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Former RT anchor: I became the target of a Russian propaganda conspiracy theory

Liz Wahl during her resignation on RT America
Former RT anchor: I became the target of a Russian propaganda conspiracy theory

conspiracy theory on the basis of anonymous unreliable stories

Euromaidan Press: How did RT and other media sources respond to your resignation?

Liz Wahl: I never expected my resignation to become such a viral news story. RT pretty quickly came out with saying that it was a self-promotional stunt. that was their response. Of course they didn’t actually address my message of RT spreading disinformation and why I had done it, because they can’t debunk that – they completely turned it into it being a story about me, attacked me and my character.

But a couple of weeks later, when they had seen how huge this all became and what a spotlight it had put on RT and on Russian media, they responded with a more in-depth strategy to debunk me. Of course, they did it in a way that is so representative of Russian media in general: in the format of a conspiracy theory on the basis of anonymous unreliable stories. Basically, they got one of the really close friends of their host to write this article about me saying that the entire resignation was stage managed by neo-conservatives that were hungry to ignite another Cold War.

They use specific words to brand people that don’t follow the narrative, to cast them as being “the other.” Neocon is one label that I noticed they not only give to me, but to those that they say “are provoking a war.” If you’re trying to highlight what Russia’s doing in Ukraine and you’re advocating for giving weapons – you’re a neocon, you’re trying to start another Cold War. So here I am, being accused of being a “neocon,” being spammed with hate, being accused of being Jewish, being part of a Zionist plot, because they go hand in hand apparently…

The assumption is that this is not something that I did under my free will, that I can’t think on my own, and this was all just an elaborate conspiratorial plot. And it all goes into the Russian narrative and this storyline that is reiterated over and over and over again – that there is this evil West, there are these corrupt powers, there is this new world order. It starts off with “oh, maybe,” and ends with total conspiratorial craziness. And the line gets blurred. You don’t know what’s totally crazy, what’s based on some facts, what’s not – in the end, it doesn’t really matter.

And this is exactly how the Russian media works. They applied the methods in which they try to corrupt the information space to me.

Now the truth doesn’t really matter because the narrative is out there; it’s a totally far-fetched conspiracy story, and even if you try to ignore it, because it was ridiculous, it became a Thing.

My initial reaction to this was “this is ridiculous, I’m not going to respond to this, it’s not true,” but they and their crazy followers retweeted it so many times that it left its footprint on the internet, even mainstream outlets began to ask about it. A wikipedia page emerged on me. At this point there were several articles that were written on this, and the one that was cited on my wikipedia page was a Russian article saying that it was a conspiracy theory, and that it was a stage-managed scandal, which was the prevailing theory at the time that it was a big story. And you don’t really have to believe the whole thing for it to be effective.

You just have to plant a seed of doubt there so nobody really knows what the official story is.

I think it actually helped me to be part of this, because it really fueled my passion for spreading the truth, and to expose how much of a nuisance Russian propaganda is, whereas if I hadn’t been a target of it myself, maybe I wouldn’t realize the extent of how bothersome it actually is. And this is just a silly story – imagine the same rules being applied to an entire war, an entire population. That’s disturbing.

Euromaidan Press: Could you tell a bit about how you made the decision to work for RT?

Liz Wahl: The RT deputy news director reached out to me at the time when I was working as a reporter on Guam. At the time, I didn’t know what this news network was about. She told me “we’re an international news station, we cover stories that the mainstream media ignores.” It sparked my interest, I always wanted to cover international stories. After several Skype interviews, I discovered it was a Russian news channel, but the comparison that I made for myself that it was like Al Jazeera, an international news channel. They proclaimed as their goal to show things from… well they didn’t say “the Russian perspective,” but from “another perspective,” to push boundaries, push the traditional narrative. It was wrapped up in this nicely appealing sounding journalistic mission. I said “I’ll give it a shot!”

Euromaidan Press: What made you resign?

Liz Wahl: I had been growing more and more disillusioned there. I said during my resignation “I’m proud to be American,” and then I realized how much of an outcast you were to actually say that within an environment where you just basically were just supposed to hate America. It was just not cool to even hint at that.

There would be things along the way that would push me in the opposite direction, even before Ukraine. I had once interviewed a really well-spoken journalist on the ground in Mali, when NATO had intervened there [in January 2013 – ed]. It was a really good interview, he was talking about how they were afraid to wave French flags, and the horrors of slipping back to Sharia law, and that NATO was doing good work. He put a voice to what it was like to live in that awful, horrific situation. However, that didn’t fit within the Russian narrative. I was later pulled into the office and told that it was a weak interview and it wasn’t going to air. And it became very clear why: it was because it make NATO appear to be a positive force. On that day I came home and just felt terrible and disgusted. But I continued. The red line for me was Ukraine. , because that’s when it became more intense and more aggressive, and more propagandistic, with more blatant disinformation that was being used to actually manipulate an ongoing conflict with a loss of lives, and a war.

Euromaidan Press: What changes happened in the editorial policy with the start of the Ukrainian crisis?

Liz Wahl: It was the Ukrainian crisis that marked turning point at RT and for Russian media as a whole. It became a very aggressive form of media, where it aggressively shaped the story. Every angle of a story that we presented in regards to Ukraine was always “cast down on the Ukrainians, blame the Ukrainians.”

At that time at RT, it became very clear that it didn’t matter what the truth was. The goal was to try to confuse the public and make it unclear what was going on the ground there. But it’s not like there was a clear strategy: it was mixed, whatever is convenient at the time. If we don’t want to admit that Russia is involved, you just ignore it, and you just point at the Ukrainians. If it becomes impossible to deny Russian presence, then they turns into being self-defense forces, and the Russians being there on a peacekeeping mission. So some of it is just leaving out facts, so there’s no context and you don’t get the full story. Apart from that, there’s the spectrum of disinformation to the story when it gets so warped that you’re essentially lying to the audience, because you’re just not telling the truth.

Euromaidan Press: What was the editorial policy like in general at RT?

Liz Wahl: At the start, it wasn’t so much pro-Russian as it was anti-Western. As I was focusing on, as they said, domestic issues, we weren’t focusing on Russia, so it didn’t feel as if you were doing work for the Kremlin, and Russia was not really in the news at the time, this was before Ukraine. I started by covering Occupy Wall Street. There was always an editorial slant to focus on stories that convey the West as weak, corrupt, hypocritical, and crumbling. And of course you can do stories that are 100% true that make the US look bad, but when you have that as the journalistic mission itself, the materials end up taken out of context and you have this skewed picture of the world. You get this feeling that the West is this corrupt place and that we’re peppered with our own problems. A variation of this editorial line was to show a conspiracy between Western powers and the mainstream media, that they were controlling the narrative in a sinister kind of way.

It would get more conspiratorial with the guests that they invited to spread their opinions and theories. It seemed that there was a mission of poking holes in the West and making the West seem like “we’re not any better than Russia, or any of these other countries that they try to meddle in, or the US and West and NATO try to meddle in.”

But the international stories were really disturbing, when it involved Russia politically, Russia and allies, whether it was Syria, or Iran. There was a slant in defending dictators and always trying to cast doubt on the West  ever trying to do anything good. Sometimes it came to sugarcoating atrocities. I wasn’t covering these stories directly, but I was seeing it on our news sites and our international channel. That’s when it became clear that there was a twisted bias when it involved Russia’s foreign policy.

Self-censorship in an anti-western environment

Euromaidan Press: Could you tell how journalists get influenced by the editorial policy, how does it shape what they do?

Liz Wahl: It happens on many layers. One way is that they tend to recruit younger journalists that might not have much experience in the newsroom.

Vacancy announcement at RT:

Honestly, I would say that a lot of the journalists that are recruited are in this position where the Russian management hopes they can be molded into the journalists they want them to be. And so they take advantage of this appealing-sounding mission that “we’re not like the mainstream media, you’re going to cover stories that are ignored, this is the cutting edge, this is anti-establishment.” That means that there are not the same kind of journalistic rules and the same kind of checks and balances that exist in traditional media outlets, they go out the window.

They say “find stories that the mainstream media ignores, cover them from another angle, from another perspective,” and of course you want to be praised, to do a good job, in order to please the Russian management. So, you learn the rules: what is acceptable, what’s not, you learn to self-censor, you know what to say on the morning meetings. You know if you don’t fall within the narrative or within the angle they want you to push, and you say something on the morning meeting, there’s going to be a very uncomfortable silence. And the Russian news director is going to ignore you or say “you’re not thinking outside of the box.”

They say to “question more,” but that “question more” really applies to questioning the mainstream Western media narrative. However, if you actually question the validity of the approaching the story you’re doing, no matter how warranted and justifiable it is, you’re going to be ignored or you’re going to be told that the interviews were weak. So there’s this strange self-censorship that develops. If you want to be successful there, you learn to play the game. And if you don’t play the game, life is not going to be enjoyable for you there.

And there is also the environment itself, one that is laden with anti-western sentiment. The types of stories that we cover, the types of guests that we have on, the angles that were pushed to cover, the people that you follow on twitter. This environment shapes you to the point when you almost begin to see it from that perspective and develop a very aggressive mindset towards the West. It becomes cool to think that way.

The hosts that they invite are a whole other story. They tend to recruit people that already come with a conspiratorial anti-Western mindset. One host that they hired that was promoted very quickly. She was a 911-truther, she was very involved in the Occupy Wallstreet movement, advocated several other conspiracy theories. And this person, coming from this fringe activist background is given this platform, and being told “Here you are, you’re giving your own television show, you’re able to tell the truth, and you’re not going to have this opportunity anywhere else in the mainstream media, because you’re going to be censored there.”

These younger hosts don’t even realize the extent to which they’re being taken advantage of: they’re given this platform, but they don’t realize that this is a Russian-backed station, and the Russian bosses and essentially the Russian government is trying to stir confusion in society, and loves having the American Western voices spewing these conspiracy theories and half-truths, and unsubstantiated theories. Because it just further serves that purpose of demonizing the West and creating chaos.

So, there’s many levels that the influencing happens on, but it’s not like you’re coming on and they tell you “you’re going to be a propagandist, you’re going to tell the Russian point of view.” It doesn’t operate like that, it’s more of a subtle strategy, I think it became less so subtle as time went on, particularly with Ukraine – there’s nothing subtle about it now, it’s just blatant disinformation.

Liz Wahl in Kyiv, Ukraine, 2015

Euromaidan Press: Many have noted that Russian propaganda creates an “alternative reality.” Did you ever experience being sucked into that reality?

Liz Wahl: I follow what’s happening in Ukraine very closely, and now with the news of the possible Buk fragments being found in Eastern Ukraine, I went to and of course it says “there’s no proof that the fragments are from a Russian Buk missile.” So this is me, knowing, because I have worked there, how twisted it gets, totally knowing that when I go to this website knowing that I will be fed crap, I still feel this kind of “oh my gosh, there’s no proof!” I feel crazy! It messes with your mind.

There is a friction that they create. Their mission is not necessarily to convince anybody, but to just stir doubts and create chaos and corrupt the information space – I think they’re successful at doing that. Because in the end they’re not trying to prove anything – how are you going to prove something that isn’t? – but just to trying to discredit any kind of fact-finding mission that might put guilt on Russia or the Russian-backed separatists.

Euromaidan Press: Do you think RT is effective? Who does it influence in the US?  

Liz Wahl: I think it is effective. When RT first emerged and started first getting noticed in the US, it positioned itself as an anti-mainstream media channel, and there were some unconventional voices that were given airtime there. I don’t think people really took it seriously, at least on a major level. But I think the crisis in Ukraine demonstrated the extent to which it can be effective, and it provides this kind of breeding ground for like-minded people to get together and to amplify their voices.

One thing I noticed about working at RT is that these people, even though they might not represent the majority of the population, are very active and very loud on social media, and the message boards, and forums and blogs, twitter, facebook. So their footprint on the internet where more and more people are turning for the news is pretty big. They work hand in hand with the actual paid Russian trolls that tweet out and churn out disinformation and pro-Russian messages. It’s kind of free Russian useful idiots that work hand in hand with these trolls that are part of this whole disinformation system. Another way RT is effective is that corrupts the story to the point that we are just never able to definitively prove it, so they can to the best of their ability just wipe their hands clean.

Euromaidan Press: What do you think a counterstrategy could be?

Liz Wahl: Not let them get away with it. It’s a hard struggle in our new information age where new information comes in at the the second. Russia is able to utilize that to their advantage – puts a bunch of disinformation out there. The challenge for those that do care about the truth is to find ways to make the truth be louder on the internet. We have to call Russian media out every time they put out a lie to the best of our ability, to not let them get away with it. Also, I think that awareness on Russian propaganda and disinformation matters, and this is something that I’m working on now. Many people are not aware of the Russian influence behind the Russian-backed outlets and nonprofits – we have to change that, so people would not get so easily duped or swayed by the disinformation that’s out there.

Interview by Alya Shandra. We express our gratitude to @RolandLey for his help in coordinating the interview
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