The Freedom Academy is Open
Welcome to The Freedom Academy! I’m Asha Rangappa, and I’m an Assistant Dean and Senior Lecturer at the Yale Jackson School of Global Affairs. I’m also a lawyer and the former Dean of Admissions at Yale Law School. And before that, I was a Special Agent in the counterintelligence division of the FBI.
Many of you know me from my legal commentary about current events on TV, in print, and on social media. But when I began thinking of launching a Substack this past September, I wanted to focus on something different, topics that I’m passionate about in my professional work but which aren’t always covered in the news. I decided to create an outlet that offers a perspective on our current moment through the lens of information warfare, since that is the conflict that we are in, both at home and abroad.
Why should we care about disinformation?
The threats in the realm of information warfare — things like disinformation, foreign influence operations, and domestic propaganda — are largely invisible. They come in the form of speech, which we as a nation hold sacred and also believe is safe. After all, words aren’t bombs or guns; they don’t result in explosions or dead bodies, the things that we have come to associate with “real” threats to our national security, democracy, and way of life.
But words shape our perceptions — of our politics, of our institutions, and of each other — and perceptions shape actions. We saw the consequences of this on January 6, 2021.
When I was at the FBI, most of my cases involved foreign influence operations involving propaganda and disinformation. The Bureau calls these, fittingly, “perception management” operations. Perception management referred for foreign intelligence activities that sought to influence the opinions and attitudes of people in the United States in ways favorable to that intelligence service’s interests. This might include recruiting a journalist to plant stories, or creating domestic publications that looked organic, but were really run by a foreign government. At the time I worked these cases — in the twilight of the analog age and in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 — they felt not-so-urgent compared to the external terrorist threat we faced then.
The internet and explosion of social media over the last twenty years has fundamentally altered this threat landscape. It’s offered foreign governments — often authoritarian countries that eschew an open society — a way to easily weaponize democratic values, like a free press, against us. More recently, it’s allowed domestic actors to adopt tactics once used by foreign adversaries as a political strategy, also against us. I personally believe that disinformation, broadly speaking, poses the greatest threat to our democracy today.
The way to counter this threat — or “neutralize” it, as we would say in the Bureau — is to expose it. Information warfare is most effective on an unwitting and highly reactive target. Like shining an ultraviolet light on a crime scene that’s been cleaned with bleach, we can shine sunlight on disinformation efforts and fortify ourselves against “psychological hacking” attempts by understanding how these tactics work, why they are effective, and what vulnerabilities they seek to exploit.
To this end, I have been teaching a graduate level class called Russian Intelligence, Information Warfare, and Social Media for the last five years. One thing I’ve learned is that part of the reason it’s so hard for citizens, let alone policymakers, to wrap their heads around this threat is because it doesn’t neatly fall into a single discipline. My course incorporates the fields of history, intelligence, technology, psychology, sociology, and journalism, just to name a few areas from which I draw readings and other materials. The cool thing is that this kind of interdisciplinary approach offers the chance to connect the dots in new and interesting ways.
What is the Freedom Academy?
Occasionally I’ve posted some of these interesting insights or connections I was researching or teaching in my class on social media, and noticed that my followers wanted more. Many asked me if I allowed guests to audit the class, whether I taught the class online, or if I could share my syllabus. They had genuine excitement, which got me excited. So I decided to create a new syllabus for a course called “Democracy in the (Dis)Information Age” just for Substack — and the Freedom Academy came to life.
On my About page, I’ve written about the history behind the original attempt to create the Freedom Academy in the United States. It’s a fascinating and hopeful concept, and I hope to create the spirit of that idea here. Each week (usually on Wednesdays), I’ll post a reading or video along with my written “lecture” on that topic. I’ll do regular Zoom “office hours” for Q&A, and also post discussion prompts to share your thoughts and comments with each other. My hope is to also do some video interviews/guest lectures each month with authors of some of the books and articles we are reading. The weekly lessons will build on each other and refer back to earlier topics, but they will be presented in bite-sized chunks that can stand alone if you missed some weeks or are coming in late. For me, having the chance to go through my material bit by bit is a huge luxury, as it gives me a chance to do a deep dive on nuances that I sometimes can’t explore when I am forced to cover it all in one semester. Here on Substack, we have all the time in the world! (And trust me, we won’t run out of material.)
Is the Freedom Academy free?
For the Freedom Academy course, which is the meat of this Substack, the initial lessons will be free, and I will offer free previews of the course material from time to time. But, my goal is to create an interactive community built around enthusiasm for the subject, a robust exchange of ideas, and camaraderie — much like a real classroom. So after the first few weeks, the weekly lessons, as well as the ability to participate in discussions and Zoom chats, will be for my paid subscribers.
But there is free content! Every Monday (and more frequently if I can), I will publish a free post. Ideally, these will offer an angle on topics in the news connected to things we are covering in class. But when the news cycle gets really juicy, they may involve longer pieces inspired by the thoughts or threads I post on Twitter. (And if Twitter tanks completely, this is where you’ll find me and my hot takes, and they will definitely be free!)
All of this, of course, is both an experiment and a work in progress. I’ll enable comments on some of my free posts, so please do offer feedback and let me know what you’d like to see and hear more about as a subscriber.
Thank you for taking the time to visit my Substack. I hope you will subscribe to any version of it that piques your interest. I’m so excited to get started on this journey together.