MONMOUTH, Ill. – Less than a year after he had graduated from Adair County High School in 2018, C.J. Bonifer started to study a region of the world that wound up dominating the news in 2022.
Bonifer is now a senior at Monmouth College, poised to graduate on May 15 from the liberal arts college in west-central Illinois. An independent research project that he completed three years ago proved to be an accurate glimpse into the future, although slightly off geographically.
As a freshman, Bonifer worked on a project under the guidance of former communication studies professor Robert Hinck. Titled “Russian Media Appeals in the Baltic States,” it made the observation that signs were pointing to the distinct possibility of Russian military aggression in the region.
“Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Baltic States — Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia — have been at the forefront of Russian attention and coordinated media attacks,” wrote Bonifer at the time. “This series of events have not been highly publicized by U.S. media outlets, so research showing these actions is ever important.”
The propaganda game
Specifically, Bonifer studied how Russian media was constructing its interests in the Baltic States and how those narratives changed over time. He also studied how those narratives were resonating with Baltic audiences.
Although Ukraine is just south of the geographic region Bonifer studied, many of the same implications have turned out to be present there, including the need for those nations to “create narrative projects bolstering identity to fend off Russian influence” and “strengthening NATO narratives and promotion of common identity.”
The flip side, said Bonifer, was Russia’s intent to create a sense of Russian nationalism amongst Baltic Russians and painting the United Nations, NATO and the European Union negatively, all while building up its military and naval presence.
“I still have the research poster,” said Bonifer, who will earn a degree in public relations. “Literally, everything you can see in it is what happened (in Ukraine). It’s very surreal.”
Bonifer jumped at the chance to work with Hinck after hearing about the research he was working on at the time. Hinck had received a grant to work with the Strategic Multilayer Assessment community, which focuses on examining foreign media reporting on issues critical to U.S. strategic interests. The project led to Hinck receiving the College’s prestigious Gundersen Junior Faculty Scholarship Award.
“I approached him after hearing about it, and he explained it to me and told me the process behind it,” said Bonifer. “The work that he and his colleagues were doing was helping to solve problems that government officials didn’t have time to solve.”
Bonifer told Hinck of his interest in the Baltic States, which fit right in to Hinck’s goal of finding Monmouth students interested in tracking foreign media.
“He said, ‘Why don’t you do an independent research project with me?’ said Bonifer. “I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ Looking back, I remember that I didn’t think I would be doing that type of research as a freshman.”
The experience was one of many academic opportunities that enriched Bonifer’s Monmouth education. After he graduates on May 15, Bonifer will go to work for J&L Marketing of Louisville, Kentucky.