From a back patio in Kentucky, Graham Brookie switched virtually between business meetings: one, an Atlantic Council board meeting, with former federal politicians Madeleine Albright and Stephen Hadley; the next, an interview with The Durango Herald.
It’s just “typical work stuff,” said Brookie, a Durango High School graduate and son of Durango Mayor Dean Brookie and Cyndi Myer.
Recently, Brookie’s “work stuff” has meant acting as an expert on the nation’s whack-a-mole attempts to snuff out misinformation online.
Brookie, a Durango native, began his career in public service before graduating high school in 2008 – interning for U.S. Sens. Ken Salazar and Michael Bennet, then earning two degrees in political science and working in the White House from 2012 to 2017. He now directs the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. It’s the lab’s job to understand viral misinformation. At stake: America’s trust in its own institutions, he said.
“We face this challenge where there’s this perception that everything you see online might be fake,” Brookie said. “The impact of that is we don’t have as much trust in information, and frankly, institutions and society in general. That diminishes our ability to see ourselves in each other. That’s a big, scary problem.”
Brookie manages 30 people spread across five continents. They scour the internet, researching and reporting on extremist groups online, disinformation and misinformation.
Disinformation is intentionally spreading false information. Think Russia’s interference into U.S. elections in 2016, conspiracy theorists and QAnon.
Misinformation is unintentional – like your well-meaning aunt who reposts articles with wild claims. The Digital Forensic Research Lab doesn’t use the term “fake news.” It’s not useful; rather, it has been weaponized, and journalists around the world have been targeted by politicians and the public under the guise of fake news, Brookie said.
Brookie explains misinformation and how it manifests to national media organizations like The New York Times, The Atlantic and Politico. He helps explain misinformation around things like the COVID-19 pandemic, fake social media accounts and the November elections.
“At this point, fake news is a kitchen table topic,” Brookie said. “All of us have a role to play in countering disinformation and navigating what trust in society looks like.”
The best way to do that?
Have a healthy degree of skepticism and look at multiple sources.
Don’t make a fight out of being right. Give people space to discover accurate information themselves, rather than saying they are wrong.
In the White House, Brookie worked directly for Lisa Monaco, former President Barack Obama’s homeland security adviser, across the hall from the Situation Room.
“We worked around the clock on top secret systems,” he said, like countering ISIS, hostage policies in the Middle East and cyber security.
Brookie said he would like to serve in the government again, but his main focus is shaping public policy. That focus – and his passion for public service – has deep roots.
“He has been aiming for public service in some form or another since I have known him,” said Barbara McLachlan, a former DHS English teacher and a representative in the Colorado Legislature.
McLachlan viewed Brookie as a curious, critical thinker.
“He also listens to others, asks questions and is innately curious about how and why people address issues the way they do,” she said.
In high school, Brookie was student government president, which he called “ridiculously cliché.” He also played varsity baseball and performed in a band and in theater.
He had a commitment to history and politics, said Dale Garland, Brookie’s high school history teacher.
“I always encourage our leaders to go out and make a difference. I think Graham Brookie took that to heart,” said Garland, who has kept in touch with Brookie.
Brookie says one of Garland’s refrains in a high school classroom influenced him the most.
“There was a phrase he would say, ‘The world is run by those who show up.’ I’ve taken that to heart, and I’ve tried to show up whenever possible and do my part,” he said.
Brookie still calls Durango home. He searches for Durango beers whenever he travels and tries to make it back to Durango often.
From Kentucky, where he set up shop to avoid COVID-19 in Washington, Brookie prepared to answer 200 emails that had built up throughout his day.
“It’s working out pretty well so far, but we’ve got a bunch more stuff to do,” he said. “I’m just trying not to mess it up.”