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. 

MillerComm Lecture Series: Masha Gessen, “Retrofitting Totalitarianism in Putin’s Russia”

Masha Gessen

Masha Gessen

Journalist, author, and activist Masha Gessen spoke to a packed audience at Knight Auditorium on October 25, 2016, discussing her current work on contemporary Russia in a MillerComm lecture entitled “Retrofitting Totalitarianism in Putin’s Russia.” Combining her deep knowledge of contemporary Russian society and politics with an analytical frame of totalitarianism, Gessen eloquently argued that in Russia, the state and society are in two different modes. The state is in what Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar has referred to as a post-communist mafia state: it’s run like a family by a patriarch who distributes money, power, and favors, and one cannot enter the family unless invited, “adopted,” and cannot leave the family voluntarily. Society, according to Gessen, is in a period of “recurrent totalitarianism” (with the original referent as the Soviet state under Stalin). “Like a recurrent typhoid fever… It’s not quite as lethal, but the symptoms are exactly the same.”  In contemporary Russia, recurrent totalitarianism is fueled by “the memory of the memory of terror.”  As Gessen stated, “It’s not that people say they like Putin because they’re afraid of the consequences if they speak their true opinion…. They’re telling the truth.” A product of totalitarianism, according to Arendt, is that it robs people of the ability to form opinions.  As a consequence, there is doublethink in society: Putin’s popularity rating increased to 82% since the invasion of Crimea, yet Russians’ sense of economic well-being has decreased. In a normal society, those two lines would have to intersect, Gessen argued, but not in a totalitarian society and not in contemporary Russia.

In the last two decades, Gessen has emerged as a unique voice in American media, providing astute insight into Russian society and politics, and standing firm in her critical analysis of Putin and contemporary Russian politics. The power of her work, however, is not just in her ability to elucidate Russian politics and society for American readers, but in the global trends and concerns that she unpacks with singular clarity. Her MillerComm talk was classic Masha Gessen – combining perceptive analysis with sharp wit, and a devastating frankness about the social and political troubles of our times.

While visiting the University of Illinois, Gessen also visited classrooms and participated in a public conversation with Christopher Benson, professor of Journalism and African American Studies. Gessen and Benson discussed the changing environment of journalism today; the ways that global social media shapes narratives of geopolitics; the payoffs and perils of being a critic as well as a reporter of the news; and the challenges of keeping up with the 24-7 news cycle. The event was hosted by IPRH.

MillerComm lecture hosted by: The Program in Jewish Culture & Society/ Krouse Family Visiting Scholars in Judaism and Western Culture Fund and Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center; in conjunction with: Center for Global Studies, Cline Center for Democracy, Department of Anthropology, Department of English, Department of Gender & Women’s Studies, Department of History, Department of Journalism, Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures, Department of Sociology, Hillel, Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trangender Resource Center, Program in Comparative & World Literature, Spurlock Museum, Women & Gender in Global Perspectives Program.

Dr. Maureen Marshall is the Associate Director for REEEC. She earned her PhD at the University of Chicago in Anthropology in 2014 with a thesis on “Subject(ed) Bodies: A Bioarchaeological Investigation of Lived Experiences and Mobile Practices in Late Bronze-Early Iron Age (1500-800 B.C.) Armenia.” Her research focuses on the bioarchaeology of early complex polities and empires in the South Caucasus and Eurasia. She is also the Associate Director of Project ArAGATS, the joint American-Armenian project for the Archaeology and Geography for Ancient Transcaucasian Societies.

Contributions by Matthew McWilliams, a REEES M.A. student and a FLAS Fellow for the 2016-2017 academic year for the study of Russian.