Professional Development Workshop: Terrell Starr, “Covering Trump in an Age of Russian Propaganda Wars”

REEEC welcomed back journalist and REEEC MA graduate Terrell Starr for a professional development workshop on March 30 entitled “Covering Trump in an Age of Russian Propaganda Wars.” Starr argued that in order to understand how many Americans today perceive the Russian government, we need to understand how Americans perceive threats. There is overwhelming evidence that the Russian government used hacking and technological manipulation to influence and perhaps even swing the recent presidential election. And yet, when confronted with evidence of this tampering, Americans who identify as Trump supporters are indifferent, or even supportive, of the Russian involvement. How do these supporters justify such a position?

Journalist and REEEC alumnus Terrell Starr

The answer, Starr proposes, lies in the way Americans perceive threats. People will either intensify or minimize a threat depending on their positionality. In other words, the extent to which people perceive an action to be threatening is not value neutral; it is calibrated through public discourse and private identity politics. Throughout his campaign, Trump played heavily into this process, basing much of his campaign around specific kinds of threats. By focusing on the supposed dangers of spaces like the US-Mexican border or Chicago, or on the process of refugee resettlement, Trump has created a narrative in which threats emerge from people of color. The narrative that Trump has created, in short, is a narrative that protects American whiteness.

The danger of Trump’s re-centering around American whiteness—beyond its obvious deleterious effects on the American social fabric—is that it allows threats like the Russian election interference to be easily minimized. As part of Starr’s journalistic work, he has spoken extensively with Trump supporters to try to understand the way in which they recontextualize information to fit it into this narrow vision of a threat. Starr noted that compared to ISIS, refugees, and the southern border, Trump supporters do not see Russia as threatening. Because the election interference does not fit into the Trumpian narrative of what a threat is, many (even most) of his supporters are unwilling to consider it one.

Starr himself has reevaluated his role as a journalist in light of these findings. He has made it his goal to learn about hacking and other forms of interference in order to better understand them. He then acts as an educator, explaining to the public how these hacking attacks work. There are limitations to what he (or any reporter) can do, as he cannot access any secret or classified information, but he has managed to gain an idea of how this sophisticated system of hacking functions.

Yet even while Starr has expanded his job as a reporter, he wonders what effect his actions will have. If we found a smoking gun that implicated the Russian government in election hacking, would it matter to a majority of Trump’s supporters? Drawing upon his interviews with them, Starr is not sure. The narrative that Trump has created has staying power, and many of his supporters are deeply invested in its promotion of American whiteness. What use is a smoking gun in an era in which a narrative is more powerful than facts?

Starr is also pessimistic about the ability of the Russian government to continue to interfere in the American political system. The Russian government, he notes, has been particularly adept at using racial and ethnic tensions to serve its own means. For example, Russian officials launched a DDOS hack on Georgia during the 2008 war, in which they fabricated and circulated a photo of then-president Mikheil Saakashvili with Nazi imagery. Although the photo was proven to be false, the damage was already done. This is the danger of information wars: even false information can have real power when they fit into the right narratives. It is a problem, Starr says, that will continue to have a real and tangible impact on our political system for years to come.

Deirdre Ruscitti Harshman is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at the University of Illinois. Her dissertation, “A Space Called Home: Housing and the Construction of the Everyday in Russia, 1890-1935,” explores how multiple, often conflicting, understandings of the home emerged across the revolutionary divide of 1917, and what these conceptions tell us about belonging. Her article “Cooking Up a New Everyday: Communal Kitchens in the Revolutionary Era, 1890-1935” was published in the December 2016 issue of Revolutionary Russia. When she is not doing academic work, she is working on perfecting her plov recipe. 

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