There’s an insidious threat that seeks to divide the nation and undermine our faith in democracy — disinformation. ASU researcher Scott Ruston offers tips on how to defend yourself.
So when people hear that I study disinformation, the first thing they usually ask me is, “Do you mean fake news?” And I do prefer the term disinformation, and that’s the spread of false information with the willful intent to deceive. And in particular, I’m interested in how that information gets structured to be a believable and emotionally resonant, and so that it shapes interpretation in a deceptive way. But the short version is yes, I study fake news.
Then I usually get a follow up question, which is how do I defend against it? First, read beyond the headline, even the most reputable journalistic outlets will use attention grabbing headlines designed to get you to read more. So go ahead and read more and don’t take the headline as gospel truth. Check the origin and check the sources. So did this piece of information come to you as a share or a retweet or something like that on social media? What was the agenda of the person that’s sharing with you, and what’s the origination of the piece of information? Where did it start? Did it start as a news article or did it start maybe as an opinion or editorial article? Because there’s different standards of veracity and truth to those. Or did it start as a piece of advertising? Often you can tell that by the small keyword in gray that says sponsored. That’s paid advertising.
And does the piece of information cite any sources? Multiple named sources are best, anonymous sources are next to best, and no sources cited at all is kind of a red flag. So these rules remind us that disinformation is really a human problem more than a technical problem and we all have a role to play. Starting with reading broadly and critically.
Now my colleagues and I here at ASU, we’re working on better technologies that will help identify disinformation and help alert governments and everyday readers alike to its presence and its risks. And we’re also at work studying what makes it believable, what makes it appealing, and then why it spread so fast and more techniques for how we can defend against it.
My first day of graduate school was 9/11. I awoke in my Southern California apartment to the neighbor’s TV blaring news reports of the attacks. Because of that indelible experience, that’s why I’ve studied strategic communication and geopolitical influence here at ASU for the past nine years.
Rumors, propaganda, all of these things serve to divide us. They serve to undermine our faith in democratic institutions and fundamental American values. And in that way, I see rumors and disinformation as insidious, as dangerous as those 9/11 attacks, and that’s what keeps me up at night. But it also keeps me in the lab looking for new ways to defend against it.
Defending Against Fake News
Tricoles: Welcome to ASU KEDtalks, the podcast. I’m your host Robin Tricoles, and I’m in the studio today with Scott Ruston, a research scientist at ASU Global Security Initiative. Scott’s research focuses on weaponized narrative, traditionally known as propaganda. He looks at ways to counter those narratives. He’s also coauthor of the book “Narrative Landmines: Rumors, Islamic Extremism, and the Struggle for Strategic Influence.” Hi Scott. Thanks for being here.
Rustin: Absolutely. My colleagues and I, when we wrote wrote the book, we actually debated for a really long time about the title. And the part that we debated about was, was narrative land — was the word landmines. And we didn’t consider it always, of course it has a very academic we liked narrative landmines cause it was catchy, and it captures the idea really well, and, that rumors embed themselves in narrative landscapes and then have this explosive effect. But the, the subtitle we never considered, which is very traditionally academic of course, to have that lengthy subtitle, we never realized quite the tongue twister that it was.
Tricoles: It is. I can vouch for that. So, but on that note, would you briefly describe what weaponized narrative is?
Rustin: Sure. There’s, and this has become a popular term of late, and so there’s a variety of different people that are using this term. And there isn’t really a concise or consensus definition. And so, lots of people might think, Hey, I understand what a narrative is. It’s what’s in “Moby Dick” or it’s what’s in “Harry Potter.” That’s a narrative. It’s a story. And that is a common and perfectly acceptable definition of narrative. But it isn’t one that helps us understand broader issues about how humans understand the world around them. So I think of narrative as fundamentally two things operating simultaneously. Number one is that text like “Moby Dick,” like “Harry Potter.” Those would be examples of narrative, a long set of stories. Cause you think about “Moby Dick,” there’s all kinds of different stories. There’s the, there’s the story of the whale hitting the boat.
Rustin: There’s the story of Ishmael coming to work on the ship in the first place. There’s all these little stories that make up this broader, grander set of stories or system of stories. And those are encapsulated in a text, whether it’s a written text or a film text or a television show. And those stories do work. And that’s what leads to the second angle on understanding narrative. Narrative is a process of communicate, excuse me, a process of understanding, a process of comprehension about how we organize data, particularly events and the people that are involved in those events, into a narrative logic. So we put these things into our minds. So we understand that in the case of “Moby Dick,” Ishmael has come to this ship looking for, looking for a job, looking for an adventure. And he meets captain Ahab and all of a sudden there’s this mythic force that is Captain Ahab.
Rustin: And now that sets up everything that follows. So, in that sense, how we position in our, in our comprehension process, narrative provides a structure for that. There’s the initial conflict, who is, who is in conflict. And so in, in “Moby Dick,” you’ve got the conflict with the whale. There’s a whole set of layers of, of conflict. And if you’re, if you’re an English literature major, you’re going to be unpacking that stuff for an entire semester solely with that one book. You’ve got that conflict that usually creates a desire. In Ahab’s case there is a desire to vanquish the whale. In Ishmael’s case there’s a desire to survive the journey. And then there’s a trajectory of events. Some of those are going to advance towards a resolution or they are going to complicate the achievement of that resolution.
Rustin: That resolution is the satisfaction of that desire or the coming to an end of that, of that conflict. Sometimes you’ve got, you know, detective stories where you kind of know the end and the pleasure is understanding which of those steps and at what point is the detective going to figure it all out. In other cases, we don’t know how it all ends. You know, and to use the “Lord of the Rings” for example, is Frodo going to destroy the ring? There’s three books and you’re deep into the third book before you find out whether it’s going to end up with victory for the good guys or victory for the, for the evil guys. So those are some very broad strokes, sections of narrative. They don’t necessarily have to come in order, but that’s how we start to bend all of these events in our brains for comprehension.
Rustin: So if you think about it that way, now you can look at world events as fitting into this structure as well. And you can think of an event that happens and you can ask yourself, you know, where does this fit into your comprehension of the world? What about the aspirations and resolutions that you desire for your place in the world? It’s a very personal narrative. Then there’s organizations, nations have narratives about where they want to go. Political campaigns are all about narratives, trying to communicate. Where does this leader want to take the party or the position, whether it’s a presidential campaign or a senatorial campaign or a gubernatorial campaign, what have you. So now we’ve got this idea that narrative is both this system of stories that can be encapsulated in a text, whether it’s written or film or TV or what have you.
Rustin: We’ve also got this idea that it’s a process of comprehension. The way that humans take, take data, particularly events and people, locations and organize it into something that means something, something that’s significant. Now we take this, what’s the weaponized part? And that second idea about how we understand the world around us is informed by all the narratives that we already believe. For example, many people in the United States have heard a story about George Washington and a cherry tree. So that’s a small story. It fits into larger stories that celebrate the value of honesty. So that becomes part of the fabric of American society is this, this idea of, of honesty and fairness. And there’s a couple of other stories that fit in there. Well, stories that get injected into our consciousness, into our information environment, whether that’s news articles in the newspaper, that’s shares on social media, can start to erode some of those things, they interrupt them, they tell their stories that share examples of the fact that these values are not being achieved or not being exhibited by key people or key institutions. That becomes, that’s the weaponizeation of, of narrative. And it’s kind of interesting, both the vehicle, the weapons system is stories, very often false stories, or true stories that are utilized in a specific and intentional way to deceive because they’ve been taken out of their context. And this would fall into, another word that defines that would be disinformation. So that’s this idea where the both the stories are being used as weapons. And then the target in many ways is, is also the stories that we tell ourselves that, that remind us of the values that make up our society.
Tricoles: Beautiful. Beautiful. Because that leads to, well two questions actually. I was going to ask you, how does weaponized, how does weaponized narrative compare with traditional warfare?
Rustin: That’s, so that’s, that is a question that our defense department is struggling with right now. And traditionally military activities are conceptualized by domain, by the domain of activity. And then there’s classically, there’s the land domain where infantry soldiers and tanks and those kinds of ground vehicles are on the land. There’s the maritime domain where the ships and submarines operate. And there’s the air domain, where we got, we got planes flying around. And increasingly in modern warfare, particularly the latter part of the 20th century, there’s been a lot of cooperation between those domains. And there’s some overlap, and you think of the aircraft carrier, you know, it’s the sort of World War II from a naval perspective was the war of the aircraft carrier. And that’s a union of maritime and air domains operating at the same time and then projecting power over the land.
Rustin: So that’s the, that’s the story of the evolution of warfare in the 20th century. There’s increasingly, there’s a new domain in the space domain. So we’ve got satellites which provide intelligence, they provide communication capabilities and provide all sorts of different things. And increasingly there’s people thinking about cyber as a domain. It’s a borderless domain. It’s, you know, this abstract notion of, of cyberspace, where, where information is transmitted. And also increasingly, and this is one of the newer innovations within military thought, is that the information environment could be considered possibly a domain or possibly a function. And there’s two different, there’s debates about whether where to categorize it, but where it becomes a real challenge for military planning and strategy is that those, those three primary domains that have been part of military operations for hundreds of years are very well known. They’re very mature.
Rustin: There’s a lot of, there’s a whole industry behind that. The information domain and its effects on the security, whether that’s the exercise of military power or that’s the exercise of diplomatic power or the exercise of the economic power. The information domain has become, particularly in the 21st century, one of the most important, and it’s sort of one of these disruptive zones, because we live in this globalized world where many more people have access to information, the borders between producers of information and consumers of information have been blurred. And now people can act on that information. So think about the organizing of a social protest, it’s accelerated by access to information. Some of that is social media, some of that is other communication forms, the mobile phone has a lot to do with this. And, and particularly in developing parts of the world where we have from the U.S. mindset, we’ve got this notion, well of course every building and every office and every home has a phone.
Rustin: It’s a landline phone. That’s an enormous capital infrastructure that for a variety of reasons, the United States was able to build, Western Europe was somewhat able to build, but in a lot of the developing world, they’ve leapfrogged that to the mobile phone where all of a sudden everybody’s got a phone in their pocket. And now there’s the sharing of information that has been accelerated by that technology. There’s the social media technology. All these things are accelerating the use of information. And ultimately all exercises of power are about in some way controlling populations. It’s either controlling the political will, it’s guiding the populations to do something or it’s guiding the leadership, the government to do something. And at the end of the day, leaders make decisions based on the information they have available. So dominance in the information environment leads to shaping decisions that are made either by allies or adversaries and what have you. So then when this idea of weaponizing a form of information, narrative, which is a lot about how people think, how they think about themselves and how they think about their leaders, now, if we’re attacking that point, which previously was, was less vulnerable to attack because there were fewer vectors for that attack to take place, now becomes this, this rife environment and turns this idea of weaponized narrative into a really powerful concept, a powerful, powerful weapon.
Tricoles: It’s eerie, isn’t it? You provided some examples, but I’ll ask how exactly do adversaries use narrative rhetoric in media such as speeches, press releases, social media platforms?
Rustin: Sure, so there’s, one example is in, so for example, the narrative landmines book that my colleagues and I wrote have a couple of examples where there’s, you piggyback on story systems, narratives that already exist in the environment and that, because they already existed, you can capitalize on this principle known as a narrative fidelity. The idea that, this is the idea that a new story told, the more it comports with stories that you already believe will, you are more likely to believe it, you’re more likely to take up that new story and it becomes part of how you see the, how you see the world. And so a really sort of crude macro example is the history of the Middle East. The history of the Lavant region is rife with stories and examples of outsiders coming in and attacking the residents and the countries or the tribes or whichever political organization existed at the time.
Rustin: So we’ve got stories from the 10, 11, 12 hundreds, which we call the crusades. Richard the Lionhearted bandied up a bunch of his vassals, sailed for the, for the Middle East, for Jerusalem to, to fight to recover Jerusalem for Christianism. Well, if you think about the op, the, the residents of Palestine at the time of that, they’re defending against these invaders. So to them, the crusades would be an example, a whole bunch of stories of Saladin, great hero of the, of that era. So then flash forward to, 2008-2009 timeframe when the insurgency within Iraq is rife and there’s U.S. forces trying to express their solidarity with the citizenry of Iraq. There has been the, the removal from power of, of an awful dictator and now they’re there trying to stabilize and help get the Iraqi society back on its feet.
Rustin: And there’s this other dimension that is saying, look at these guys from the United States. They’re crusaders just like those crusaders from, from the 11th and 12th century, just like the colonial powers, the European colonial powers in the early part of the 20th century who were here to exploit our resources. Just like the Mongol invaders from the, I think it was the 1500s when the Mongol invaders came through and just destroyed a lot of Baghdad. So, and it’s more than just the analogy of the U.S. forces are crusaders. It’s how the stories are told in that there’s a degree of specificity told and there’s already these existing stories within the historical milieu. And what are you going to, more likely to believe, these strangers here that are, have weapons and look like soldiers are, who don’t belong, who are not from around here, are they here to help or are they here to invade when there’s story, after story, after story, after story, across history of invaders. So that’s one example of how an entity, whether it’s in this, this example is the insurgency in Iraq, can use the narrative landscape that people already understand. This is the, this is the stories that are already existing in the information environment to their propagandistic effect to garner support, to garner new recruits, to get local citizens to not be terribly helpful or cooperative with forces. And there’s different kinds of examples of that around the globe that came from, from the insurgency during the Iraq war. But there’s other examples from, from Indonesia and Singapore in the, in the book. We’re studying what’s going on in Eastern Europe right now. And very similar principles are, are at play.
Tricoles: That was nice. Which leads me to ask you about the amygdala hijack. Would you explain what that is and its relevance to weaponized narrative?
Rustin: Sure. So this idea of, so first a caveat, I am, I’m not a psychologist. I’m not a psychiatrist. I’m not a neurobiologist, but that disclaimer aside, the brain has logic centers and it has emotion centers and the amygdala is part of that emotion center. And we can, as humans, one of the things that we’ve evolved to be able to do is make these rational decisions, kind of cost-benefit analysis. We can go to the grocery store and we can say that this loaf of bread is 25 ounces and it costs $2.50 and this loaf of bread is 10 ounces and it costs $2. Well, the first loaf of bread is, is much cheaper on a per-ounce basis. So if our sole criteria is buying the most cost-efficient loaf of bread to feed ourselves to make sandwiches for lunch, we’re going to go with that first one.
Rustin: There might be other qualities that we would then add into a more complex decision making process if we get into the ingredients, if we get into how it tastes, should we get into whether it’s organic or not or those kinds of things. So that’s, that’s a very rational, logic decision making process. Now we can also go in there and we can say, you know, Ew, I don’t like that brand. But I have this warm, fuzzy association with this brand. And that’s probably coming from how those brands are marketed, with the stories that are told about them, what kinds of qualities are infused? And if the whole process of brand marketing of course is associating these, these concepts. Well, if the marketing of the second loaf of bread is, is, is telling stories that really get into your emotion and get you really either excited and in love with that bread or that inspire an attitude of, of you, you despise this other, whatever this other brand stands for, it really gets into you and you and you, it motivates anger.
Rustin: Well, now that’s targeting your amygdala. And it’s sort of hijacking that from, Hey, these are both perfectly nutritious loaves of bread. They have different price points. They have slightly different ingredients, but they’re bread. This is not, this is not something that you really necessarily need to get super crazy angry about. So narrative is a route to that more emotional, cause you think about a well-crafted narrative. You go to, you walk out of a movie that you just love, you’re high, you’re, you’re on cloud nine. You’re like, I love that movie. You’re thrilled. Or you’re scared if you went to a horror movie or whatever it happens to be, narratives have this capacity to provide a narrative logic, that chain of cause and events between desire, conflict, progress, complication to resolution. There’s that narrative logic that is there, the help that you can use to make decisions.
Rustin: But then there’s also the dimension of that that activates emotion. And that’s this idea of sort of amygdala hijacking. And if you’ve found yourself on social media and you read a post and then you just go to DEFCON 5, you’re like, go crazy angry and you’re like, that guy’s an idiot. I’m going to tell him so, and I’m going to start furiously typing as fast as my fingers will go, and you maybe say something you regret in a moment of self reflection. It captivates this, this anger response or possibly a joy response if it’s, if it’s the opposite side of the, of the emotional spectrum. But what we’ve observed in particularly social media, and particularly in today’s contemporary moment, if we, if we take, you know, particularly from the political campaigns from 2016 and now that we’ve just had the recently completed midterm elections and there’s a lot of information shared that is specifically designed to inspire that emotional reaction.
Rustin: In fact, there were a series of Facebook posts, 3,500 Facebook ads were released by Congress, they were doing the investigation in the post-2016 election. So is the House Committee that was investigating 3,500 Facebook ads that were known to be planted by groups that had been linked by, by law enforcement and, and investigators to Russia. And those three, if you go look at those 3,500 ads, they span all political issues at play, from immigration and border issues, to LGBTQ issues, to simple red state blue state, to figures, major well-known political figures, they’re on all sides of the issues. And what the takeaway is, there was an intentional effort to, to do that amygdala hijack thing to get people to set aside the calm narrative logic, to set aside the, you know, sort of the, the pure rational logic for decision making. Set those two sides away and go straight to the emotional reaction and the extreme emotional reaction. And that’s what some folks in this, that study this field refer to as the amygdala hijacking.
Tricoles: And so on the heels of that, you had described in your KEDtalk about how individuals can defend themselves against propaganda or disinformation. How can governments defend themselves?
Rustin: That’s a great question. And in some respects, that’s what some of the research that myself and my colleagues here at ASU and there’s researchers all across the nation in various places, both within academia, within the government, DHS, State Department, DOD, all sorts of different agencies are looking at this, at this problem. And it becomes a real challenge because there’s, is there a defensive posture? Is there the sort of, protect the citizenry from ever receiving this information? Well, that’s great for an authoritarian dictatorship that can control all pieces of information going to its citizenry. We don’t live in that society. There are other countries out there that might choose that path, but that’s not, that’s not an option for us, thankfully. Okay. So we can’t restrict the information from, until a crime has been committed. Now there’s a separate issue where, where if you violate terms of service of a corporate-provided platform, that that platform, you know, if you violate Twitter’s terms of service, for example, Twitter can shut down your account.
Rustin: But that’s a contractual relationship between the individual member and Twitter. The government can give some guidance to Twitter, the government can give some suggestions and some influence. But if the government comes to Twitter and says, you must, as a matter of law, shut this stuff down, now we’re into that realm of squelching free speech. And of course there’s a variety of complicated legal arguments that would apply. And I’m not a lawyer. So, that’s the next podcast with the lawyer, can dive into that more quickly. But then there’s how can the government function in its role of supporting the citizenry and possibly provide a review. How can it do the actual security and law enforcement role of identifying specifically adversarial attacks that are coming from outside. So there’s one, one place that starts to get pretty squarely within the realm of what the government can do.
Rustin: So helping to identify, there’s a variety of techniques that are being researched about how to identify the source, how to identify manipulation, cause there’s increasingly sophisticated techniques where an adversarial actor can take a piece of footage, video footage or, or an image, and then do a bunch of manipulations to it that are so subtle that the average user is really hard to see that. So how do we advise a consumer that this video or this image or this bit of text seems to have been edited or manipulated in some sort of adversarial way for malicious purposes? Now is it the government’s job to put, you know, the U.S. government seal of approval on it? Probably not. But one of the things the government can do is fund research that helps develop these technologies that then are able to be utilized by the Twitters and the Facebooks and the Reddits and the slate.com and the New York Times and the Fox News and all of these different platforms to use the technology to share with their readers or their readership or their viewership confidence that what they’re viewing is, is genuine.
Rustin: So there’s another angle that, that the government can, can do. And then as it relates to foreign partners and adversaries, you know, globally, there’s also a dimension of, within the field of strategic communication there’s a, there’s a principle of, of getting out there first and with, with the story you want to tell. I mean, this is the role of public affairs. This is the role of public diplomacy. And the mechanisms that we traditionally use, press releases and statements by key leaders. They’re good. But there’s an increasing awareness that those were suitable for the 20th century. Those were suitable for the major media information dissemination platforms of the 20th century, they’ve adapted well to television. They’ve adapted well to radio. We’re in an evolutionary phase where we’re adapting to the much more distributed, the much more networked form of information sharing and the hierarchies have been flattened.
Rustin: So whereas, say the press secretary for the president of United States still has a major platform, gets covered a lot by television news from all over the world, but there’s a lot of people that pay zero attention to that because they just don’t get their news in that environment. So they’re not ever seeing the press secretary speaking. They’re seeing characterizations of that that had been filtered three and four and five times before it lands on the Facebook feed or the Twitter feed or whatever platform is an individual’s choice. So then there’s the component of, well, what are the other outlets for leaders to get the message about what is, what does the government stand for? You know, this is particularly true of the state department when they are working with their allies overseas. What, what is U.S. policy and how does the U.S. embassy in whatever country communicate the values that America stands for, the policies that America’s pursuing within that particular country as well as that particular region?
Rustin: And how do they make it relevant to those leaders as well as the citizens of the, of that country to promote positive relations there. And by doing so, there’s a function of that that displaces the adversarial disinformation simply by sort of, you know, flooding the zone with what we want to communicate to. And so that’s another developing area about ways that you think about, you know, there’s policy things to be thought about there. There’s technological elements about what’s the best way to package information and get it out quickly, leveraging new technologies. And then there’s, what are ways to construct the message using rhetorical techniques such as narrative, such as framing, those types of things to help make that message more effective.
Tricoles: That’s interesting. It really is interesting. It’s complicated.
Rustin: Yes. And it’s, it has become, especially the changes in the information environment have made it more taken into account when, when considering the, the, the playing field, so to speak, if you keep with the sports metaphor. So it’s, it’s a decidedly more complicated game than 50 years ago.
Tricoles: You may have answered this, but when we talked previously, you mentioned that you’re collaborating with a neuroscientist to figure out what happens in the brain when you hear a story told in an unfamiliar way. Can you tell us a little bit about that and why that’s important to weaponize narrative? But you really already discussed that.
Rustin: Yeah. In some ways. The gist of that project was to find out that, so the, the role of the neuroscientist was to observe the sections of the brain as a human subject was comprehending a narrative. So there was audio components and there’s video components and we had the subjects in an FMRI scanner. And so we’re trying to see how the brain is reacting, so to speak, in, you know, in sort of layman’s terms, what parts of the brains light up when comprehending a narrative. And, and the narrative stimuli that we used were these short videos and they, they were packaged in sequences. And so they were modular, you know, kind of like web videos or television episodes just on much, much smaller scale because it’s really tough to sit an FMRI scanner for, you know, an hour and a half.
Rustin: That’s just, that’s no good for anybody. You don’t get good data out of the deal and the, and the subject is really uncomfortable. And so we were showing these short videos, they were all thematically linked. They were also linked from a narrative structural standpoint. And the idea was that we’d show you a few videos that from a narrative structural standpoint would be a something familiar to you. So the structure of it. Now, the topic was we picked three different topics. Bicycle commuting, organ donation and border crossing issues. And so they were topics that were, at the time that we constructed this project, that were in the news. So, that way it was, it was a known topic that would be topical. But then one of the things we were looking at was if the stories, if these videos that told these stories that were structured in this, using this narrative structure that was expected to be familiar to the subject, was there a greater propensity to act in a particular way, in accordance with the actions that were kind of depicted in the story system.
Rustin: So the three videos that sort of told the story about organ donation, ultimately the hero, so to speak, was an organ donor. So the question is the subject, if they were of the subject group that we anticipated would find the structure that we embedded these stories within familiar, would they be more likely to sign up to be an organ donor or be more likely to have a favorable attitude towards the principle of organ donation? Similarly, when we, we did the same thing with these other two topics as well. And then the idea with the, the brain scanner was to see which parts of the brain were lighting up to be able to understand more particularly when a narrative comprehension was happening versus a lack of comprehension, which would get at the neurobiological function of that principle of narrative fidelity that I talked about a little bit ago about sort of that, the role that already believing and being familiar with a set of stories or the structure of the story system provides.
Rustin: And so that would help with the weaponized narrative concept in a couple of different ways. It would be further basic science evidence of the sort of the principle of amygdala hijacking. Would we see the amygdala and related areas of the brain potentially be active. It’s, those are the, that’s a tangential sort of thing because the, we weren’t necessarily crafting our stories to be emotionally resonant or activate, you know, a high degree of emotive response, that’d be further research to do. And then, but understanding that the comprehension gap and then the persuasive power gap between the familiar, the story systems that were exhibiting this principle of fidelity and those that were not.
Tricoles: So you were, were you in the Air Force?
Tricoles: You were in the Navy, so you were in the Navy. And back then you were known to pilot helicopters quite often.
Rustin: That’s right. I served nine and a half years on active duty flying helicopters. And I transitioned to the Reserves to go to grad school. And continued flying. It was the best job that a grad student could ever have. You know, my, my colleagues were, Hey, what are you doing this weekend? Well, I’ve got a shift at the library passing out books to, to students or what have you, what are you doing? I’m going to go fly helicopters for the weekend. So, it was, it was a fantastic opportunity to continue my service and go to grad school and achieve new goals and a new pathway. And I continued to serve in the Reserves. I’ve stopped flying, 19 years was, was enough of flying of helicopters. And now I primarily work on major staffs.
Rustin: And I’m able to bring some of the expertise that I’ve developed here at ASU in the field of strategic communication, narrative studies, strategic influence, and bring that into, into the military context where, either advising or observing or conducting planning in the information environment. And how does that affect the staff decision making process particularly, you know, as it, as it sets the stage for a commander, whether that’s a combatant commander like the European command or, what we call it, joint task force commander, that has got a smaller area of responsibility but might be more involved in day to day operations. How are they incorporating considerations of the information environment into their decision making? So I get to fuse the two things, my research and my Reserve service in kind of interesting way.
Tricoles: And one more question about that. If you weren’t doing this now, is there anything else you’d want to be doing?
Rustin: Oh, you mean if I wasn’t doing research into disinformation and how narrative is exploited as a, as an influence tool and that sort of thing. That’s, it’s hard to say. The short answer is no. Because as I reflect, like I’ve been just incredibly fortunate. And I kind of stumbled and lucked into this because I didn’t go to grad school, I went to grad school to study narrative. I didn’t necessarily go to grad school to study narrative as it applies in a national security context. Now in an odd coincidence or perhaps a serendipitous motivating event, my first day of grad school was 9/11. And that was a bit surreal. And it did cause a lot of self reflection cause I had just come off active duty and here 9/11 happens and now I’m like, what do I do?
Rustin: I had already committed to the Reserves and then ultimately decided that that’s where I would focus my continued service in, you know, to the, to the country in that way. But as I continued to grad school, I didn’t refocus my study of narrative to narrative in a security context. It was the intersection of narrative and developing media technologies, particularly mobile media. So there was that intersection of, of the world as it’s changing, the information environment as it’s changing, and how does narrative and narrative theory intersect there? So that was part of, that was what I studied in grad school. And then the part that got me reconnected with national security topics as a focus area was coming out of kind of my graduate school into the teeth of the recession. They’re, very frankly, finding jobs was really hard at the, at the time, and at that time, a group here at ASU, the Center for Strategic Communication had just won a major grant from the Office of Naval Research to study Islamic extremist groups and the narrative and how they use narrative. And they were looking for narrative theorists that have specialty in media studies. We also had other members of the team that provided expertise in Islamic studies and that provided language expertise. There was a really big team and interdisciplinary, and it’s that work that turned into the book of narrative landmines. And that sort of refocused how I did my, my research. And very soon after that there was an opportunity to leverage that research within my Navy Reserve service. I got mobilized and sent to East Africa where I led an information operations planning team.
Rustin: And the Navy had never trained me to be, to do anything with information operations. They trained me to fly helicopters. And, but my research here, this was a few years after I started here at ASU doing this kind of work and that gave me the background that I needed to be able to do that job. And so that’s where this mutual reinforcement of my Reserve service and my research began in earnest. And that turned out to be really quite motivating. And that’s why I say, can I think I’d be doing anything different? I really can’t because this has fused to aspects of my life so well. And I’d like to think that this is a good trajectory. We’ve done some good work, got some great ideas and some great colleagues to further that that work. So, with any luck, we’ll get some, some good stuff done and have benefit to not only, not only the funding agencies that fund our work, like right now I’ve got a state department grant, so that’s, and that’s going, going well and we’re really excited about that. And then of course I’m able to bring some expertise into my Reserve service so that helps, helps the DOD. But there’s the, one of the interesting and complicated aspects of this idea of disinformation and weaponized narrative and the complexities and challenges from a security perspective in the information environment is that it spreads beyond the sort of focus of any given government department, say State Department, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security. And it has these much broader implications for all of society, American society, and then global, globally as well. So the degree to which the work that I do and with my colleagues here at ASU can have some positive impact on that, that scale. I mean, that’s, that’s a pretty exciting opportunity.
Tricoles: If you’re interested in more from Scott Rustin, watch the ASU KEDtalks video at research.asu.edu/kedtalks. Subscribe to our podcast through your favorite podcast directory and find us on Facebook and Twitter @ASUresearch.
Scott Ruston is part of the Global Security Initiative, which is partially supported by Arizona’s Technology and Research Initiative Fund. TRIF investment has enabled hands-on training for tens of thousands of students across Arizona’s universities, thousands of scientific discoveries and patented technologies, and hundreds of new start-up companies. Publicly supported through voter approval, TRIF is an essential resource for growing Arizona’s economy and providing opportunities for Arizona residents to work, learn and thrive.