In Conversation with Justin Casey

Justin Casey is in their first semester as a visiting instructor of political science at Swarthmore. They currently teach Introduction to International Relations and Great Power Competition. The Phoenix spoke to Casey about their research in democratic propaganda, experience as a graduate student, and first impressions of Swarthmore. 

Danny Ly: What field of political science do you research and what sparked your interest in that field?

Justin Casey: I specialize in international relations. I’ve always been broadly interested in history, politics, wars, and international security. What I found interesting or appealing about international relations and political science is that it tries to explain history and makes it legible with theories. It allows us to kind of uncover the recurring patterns of the world and try to understand — or ideally change things — or anticipate them. It helps us to understand these events. We can study a broad range of events so I don’t have to overly specialize. I can speak to modern policy issues very easily and clearly. International relations, in comparison to other subfields in the discipline, is very much theory-driven. I actually did a lot of political theory in undergrad and still get to do some of that now.

DL: Were you always interested in international relations?

JC: I’ll date myself — back in the 2000s when we first got a computer and we had Microsoft Encarta, which was like Wikipedia, but on discs. I remember being six or seven and looking up the Soviet Union, Stalin, Machiavelli, and World War Two, so I’ve always felt a calling towards political science or history from a very early age. I was reading about Machiavelli and Locke and engaging with some of these ideas. I think it’s because I saw monumental political shifts around me with 9/11, with the war on terror. I saw references to the Cold War and Yugoslavia, but I was too young to know what was going on. In particular, I’ve always been drawn to Russian studies and I’ve kind of fallen in and out of studying Russia throughout my lifetime.

DL: What did you study during undergrad and how has your undergrad experience affected who you are today and what you study?

JC: I went to a liberal arts college — a public college in Maryland — Towson University. Towson University had an extremely dedicated and small political science department of people who really cared and sparked my interest. I studied political science and I did a minor in history as well to get some broader historical perspective. This was at a time when Russia was annexing Crimea, major events were underway, so I took a lot of courses on U.S.-Russian politics. They helped encourage me to study and focus on the Cold War, and I found a lot of really supportive professors there who saw something in me and encouraged me to go down the Ph.D path, even though I didn’t know much about grad school or the Ph.D program. They were able to help and provide guidance for me and we still are in touch. I remain friends with them. Since Towson is a liberal arts school, the teachers are very focused on the practice and craft of teaching. They took it really seriously and they were always really invested in me, so I try to practice that in my own teaching. 

DL: What is your current research focused on?

JC: My research broadly looks at how democracies use propaganda in peacetime. It’s commonly assumed that democracies are inherently weaker or somehow more vulnerable in the information age. And we see in the face of disinformation campaigns from Russia, Iran, China, and other actors, it seems like democracies have been certainly weaker here. Russia has intervened in the 2016 U.S. election, intervened to influence the Brexit vote — it’s been boosting far-right parties globally. So I became interested in this question of how vulnerable democracies are and what democracies can do to fight back. 

I looked to the past, to the Cold War and the interwar era. What I found is that democracies actually are not averse to using propaganda.. We don’t like the idea of propaganda. It’s inherently undemocratic or illiberal. I find that democracies are initially unwilling to use propaganda. It’s not their first choice, but when they are sufficiently threatened, and when they feel that their images are being tarnished, democracies have been willing to use propaganda to push back and defend their images. 

But what I find that still doesn’t really answer my interest in the present, which is that we currently are still seeing democracies failing to kind of use propaganda or defend themselves against competitors. Part of my dissertation wants to ask, “Why are we seeing a lack of response now?” 

DL: Seeing as people are very much entrenched in social media in the present, how do you think social media plays into what you’re researching and propaganda in general?

JC: Historically, I find that democracies, when they are sufficiently antagonized by rivals, are willing to use propaganda, but currently they’re not. This is puzzling to me, but one potential reason for this is because the internet has really complicated the information landscape. The promise of the internet was that it was going to democratize information and that everybody’s going to be able to participate. There would be a totally free open exchange of ideas. That’s not the case — the internet empowers certain voices, myths, disinformation and conspiracy theories. Not only now do we have to compete with or deal with rival countries and their propaganda programs, but also social media firms, which raises new questions for liberal democracies, such as “How much should we be involved in the private sphere and businesses and so on?” 

The era of social media is deeply concerning and troubling to me because I see so much bad information circulating. Sometimes it’s intentional, it’s disinformation, and actors are trying to pollute the information space and spread false information. Sometimes it’s misinformation where people just don’t know better or they don’t fact check and they repurpose ideas. We’re entering a crisis of information literacy. People can’t be assured of the validity of a source, or whether a news story or reporting is accurate or not. People are sharing all kinds of information without checking it or not. In some ways, my research is comforting – this problem isn’t new. 

When radio first developed, this was also a problem. There were all these questions about how do we legislate radio, how do we ensure that it’s more accurate, that it’s not used to kind of poison public communications? So this is a problem that has come before, it is a problem hopefully we’ll eventually solve. But I hope that my research at least shows that there is a precedent for democracies getting involved and stepping in to correct bad information or to push back. I think we are in a day and age where we need governments to get involved against firms or against disinformation to prevent bad information from circulating.

DL: How do you see AI playing a role in this? There is new AI technology that allows for the simulation of videos now which is far better than how it was in the past. How do you think that’ll play into disinformation and misinformation in the future? 

JC: AI is going to hypercharge and make everything substantially worse. I think AI raises the stakes. Not only do we need some sort of regulation around AI, which the EU is currently pushing the way on, but we need to take steps to limit the circulation of disinformation and misinformation to make firms accountable for the information on their websites and also to promote information literacy so that people can identify false information and separate it out. 

In some ways, maybe the threat from AI is overblown, because if you can make AI say whatever you want it to say and you can make all sorts of fake videos, maybe the net result is that people end up being more skeptical and harder to persuade. But what I think is going to happen is the information space is going to be even more polarized, even more toxic, and even more venomous. The questions and conversations we’re having now about living in a post-truth age are going to be magnified or raised to 100, so I’m very worried about AI. I think, even under the best of circumstances, if we do regulate AI firms and promote education around this issue, AI still creates new opportunities for all kinds of actors to spread myths and disinformation. 

On the whole, I’m pessimistic. This raises the question, though, of whether democracies should get involved actively in trying to promote the truth, trying to promote certain narratives, or trying to advertise positive aspects of democracy and foreign policy. And again, this is controversial. People argue that democracies shouldn’t be engaged in propaganda. But maybe, and I don’t think we should necessarily be using AI or spreading disinformation, we need some sort of positive reaction or pushback, because if you leave the information space uncontested, that might be the worst of all worlds.

DL: What has your graduate school experience been like so far and what advice do you have for students wanting to pursue a graduate degree?

JC: I’m finishing my seventh year, and hopefully, my last year. Grad school has been, in some ways, very enriching and rewarding. I’ve gotten tremendous support from colleagues, I’ve built up a wide social network of friends and peers, and I’ve seen my thinking on international relations improve and become more nuanced. On the other hand, it’s been extremely challenging. Grad student life isn’t glamorous: we aren’t paid very much, and it’s long and hard hours. COVID has kept the archive closed for two years and it’s kept me kind of occupied and busy. As somebody who studies the far right as well, looking at the political situation in the world is not always uplifting, happy, or motivating. In some ways, it is — my work means something and I’m doing something good but in other ways, it’s disheartening. But I would say, on the whole, I’m doing well. 

I would have three pieces of advice for people looking at grad school. First, make sure that you find people who are going to be supportive, both other grad students who are going to be your best resource, but also mentors who are going to be with you through the good times and the bad. 

My second piece of advice is that sometimes you have to take time and sometimes you have to cultivate side interests. There’s a New York Times piece called “Goofing Off While the Muse Recharges” and I advocate for that. You can’t just do research and writing constantly; you have to care for yourself as well. 

My third piece of advice is that it’s not the worst idea to take time off to work, see the world, and save up some money. Grad school would have been much harder had I not had two years to work. 

DL: What brought you here to Swarthmore and what were your first impressions of the campus?

JC: Everyone has always told me that the academic job market is horrible and time-consuming and since opportunities are limited, you have to apply to anything and everything. I’m really sad to say that they were right. I applied to plenty of jobs and had very little control over where I was going to end up or the timing. I discovered the position at Swarthmore and it’s kind of like a lottery; you fire off an application and forget about it. You don’t know if you’re gonna hear back or not, but when you do, you put all your effort into getting the position. It was an amazing surprise to be offered to interview and then an even bigger surprise to be offered the job. 

It’s honestly such a gift to have this opportunity to teach here as someone who wants to end up at a liberal arts college and who wants to end up teaching in the professoriate. This is just a phenomenal opportunity to work with amazing students to build up my abilities as a teacher and to do so in a place where there is this supportive community that will give me a nurturing, enriching environment to help me as I think through the final steps of my dissertation.

I don’t know if I can speak to my first impression. I don’t know if I’m over my first impression. I’m amazed that I’m here and how lucky I am. It feels like in some ways, it’s a dream. Both in terms of, this is such a great position and opportunity, and the students are fantastic, but it also feels very dreamlike because I had to start in January on short notice. I was literally thrown into it since I had COVID and was developing my courses with COVID. There was a surreal quality to it. I’m still working on my dissertation, so there’s a feverish pace to everything. But it’s been so phenomenal — the students are inquisitive, invested, creative, and do fantastic work. I feel like I can do my best work both as a teacher here and also as a scholar. 

DL: What’s something fun about your hometown? 

JC: Y’all are near enough that Baltimore would be a great place to visit, either to see the Walters Art Gallery, the Baltimore Museum of Art, or the National Aquarium. But really, everyone in Baltimore, the only thing we actually do care about, are crab cakes and crabs. The three best crab cakes are either at Pappas, G&M, or Koco’s Pub. Having had all of them, I can emphatically tell you that Koco’s has the best crab cakes. It’s worth a visit. I would give them a Michelin star. 

DL: What are you hoping to accomplish during your time here? 

JC: I hope to become, and this is going to sound wildly narcissistic, but I hope to become fully realized as an academic, as a teacher, and as a professor. This is a really invaluable chance to design courses that I want to take and to design courses that not only force people to think about the deeper questions of international relations and politics but also give them the tools they need to shape and make the world a more positive place and to have an impact. I want to make my courses as interesting, engaging, and enjoyable as possible so that when I leave, I can go to other schools and teach these courses and have a similar effect. 

Broadly as well, I’m hoping to come into my own as a researcher, not only by finishing my dissertation but also by getting publications out on different aspects of democratic propaganda and also putting out public-facing pieces which can address current challenges facing democracies and how we should navigate this information disorder we now have. 

DL: What theory in international relations are you the biggest fan of?

JC: I used to be a dyed-in-the-wool, 100%, convinced, dogmatic constructivist. I don’t know what that means, because constructivism is big and kind of nebulous, but I would introduce myself this way in graduate classes, I would always advocate for this, and all my papers were about constructivism. These days, I’m much less certain. In the broadest terms, I suppose I still am a constructivist, but I import a lot of nuance and ideas from neorealism and liberalism. In my old age, as a seventh-year grad student, I am so much more mercenary about the theories. The theories are tools that allow me to make or engage in certain arguments. I see a lot of dogmatic battles on social media over which theory is right or which theory explains certain events. At this point, every theory has something to add, and I consciously try to work all the theories into my own thinking, respect them, and also push their limits. Neorealism isn’t just about power politics, it can be about clashing ideologies and ideas. Neoliberalism isn’t just about trade and interdependence, it’s also about conflicts using trade and financial systems. So I try to take a much more nuanced view, which prioritizes conflict, cooperation, and a broad range of inputs, not just material or ideational.

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