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Cyber innovation & Society Distinguished Speaker Series

Dr. Emma BriantDr. Emma Briant, Researcher, George Washington University
Talk title: Propaganda Machine: The Hidden Story of Cambridge Analytica and the Digital Influence Industry
Date: Monday, March 4, 2019, 3:30 pm - 5:00 pm
Location: 142 Wilson Hall
Co-sponsors: Department of Media Studies

Abstract:  Dr. Briant will talk about her ongoing book project, Propaganda Machine, which will tell the untold story of Cambridge Analytica (CA) in the words and documents of those who built it, and the voices of those who exposed it. It is a book about the rise and continuing threat of a new breed of influence firm who brought dirty tricks and propaganda into a digital age. CA’s parent company SCL drew on military and intelligence methodologies, and growing access to social media data, to develop a surveillant and coercive influence capability for commercial expansion, while providing unique methods for Western governments' national security. Explosive growth of social media like Facebook opened the door to big data analytics, psychographics, and the techniques of surveillant advertising. This talk will analyze the global expansion of a model of surveillant, data-driven and extreme propaganda which ultimately enabled a uniquely contemporary crisis during the Brexit and Trump campaigns. Dr. Briant describes the incentivization of a business model that undermines human rights efforts, heightens inequality and makes Western governments’ security and elections vulnerable. The book draws case studies from many exclusive interviews and documents. Dr. Briant argues that media and political debates as they focused on the Facebook data scandal, systematically underestimated the scale and implications of this crisis. This book will consider data ethics within wider context of other dimensions of CA's unethical practice. Dr. Briant argues that CA was an extreme but logical product of an economic, security and communication policy environment that enables and incentivizes unethical behaviour from a rapidly developing and unaccountable industry.

Biography: A researcher at George Washington University, Dr. Briant specializes in researching political communication and propaganda both in international security and political campaigns, she gained unparalleled access to Senior Executives at SCL Group and Cambridge Analytica and her work has since aided multiple important investigations. Her widely reported evidence to the UK Fake News Inquiry and Senate Judiciary Committee was discussed by UK Parliament, Canadian Parliament, European Parliament and US Congress.

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About Cyber Innovation & Society

Cyber technology has become pervasive and indispensable. Humans interact with cyber systems to conduct many of the tasks of their day-to-day lives. As cyber technology advances and the Internet of Everything becomes reality, it is critical that these systems are secure and that they operate for the benefit of humankind. The size, complexity and interconnectedness of these systems and their integration into the very fabric of our lives requires a holistic, sociotechnical approach to: a) understand the impact of these systems on society, especially how they affect human values such as privacy, freedom, democracy, individual autonomy, b) understand the risks and consequences of attacks on these systems and strategies to respond to attacks, and c) ensure that these systems operate as intended (secure and dependable) and the data they collect and process is secure from improper use.

What is needed is an ‘anticipatory’ approach; that is, an approach that considers these questions while cyber technology is still being developed and not after it has become deeply embedded, and we are compelled to learn only from failures and only when negative social consequences become apparent.

The mission of the Cyber Innovation and Society Institute is to carry out multidisciplinary research and education initiatives that focus on the complex technical, social and policy challenges posed by emerging cyber innovations to ensure that cyber technology benefits all of society equally, fairly and dependably.

Cyber News and Events


A team of UVa students competing for the first time in National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition held in Orlando, Florida on April 13-15th took home the first place trophy.  The teams competing were:

The University of Virginia is deploying a new strategy to grow its research enterprise, a program called “Explore-to-Build” that provides seed funding to draw faculty members together from around Grounds to address some of society’s most vexing problems.

The University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science will launch a multi-million dollar initiative to drive innovation in cyber-physical systems, an area of research that explores both the promise and risks of the worldwide technology explosion.