the time I went back to do field research for my dissertation, some of these dynamics had been amplified tenfold. The development of the blogosphere had exploded. Already, you had the Kremlin seeking out how to exert more control over some of the new media platforms. Sometimes, control was being exerted over online outlets through having someone come and buy the overarching company. Other times, signals were being sent down with firing editors, or pressure dynamics to change how things were being covered. 

Through the early 2010s, there were few firm legal restrictions or forms of official censorship of Internet content in Russia. That all started to change quite precipitously in 2012, after the Arab Spring and the mass protest mobilization around elections in Russia in 2011-2012. The “colored revolution” types of events had been an iteratively growing concern to the Kremlin. There was a discussion about not wanting something like this to happen in Russia. The beginning of control and restriction over civil society had to do with that concern. NGOs were being seen as a potential instrument of grassroots manipulation and uprising. There was this growing threat concept over the colored revolution. Then, you saw all the press coverage of the role of Facebook, the role of Twitter in the Green Movement in Iran in 2009, the Arab Spring in 2010-2011, and the White Ribbon Movement in Russia in 2012. Whether or not the Internet played as important a causal role as some of the media attention made it sound in the Arab Spring (evidence may be scant), it was a crucial moment for authoritarian regimes everywhere as they felt this was a risk. Russia was at 40% to 50% Internet penetration, so this was all just ramping up, and it was concerning to the authorities. 

In 2012, Russia first introduced a national law for blocking of certain Internet sites – a first legal provision for Internet censorship. It started out justifying this with language of protecting children and being very democratic in its censorship policies. Shortly after that, new categories were added, which looked much more conducive to restricting speech in ways that were at odds with democratic values. Of course, things took a more precipitous turn with Euromaidan and Crimea. That’s when the Duma passed the blogger law and a package of legal measures – including data localization – all of which were making tighter restrictions. Russia’s SORM surveillance technology was upgraded. During this period, we also saw more overt efforts to take over social media outlets and platforms. An oligarch close to the Kremlin oversaw the demise of, which had been a major news aggregator. The editor got fired, and the whole staff resigned in protest. You had, on a single day, several leading media outlets and blogs being blocked without advanced notice. They were not given clear legal reasons for being blocked, although it was under one of the new laws. This was happening during the mass protests against the war in Ukraine. I was there doing research during that period. This was a scary moment for people in that community. They felt themselves under tighter and tighter restrictions and talked about the Duma as a “crazy printer” (referring to speed and quantity of new legislatures appearing). 

At the same time, society still had a sense of relative freedom. The Internet was not as systematically censored as, say, in China. There was no keyword filtering to block things in search, for instance. For most average citizens, the restrictions were not really felt. That incremental shift has gradually continued over the decade. 

In 2019, the Kremlin passed a law on digital sovereignty, which was seen as a major turning point. There had been ongoing discussions of creating a so-called “kill switch” so that there was an ability to shut down the Internet in Russia in case of conflict or political crisis, or to disconnect it from the rest of the global Internet. This was justified in terms of national security. An article in 2014, for example, in the Kommersant had leaked that this discussion was ongoing in the Presidential Administration. The 2019 law, which appeared to be the implementation of this plan, required more rollout of deep packet inspection (DPI) technologies, which gave the government more architectural control over the Internet. Again this was justified in terms of protecting the Russian Internet from external threats.  But it was widely seen by the Internet rights community as allowing for more invasive options of censorship and surveillance.

As a caveat, I should say that I have not been back to Russia recently, so I do not have a good sense of what different communities on the ground feel. But my sense from a distance is that the general feeling among the wider population had not changed of there being relative freedom on the Internet, even though the communities that were being restricted definitely felt tighter and tighter restrictions coming. 

What’s happened since the war started is different in kind. It is a really different moment in Russia than it was eight, nine, ten months ago. 

There has been a lot of criticism of the school of totalitarianism – the theory developed by thinkers like Hannah Arendt in the 1950s, to explain the inner-workings of the extreme regimes of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s under Hitler, Stalin, and the like. The theory argued that in “totalitarian” systems everyone is atomized from everyone else, everyone is living in fear. Looking back to history, counter arguments included that it is not entirely accurate, that it is too ideal a model. In fact, society kept going, people still had connections, and there always was still some balance to be had. But whatever we think of this debate, the model is unfortunately more useful again.

Again, I am not there; there is a limit to how much I can speak to exactly what the feeling is among people there. I see that the pendulum has swung a lot closer to that totalitarian end of the spectrum than it ever was before in post-Soviet Russia. Russia was a model of a middle regime type in terms of the balance of control over society, of not having to use systematic violent coercion. That is not to say the Kremlin did not use violent coercion at all. You can talk about the journalists and opposition leaders who were killed. Yes, this was very coercive, but most people did not feel its touch in the past, only those more directly involved, those in opposition and independent media, activists. This is very different right now. Now, most people feel the touch of the regime’s coercion in one way or another. This is a very intrusive level of restriction, control, and indeed fear. 

And that is true of the Internet in particular. Average Internet users risk prosecution for saying the wrong thing about the war online, for posting the wrong pictures on their social media accounts, for using the wrong platforms or outlets. And yet the Internet is also serving as a vehicle used by some to fight back, to seek out information, to share dissenting views. As the war began, there were record numbers of VPN downloads. Independent Russian media outlets with journalists based outside the country continue to share reporting along with information on how to access their now-blocked platforms from within Russia. The Internet has always been an important part of the state-society relationship under the Putin-orchestrated government, and it continues to be.

Teaching about such a controversial space as the Russian Internet, how do you navigate your students in avoiding misinformation and identifying state propaganda?

I try to make sure people understand mis- and disinformation and how they work. It is important to understand how these function both at the strategic level internationally and on an individual, sociological level, how they affect cognition, and the social dynamics of how they spread. In trying to make sense of that, we must understand the vulnerabilities that exist all around us. To a greater or lesser extent, everyone can be vulnerable to this. Certainly, Western democratic societies are vulnerable to this, and so are other societies. Of course, we see in Russia with the level of state propaganda and manipulation of narratives both offline and online that that’s had a significant impact on public opinion about the war. 

At the same time, it is also good to understand that there are tools to work in environments overrun by disinformation, and there are ways to try to limit its impact. Even in Russia right now, while I stressed the extreme nature of the restrictive environment and propaganda, there are significant numbers of Russians daily using alternative information sources and tools of communication. It seems relatively clear that large populations, at least in all the major cities in Russia, have more caveated views on what’s happening. As I mentioned, there are media outlets, mainly based outside Russia but developed by Russians, deliberately aimed at these audiences and Russian diasporas. Meduza is one example of a media outlet publishing such information regularly. Likewise, Mediazona, Agentstvo, and the various other new independent projects set up for Russian audiences by Russian journalists who have left the country. Even in a highly restrictive environment like Russia, there are ways of cutting through it. 

Another thing to emphasize is that some people might think that in Russia, everyone is controlled by propaganda because of limited access to outside information. In other words, if they all just had access to correct information, this would change beliefs about or support for the war overnight among those who do support it. However, if we look at the effects of disinformation in this country or in Europe, where there isn’t censorship, we see that, nonetheless, it can have an impact. The dynamics by which disinformation spreads and shapes people’s beliefs are more complicated than “if they have access to the truth, then they will know better”. In fact, that overly simplistic model of how you deal with disinformation can get us into a lot of trouble. 

It is complicated to figure out how to address disinformation. It is something that I don’t have a single, silver bullet solution to, and I wish I did. But I think that the more informed citizens we have in the US and everywhere who understand how these dynamics work and have some tools for thinking about how to deal with them, the better we are at being resilient to them. 

Are there any perspectives or skills that you are specifically helping your students grasp in your course? What do you want your students to gain at the semester’s end?

There are two things.

The first is gaining analytical skills in thinking about these complex issues. This is an interdisciplinary class because the Internet, digital technologies and cyber are interdisciplinary. It is easy to talk about analytical thinking, and it is something you should learn from all of your classes. But, in particular, I am trying to make sure we spend a little bit of time getting to know different theoretical approaches to understanding the role of technology in politics, both in the domestic and global arenas, and how these interconnect. It requires making sure that you spend some time thinking about analytical frames and theoretical approaches along the way that relate to each piece. For example, there are sociological models for studying how disinformation spreads and cognitive models for studying how it affects individual people. You could spend a whole semester on one piece of these. But it is important to focus on gaining some perspective on how these pieces fit together and using them as analytic tools in understanding the bigger picture of the problem. I hope my students will gain this broader analytical framing with some knowledge of the pieces of theory for understanding the different specific mechanisms.

Secondly, students come from all sorts of backgrounds in this class. I understand that not everyone will walk out an expert on all the different cyber threats from different APT (advanced persistence threat) actors in Russia and know what all their code names are. We have at least one student in the class, maybe a few, who knew a lot of these terms and code names coming in. Then, not everyone will be able to talk about Russian and former Soviet region history, cultures and subcultures and the tensions and relationships between them on the level some in the group often do. Everyone in this class has a very unique perspective. Everyone brings different backgrounds and areas of expertise to the discussion. As an interdisciplinary class, I hope that part of the takeaway is the exposure to other cultural backgrounds and knowledge areas of the other students. I think it is a real richness of area studies and interdisciplinary programs in general, and relevant for this topic in particular.

I believe these two things together can set people up to understand the broader dynamics around the role of digital technologies in society.