Caroline Orr is a Virginia Commonwealth University behavioral scientist who uses open-source information and data analytics to examine how Russia has weaponized social media against the United States. Before taking part in a Zócalo/Japanese American National Museum Event panel discussion titled “Can U.S. Democracy Survive Russian Information Warfare?” she chatted in the green room about Twitter, yoga, and the strange things she saw on the internet that made her start paying attention to Russian interference.
What social media platform do you use the most?
Twitter, by a long shot. It’s newsy and fast. I tweet a lot.
Why do you use that platform to express yourself?
For one thing it forces you to think about what you want to say, and condense it, and just get to the meat of what you want to say. Now there’s more characters to use, and you can do threads and all of that. But at this point I have a large audience that I can get to, and it’s a quick way to get something across concisely. You can take the temperature of an audience by tweeting about something and seeing how people are feeling about it.
How do you chill out?
I like to do yoga. That’s one of the few things I do that’s offline, out of touch. And I like to read and write; I actually like handwriting a lot. I’m bad about keeping a regular journal. But I write to people. I’m probably like one of the last people who does, like I keep the stamp industry going! My grandmother had beautiful cursive handwriting. And I learned to write cursive when I was a child, but I didn’t have very nice cursive. So when I was in graduate school in Baltimore, I told myself I was going to make myself learn how to write cursive like my grandmother did. I really put my mind to it, I carried a little notebook around with me, I would practice writing—just when I was stopped at stoplights I would look around and see what was around me, write it. And within a year I had the cursive that I wanted. Now I love it. It’s like a form of art almost for me.
Was there a teacher or professor who really influenced you?
My mother is a professor of epidemiology. So she is the one who got me into academia in the first place. I love school; it’s in the family, we have a lot of professors in the family. And my mom sort of taught me that love of learning, just wanting to know things, being interested in the world, being curious about the world. And that’s how I got into research, just by sort of watching her. I wanted to know how to be happy, and from the beginning of her career to the end of it she was always passionate about what she was doing.
How many academics are in your family?
My brother is a professor, my mother is a professor, an uncle, and there may be one or two others. It’s a nice life if you find that thing that you’re interested in, and that’s what my mom always told me: When you find something that you’re interested in that nobody else is, and you love it as much as you do, you follow it.
What are you reading for pleasure right now?
I read odd things for pleasure, I would say. So I just bought Fear [by Bob Woodward]. That was more just out of curiosity, have-to-have-it kind of thing. I knew that an [airline] flight was coming, and I ended up sleeping—not because of the book! But I have several books that are waiting to be read, on information warfare, like Malcolm Nance, his second book.
Were you interested in spies and surveillance as a kid, or did that develop later?
It was later, and sort of accidentally. I come from a very odd background to have ended up where I am. My first Master’s was in health education and promotion, my second was in psychology, and now I’m finishing my doctoral degree, which is in social behavioral science. My [academic] concentration sort of shifted. My colleagues and I were studying things about the Ebola virus, and information about the Ebola virus spreading online through social media, and we did a study on refugees, and how information spread on certain platforms, and why one post about the Ebola virus would get a whole bunch of responses and another one wouldn’t—is it the message, is it the image, is it the people? And while we were doing those studies, that’s when I first started to see something was [happening] on the internet. There was some kind of shift, and you could almost feel it, the tide was coming in. We were doing our study on refugees, and we did a word cloud, and there were the strangest words clustered together around refugees. It was “AR-15,” “Trump,” “rape,” and one or two other words that would pull very strong emotions out of people, but that you wouldn’t normally associate together. And that was one of the first things.
Is there a movie, a book, a piece of music, or some other artwork that you periodically revisit, to kind of check in with yourself?
My favorite form of artwork is photography. And my father retired and then he decided to become a professional photographer.
You seem like a family where nobody ever quite fully retires.
Yes, yes! And so I love to look at old photos, old family photos, actual photos that you can hold in your hand. There’s something nostalgic, that feeling of looking at a Polaroid.
For such a digitally savvy person, you seem to have a bit of an analog soul.
That’s a very good way of putting it, actually. It’s an interesting dichotomy, but I think I do. When I was a little bit younger, I used to hear a lot that I was an ‘old soul,’ and I think that’s true.