Cross-unit collaboration brings “Cyber Capabilities and Accelerating Global Change” – a workshop for K-14 Wisconsin educators

One year ago, CREECA had no choice but to postpone a K-14 educator workshop on cyber warfare and accelerated global change—a topic that has increased in significance as our reliance on networks and videoconferencing has grown exponentially. But it was thanks to these technologies that CREECA, the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, and European Studies put this workshop back on the calendars of Wisconsin educators.

In March 2021, educators gathered virtually for “Cyber Capabilities and Accelerating Global Change,” a timely professional development opportunity that equipped participants with the tools and context necessary to discuss cyber events and issues with students on personal, national, and global levels. 

During the two-day workshop, educators engaged with field experts to examine how cyber-capabilities—surveillance technologies, social media, automation and remote activation, intelligence, and data storage—impact relationships between nation-states and our rights as consumers and citizens in an accelerated, cyber-capable world. 

“We learned not only about specific case studies of cyberwarfare in recent history but also about alarming dynamics in how authoritarian governments use cyber-capabilities to undermine democracy and civil society,” said history teacher Bill Gibson of Madison East High School.  

Dr. Thorsten Wetzling kicked things off, Zooming in from Berlin where he heads the research unit on digital rights, surveillance, and democracy for the European think tank Stiftung Neue Verantwortung and directs the European Intelligence Oversight Network. His talk “Democratic Intelligence: Reflections on an Oxymoron” unpacked how intelligence relies on tools and methods that do not always align neatly with the principles of democratic governments. 

Next, Dr. Mary McCoy (UW-Madison Department of Communication Arts and Center for Southeast Asian Studies) lent her expertise on political movements, social media and authoritarianism.

Workshop co-organizer Dr. Mary McCoy presents “The Hidden Costs of Free Facebook: Trolling in Duterte’s Philippines and Mass Atrocity in Aung San Suu Kyi’s Myanmar.”

In her lecture, “The Hidden Costs of Free Facebook: Trolling in Duterte’s Philippines and Mass Atrocity in Aung San Suu Kyi’s Myanmar,” McCoy explored the weaponization of social media platforms by authoritarian leaders to spread disinformation, manipulate elections, incite violence, and fray political trust in ongoing campaigns to undermine democracy and consolidate power.

The conversation continued on day two with Dr. Larissa Doroshenko, a postdoctoral associate in Northeastern University’s Department of Communication Studies. Doroshenko was a CREECA communications project assistant and a graduate of the UW-Madison PhD program in Communication Science. Her passion for mass media and politics began at Belarusian State University, where she studied journalism and simultaneously worked as a freelance reporter. 

Doroshenko’s research focuses on “the dark side” of the internet in political campaigning—populism, nationalism, and disinformation. Her presentation “Twitter and Cold War 2.0: Russian Disinformation Campaigns in Ukraine and the United States” demonstrated how authoritarian regimes influence perceptions of reality in other countries. After participants gave their take on the trustworthiness of several Twitter news accounts, Doroshenko revealed how one account was controlled by a Russian internet research agency that acted as a local news aggregator in the U.S. 

Dr. Larissa Doroshenko leads an activity as part of her presentation, “Twitter and Cold War 2.0: Russian Disinformation Campaigns in Ukraine and the United States.”

“Studies show that Americans don’t trust national news as much as they trust local news,” Doroshenko said. “Russian authorities retweeted information from reputable local news sources, potentially inserting falsehoods or slants on factual information. They would post more stories on issues of security and crime to create a perception of the world as a dangerous place.” 

UW-Madison’s Dr. Jeremy Stoddard (Department of Curriculum & Instruction) wrapped up the workshop with “Talking Technology and Propaganda in the Classroom: Making the Intangible Engaging.” In this discussion, Stoddard and educators considered what it means to be a citizen on the internet when all content is for-profit and consumer-driven, including news and propaganda. Stoddard demystified the concept of the algorithm, explaining how algorithms track our data to exploit and reinforce our behavior to keep our attention as engaged consumers. 

History teacher Bill Gibson of Madison East High School poses a question following Doroshenko’s talk.

The workshop generated an urgency to educate our students more effectively on these new forms of information dissemination and provide effective tools in media literacy to protect them from these new forms of propaganda, which are insidious and impressively effective, said Gibson.  

Accordingly, educators received syllabus-adaptable resources that align with social studies Wisconsin state standards, including a glossary of key terms, source materials, and practical exercises that prompt student participation and collaboration on issues of cyber capabilities.  

The core of my teaching philosophy is to prepare students to defend themselves intellectually from systems of power and the effects of propaganda. Our work is cut out for us,” said Gibson.  

“It was a rich and sobering teacher workshop. Much thanks to CREECA and the other outreach centers for providing us with this opportunity.” 

Written by Ryan Goble | Communications Project Assistant | CREECA