Line of Defense

Alumni6 MIN READ

Lisa Kaplan gives political campaigns and others ways to combat online disinformation

By Tom Kertscher
March 2, 2020

Lisa Kaplan ’13 knows the importance of truth. So when she read the February 2018 indictment by Special Counsel Robert Mueller that charged Russians with interfering in the 2016 American elections, she had to act.

Lisa Kaplan '13
Lisa Kaplan ’13

Among the allegations: posing as Americans to run bogus social media accounts, buy advertisements, and stage political rallies; and building computer systems in the United States to hide the Russian origin of their activity.

“It talked about, in very plain language, exactly what they did and how they did it in order to conduct a disinformation campaign,” recalled Kaplan, who was then working for the re-election campaign of Angus King, the junior U.S. senator in her home state of Maine. “And so I sat there, and I said: ‘What would we do if and when this happens to us?’”

With a clear, logical plan, Kaplan began directing a team of King’s campaign staff that searched for disinformation that could affect the race. King won, but Kaplan was left worried. “I got to the point where I didn’t want to wake up and say, ‘I could have done more in 2020,’” she said.

Kaplan had an idea. She took it to her go-to source for feedback: her Colby network.

She floated the idea by Patrice Franko, Grossman Professor of Economics, who encouraged her to talk to two seasoned alumni: Colby Trustee Robert Hoopes ’89, P’20, an expert on public affairs and issue advocacy, and former Ambassador Robert Gelbard ’64, who held high-level positions for more than four decades in the U.S. State Department.

They all told Kaplan the same thing: go for it. In May 2019 she launched her own business, the Washington, D.C.-based Alethea Group, which helps political campaigns, corporations, and other organizations protect themselves against disinformation.

”I told her she could always go back to what she was doing,” Gelbard recalled, “but since she has this urge to strike out on this really interesting, important, front-line issue, I told her to go ahead.”

Kaplan’s idea was so novel that Hoopes called it a “first-mover” idea. He believed she’d succeed, not just because of her general knowledge of national security issues, but also because of her customer service skills. “Lisa has a real keen ability to communicate well to people around her,” Hoopes said. “So not just saying these things are happening, but what do they mean? What is the context? What is the cadence?”

Said Kaplan, “I was really grateful for that network to give me a nudge in the right direction.” By December 2019, Kaplan was featured in the New York Times as being one of the few such experts in the country. In February 2020, she was interviewed by National Public Radio.

That role is daunting, as is the sheer vastness of cyberspace, so Kaplan tries to prioritize. For example, to oversimplify it, looking for false messages such as, “If you’re a Democrat, you vote Dec. 1.”

“I got to the point where I didn’t want to wake up and say, ‘I could have done more in 2020.’”

Lisa Kaplan ’13

“It only matters if people see it, believe it, and change their behavior,” Kaplan said of false messaging, “then you’re able to get really tactical. And if you know who some of the actors behind this are, you can predict what they might attack and how they might attack it and anticipate what they’re going to do next. You know, ‘If I were Russia …’ finish the sentence.”

After Kaplan’s work exposing TheSoul Publishing, the company took down a video viewed more than 283,000 times that claimed Ukraine is part of Russia, gave a “heavily sanitized version of Joseph Stalin’s time in power,” as Kaplan put it, and displayed a vision of Russian expansion that includes most of Europe. The company subsequently removed other historically oriented videos, as well.

(In response to the reference above, Colby Magazine received the following from a spokesperson for TheSoul Publishing: For TheSoul Publishing to even be mentioned in a story on ‘disinformation campaigns’ and ‘election interference’ is wrong. TheSoul Publishing is a global digital studio that specializes in fun and entertaining content that showcases craft ideas, riddles, games, and DIY projects. A minute selection of animated videos on our Smart Banana channel were found to include incorrect facts and they were removed.)

Successes like these, said Kaplan, should relieve fears of people who think there is no way to fight disinformation. “Anytime we are able to help educate folks so that they’re able to approach this in a different way and not just throw their hands up and say, ‘The Russians are coming, there’s nothing we can do’ — but instead say, OK, the Russians are coming, so are the Iranians and so is the other political party, and we’ve got a plan and we’re ready and it’s going to be great.”

Kaplan, a third-generation Colbian, was what Franko called a “spark” in her class. “She had the perseverance to do the details but also sees the big picture,” Franko recalled. Kaplan aims high, Franko said, recounting Kaplan’s expressed desire to be “just like Madeleine Albright” after seeing the former U.S. Secretary of State speak at Colby her first year.

“Don’t doubt her,” Franko said about her former student. “She can do it.”

Gelbard recalled that when Kaplan was at Colby he was “tremendously impressed by her inquisitiveness, energy, work ethic, and spirit of adventure.”

Being an entrepreneur is not for the faint of heart, Kaplan said, referring to the long hours and the “rollercoaster of running a startup.” It requires her to ask the right questions and think critically, skills she learned at Colby.

“The thing about Colby that I think is the most important,” Kaplan said, “and why it gave me such a good education, is because it teaches you to question everything. And nobody ever told me there was something that I couldn’t do.”

While Kaplan works to grow her company, she’s guided by the word alethea, derived from the Greek word for truth. Disinformation is a societal issue, she said, and she believes her work helps others feel protected.

“This is an opportunity,” she said, “to make an impact and to do good.”

—Laura Meader contributed to this story.

Three tips from Lisa Kaplan to avoid being a victim of disinformation:

  1. Check the source of information you see. Is it a well-known and trustworthy source? Does the author of this information have a track record of accurate reporting?
  2. Check the date a post or headline was published. Is it current or is it old and therefore being taken out of context?
  3. Check the source of unfamiliar social media pages. Facebook now lists things such as when a page was created and where it is located. If it’s a U.S. veterans page that’s being run out of Moldova, that’s a huge red flag.

More from Lisa Kaplan

“4 steps to stop the spread of disinformation online”

“The Biggest Social Media Operation You’ve Never Heard of Is Run Out of Cyprus by Russians”