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. 

New REEEC Courses for Spring 2013

REEEC Professionalization Practicum

Pavel Spivakovsky, visiting professor from Moscow State University, is offering a course this spring to prepare you for academic research and work in Russia.

REES 596 Section RPP (CRN 41797) MW 1-2:20 4 hrs.

This course aims to prepare students for research in Russian-speaking countries and professional engagement with institutions in that part of the world. Topics include the Russian internet, its resources and dangers, recommended protocols for its use, and Russian IT terminology; the composition of CVs, letters of application, and other documents relating to research projects in the former Soviet space; rules for formatting academic manuscripts and bibliographies in Russian; methodology of work in archives and libraries; strategies for searching for and identifying Russian-language printed and online sources; and cultural features of Russian institutions of higher education. Prerequisite: RUSS 402 or equivalent.

Social Media & Global Change

As a part of a REEEC-led initiative to bring together campus area centers’ expertise with the strength of campus computing and informatics units, we are offering a new online pilot course on the impact of the internet and new social and communications media on social movements and change around the world.

REES 496 (CRN 41516) 3 hrs. undergrad; REES 596 (CRN 44394) 4 hrs. grad. Online. Social Media & Global Change

This course covers the impact of global and national computer networks on politics, culture, and social relations overseas during a time of upheaval and revolutionary change. Guest lectures will be given by informatics practitioners and scholars with expertise on specific world regions. Topics may include the new social media, the politics and culture of the internet, hacktivism, cyber warfare, and mobile telephony and their role in the formation, dissemination, manipulation, and suppression of public opinion in Russia/Eurasia, the China/Pacific region, Central/South America, as well as Africa, Iran, and the Middle East. Required face-to-face session Saturday, March 2. Details will be announced in class.

Genetic Technologies, Social Networks, and the Transformation of Racial Identities in Europe

Another exciting interdisciplinary course on the REEEC menu for next semester is Judith Pintar’s course focused on how new genetics science and information is generating new forms of racial discourse in Europe.

REES 496 (CRN 41517) 3 hrs. undergrad; REES 596 (CRN 54121) 4 hrs. grad. Genetic Technologies, Social Networks, and the Transformation of Racial Identities in Europe

This course examines the rapid acceleration in the global production of genetic knowledge that was triggered by the initiation of the Human Genome Diversity Project in 1991, and the diverse social networks (commercial, hobbyist, academic, and religious) through which this knowledge continues to be received, framed, and disseminated. Nationalists across Europe increasingly use genetic findings to strengthen ethnic origin myths, or to tear down the territorial claims of competing groups. Pseudoscientific racism has resurged among white supremacists as discussions of mtDNA and the Ice Age inhabitation of the refuges of the last glacial maximum, collide with traditional notions of East and West, North and South. Over the course of the semester we will take a multi-disciplinary approach to the issues, drawing from the natural and social sciences and the humanities to examine the interaction of genetic discoveries with the collective re-imagining of racial categories and identities in Europe.