Sydney Reis says she has seen firsthand how capable and intelligent people have fallen victim to believing falsified information that they have seen online. This prompted her to think deeper about what casual Internet users are up against in terms of who is trying to get their attention online and the not-always-obvious ways that this is done.
Reis and three other students in the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA) Intelligence and International Affairs stream decided to focus on this issue as part of a capstone course taught by Prof. Alex Wilner.
Wilner has been running this course for three years. Students, usually grouped into small clusters, work on research puzzles that he and various government partners establish together.
Wilner explains: “Partners help lay the foundation for the projects by coming to class to pitch the puzzle at the beginning of term, and students get invited at the end of the process to present their findings to their partners (almost always at their Government headquarters downtown). It’s a lot of fun, a highlight of the year.”
Reis and her other group members worked together on a largely self-directed project that was intended for Global Affairs Canada (GAC).
Their paper Digital Foreign Interference: Past, Present, and Future was then published by the Macdonald Laurier Institute (MLI), an Ottawa-based public policy think tank.
Reis says that the paper examines how foreign interference – which can also be understood as information warfare and propaganda – is becoming ever more targeted and effective, thanks to modern developments in artificial intelligence, and the increasing role of the Internet in our everyday lives. She explains: “The article argues that digitized foreign interference undermines Canadian democratic institutions by allowing foreign governments to directly reach and influence Canadian citizens. Some of the technologies highlighted in the article includes deep fake technologies and automation software such as bots.”
Reis says the NPSIA capstone course taught her how to effectively research, write, and present with a group. “In a long-term project such as this one, you cannot simply let any intra group issues go unresolved. There were constant negotiations and accountabilities within the group in order to ensure that everything was running smoothly. This was invaluable experience for any future group work I will be a part of.”
A second group of students in Wilner’s class published another article: On the Social Science of Ransomware: Technology, Security, and Society, in Comparative Strategy 38:4 (2019).
Says Wilner: “I’m obviously thrilled with these results as are our students as, for most of them, these publications are their first. It suggests that NPSIA students produce very high-quality research that – with the right kind of assistance, editing, and leadership – can get academically and publicly disseminated.”
As for Reis, she is grateful for her time at NPSIA. “The experience and knowledge of the faculty and connections that the school has throughout government has been invaluable for helping me get to where I am. (I currently work at Public Safety Canada as a Junior Policy Analyst.)”
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