ST. PAUL, Minn. (KMSP) - A few days after graduating from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, 22-year old Valerie Brukhis is back on campus, saying her goodbyes and looking back on her journey here.
"When I was five, my parents decided to move to the states. They sold everything that they had, and right before we were to move here their money was stolen from right out from under their couch cushion," Brukhis said.
Her family held tight to what they did have: determination, a strong work ethic and a desire to learn.
"I remember being a five-year old in kindergarten looking at other kids and thinking, 'I need to figure out how to fit in with you and how to connect with you and how to understand you,'" she said.
Fifteen years later, that same curiosity would take Valerie back to Ukraine.
While at St. Thomas she secured a first of its kind internship with UNICEF, interviewing youth fighting in the Ukrainian revolution.
"That work was particularly touching because every single morning you receive email alerts about where the bomb went off today and where the school was shattered today," Brukhis said.
Around the same time a new global threat was emerging, and Valerie once again found herself on the front lines.
"Russian disinformation is so widespread. It's part of war and it's a weapon," Brukhis said.
Then a junior at St. Thomas, Valerie teamed up with a bipartisan cyber security alliance called the German Marshall Fund. She helped monitor hundreds of Russian Twitter accounts in real time, learning to identify fake accounts. But those "bots" were the least of her concerns.
"There can also be an account that is run by a real person in real time and begins by putting out something that any other person would and then starting to distribute, disseminate information," Brukhis said.
One of the most shocking examples she found was a Russian cyber threat known as "bikini trolls.”
"They pay essentially Russian, beautiful Russian women to create Facebook accounts and add men who would be interested in this age of a woman. So they'll be acting completely normally and functioning as an interested woman for two years after which they will begin disseminate disinformation."
At a national level, the US government and tech industries are working to combat online disinformation campaigns. But, how do we as social media consumers navigate these cyber traps?
Brukhis advises readers not to take the messaging that appears on your Facebook feed as to be the primary source of your information. She also said not to allow it “to instigate such an emotional response in you prior to having read all the other sources."
She also said to approach every social media post with your eyes wide open.
"[Acknowledge] the fact that there is this widespread information that's meant to pull at the seams of our society and it's meant to undermine our democracies, and engaging in that is only going to undermine democracy," Brukhis said.
Back on campus, Valerie is preparing for the next step on her journey. She'll pursue her Masters in cyber security in Israel as a Fulbright Scholar.
"One of the most eye-opening parts of my student interviews was a student told me ‘you're really lucky to feel like you can accomplish anything, that your institutions and your society is set up in such a way that if you really believe something and you're crazy enough to pursue it, there's at least the feeling that it might work out.’ And so I feel lucky to have had that feeling and gotten to act on it," she said.
If you would like more information on the cyber tracking being done through the the German Marshall Fund you can find it here: https://dashboard.securingdemocracy.org/