Fellowship Spotlight: Rhiannon Neilsen

A new feature highlighting the work of CISAC fellows

The Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), offers a rich variety of fellowships for scholars to focus on a variety of security topics and participate in seminars to interact and collaborate with leading faculty and researchers.

In this Q&A, Rhiannon Neilsen, now her in second year as a postdoctoral fellow, breaks down what lead her to CISAC and to the field of international security, and details her latest research in cyber humanitarian interventions.

What drew you to cyber operations? Was there someone or something that inspired you to pursue this field? 

This is a bit of a funny story. It was 2016, and I had just finished my Master of Philosophy on the early warning signs of genocide. I was based at the Australian Defence Force Academy, and the department was setting up a compulsory course on “The Politics and Ethics of Cyber War” for all the military cadets (across Army, Navy, and Air Force). My Head of Department asked me if I could teach it, and my reply was (a somewhat flustered and panicked): “I study genocide! I don’t know anything about cyber!”. To this, he calmly and confidently responded: “Just stay two weeks ahead of the students, and you’ll be fine.” So, I did. I was instantly fascinated by cyber in war and conflict, and realised there was almost no research on using offensive cyber operations to prevent genocide. And here I am seven years later!  

You’re currently working on a project that focuses on the viability and ethics of 'cyber humanitarian interventions.' Can you explain what that means and who this work targets?

I define cyber humanitarian interventions (CHIs) as use of sophisticated cyber operations and online influence campaigns to prevent and mitigate mass atrocity crimes (genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing). Specifically, CHIs aim to disrupt potential perpetrators’ means and motivations for their crimes. By frustrating perpetrators’ means, I refer to hacking into their networks and blocking or manipulating their virtual communications, freezing their financial revenues, and disrupting weapons and ammunition shipments – basically everything the perpetrators need to go through with their crimes. By influencing perpetrators’ motivation, I introduce the concept of ‘targeted educational campaigns’: personalised advertisements on social media – based on individuals’ big data (‘likes’, searches, posts, location, etc) – that advocate for respect for human rights, toleration, and restraint from violence. As opposed to traditional public peace communications, the key strength of targeted educational campaigns is the scale, speed, and specificity of the messaging. I argue that such messaging is more likely to resonate and effectively curtail violence because they are tailormade to individual perpetrators based on big data analytics. 

You’ve had opportunities to study all over the world, originally from and studying in Australia, a fellowship at Oxford and now here at Stanford. Would you say this has benefited your professional goals? If so, how? And how did this lead you to CISAC?


Absolutely – it’s without a doubt the people I’ve met along the way. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be supported by inspirational scholars in Australia, the UK, and now the US. There are too many to name here, but I am extremely grateful for Prof. Toni Erskine (my PhD supervisor in Australia), Prof. Cécile Fabre and Prof. Janina Dill (my mentors at Oxford), and Dr. Herb Lin, Prof. Norman Naimark, and Prof. Scott Sagan (at Stanford). My research has benefitted immensely from these scholars (and others) generously sharing their time, wisdom, encouragement, and kindness. I’ve also learnt a lot from my peers – notably fellow PhD students and early career scholars. Navigating academia is tricky to say the least, and we all lift each other up. In fact, if former CISAC Fellow Dr. John Emery hadn’t believed in me and advocated for me to apply for the fellowship, I wouldn’t be at CISAC now (thank you again, John!).

In terms of success, which accomplishments are you most proud of?

Honestly, I’d have to say joining CISAC. Coming from southside Brisbane, Australia, it has been incredibly exciting to move to California and work alongside some of the leading thinkers in my field. It’s such an intellectually stimulating, welcoming, and vibrant place to be. I’m still pinching myself.

What is something that people would be surprised to learn about you? 

I’m not sure if this is particularly surprising given my research interests in armed conflict, but I spent most of my weekends in the early 2000s playing the computer games Age of Empires II and Runescape (on an old and clunky PC)! Recovering gamer, but still very nerdy.