Former RT presenter: Russian disinformation is a weapon

Liz Wahl during her on-air resignation. [YouTube]

The ultimate aim of the Russian disinformation machine is to destabilise the West, Liz Wahl, a former Russia Today (RT) news presenter, told EURACTIV Poland.

Liz Wahl is an American journalist who resigned from RT America live on air in March 2014 in a video clip that has since gone viral. On her resignation she said: “Personally I cannot be a part of a network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin. I’m proud to be an American and believe in disseminating the truth”.

She spoke to euractiv.pl’s editor-in-chief, Karolina Zbytniewska.

Why did you start working at RT in the first place?

It was 2011. I was working for a local news station. They saw my report on Fukushima on YouTube and reached out to me. At that time RT was relatively unknown, not like it is today. A lot has transpired just in the last couple of months in terms of Russia’s prominence in the news and its aggressive disinformation campaigning.

And they paid well.

They did and here’s a thing. There are some journalists that are fairly new and ambitious. They see it as a start, a chance to work in Washington D.C. and cover stories of real international significance. But there’s another group seen as an easy and ideal HR catch – people who come from anti-establishment movements with anti-Western views.

Some of them claim to be from the anti-war activist backgrounds. Those people truly believe that by making anti-American reports, they are doing a public good. And beyond the anti-establishment worldview, some come from a conspiracy background. The more willing you are to twist the truth and spread conspiracy theories, the more likely you are to get a show on RT.

Once you are there, it’s easy to just go with the flow. You are surrounded by the constant criticism of everything American: society, government, policies. It’s natural to just get swept up in that thinking. By covering certain stories, by having certain guests on, by following certain blogs. It becomes a psychological echo chamber.

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I suppose you belonged to the first group of young ambitious journalists aspiring to cover national, or even international news. How did they introduce RT to you?

They said “We’re the international cable news station. We focus on stories that mainstream media ignores. We give a voice to the voiceless.”

Who were these voiceless people?

At the beginning we were focusing on the victims of socio-economic injustice in the US. So it really served that purpose. For instance, we would cover stories of different protest movements, human rights abuses at the Guantanamo Bay, the war on drugs, the American prison system with one of highest incarceration rates in the world.  So we focused on injustices that really exist and perhaps were not reported or underreported elsewhere.

I was covering domestic issues for the most part. So I could pitch a story and had to get it approved by the Russian news director. And you learned it would only get approved if it fit a general mould of making the US or the West look bad. If one would watch just one story at a time it can be 100% true but if you take a step back and see a greater context, the general narrative is manipulated to show that western democracy doesn’t work. Another key message was “the huge hypocrisy of the West” – so whenever the US would criticise Russia, the tactic of deflection was repeated, focusing for instance of the intervention in Iraq.

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They create this false equivalence, push the idea that there’s no such a thing as an objective truth so everything is just a matter of perspective.

I have since come to reject this relativist point of view. When it comes to journalism, we have to remember that facts do exist and reality is not something that can be made up according to perspective. In recent years, this idea of relativism is something the Russian news has been trying to manipulate. It’s a kind of thinking that has gained popularity.

So I think the Kremlin manipulates this idea. Because if you want to get two sides of the story – you report what the US government says and what Russia says, and both sides are equally valid. But that’s not the case. There’s one story, and there’s manipulation and fabrication of news. In recent years, Russia Today, broadcasting to international audiences, has become totally shameless and bold in its mission to create chaos, confusion and division.

Why do western people even care about the information of station with the word ‘Russia’?

RT is just the part of a larger Russian disinformation machine. Some people don’t even realise it, as the name is shortened to RT without an evident link to Russia. Also RT has American presenters. So a viewer stops a remote on the RT once, wants to check what it is, catches a story they are able to empathise with, and so they return. And then they are manipulated into falling down the rabbit hole.

Why do they come back to this channel?

A lack of trust to the media, government and political class persists among Americans. It is really easy to work on this distrust. And RT does it well, spinning conspiracy theories that find fertile ground among frustrated and disaffected Americans. And so the channel incites paranoia about the global elite pulling the and Western governments are corrupted. This message speaks to the anti-establishment audience. Just a few years ago people who would think like this would be on the fringes, now the fringe has become mainstream.

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So the Russian disinformation apparatus doesn’t create new news or trends but diagnoses the existing ones and fits their content accordingly.

Most of the time RT reports real problems that do exist. For instance there is a real problem in the field of racial and ethnic relations in the US. So RT and the Russian media would highlight and enflame them, make the situation look even worse than it actually is. They point at real injustices in the system, so they don’t need to invent these stories, exploiting the real ones.

It’s different when it comes to stories that involve Russia or Russian allies. That’s when facts are manipulated, information pulled from unreliable sources, and a surge of unsubstantiated and false conspiracy theories are published like in the case of the downing of MH17.

Do you see any larger strategy in this?

A weakened West makes Russia feel stronger. NATO, EU and US are seen as enemies. The weaker and more divided Western societies are, the better for Putin. In the end if we – the West – cannot form one strong unified voice of condemnation against Russian aggression in conflicts like Ukraine or Syria, that’s beneficial to Russia.

Russia obviously doesn’t like to see the NATO expansion, especially close to their borders. So they are looking for ways to create this idea of NATO as the aggressor and Russia as a victim. That’s the way they see the world.

Weakening western societies through disinformation has been a powerful tool for them. It should be seen as a weapon. In Ukraine, disinformation is a weapon of war and so it is in Syria. In Russian media and the story spread by Russian trolls, Russia is portrayed as being on a heroic mission to take out ISIS in Syria. But if you look at the facts, they’re not bombing ISIS, they’re bombing the opposition to Assad. Russia has been accused of bombing hospitals, a humanitarian aid convoy, civilians. They use the media to deny all of it.

For example, Vitaly Churkin, Russian ambassador to the United Nations, had questioned the UN report blaming Syria for the chemical attacks. To back his stance, Russian media used every unreliable source  it could find to make it look like it was actually the opposition using chemical weapons on their own people. Russian leaders would repeat this. It’s just an attempt to create confusion and division. To make it so that no facts can be verified so there can’t be any accountability.

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Freedom of the media is one of fundamental democratic rights and it results in the pluralism of the media scene, where different outlets express different points of view. Where are the boundaries of this freedom? Where’s the boundary between opinion and disinformation?

RT often says “we just express a different perspective on the news landscape”. I must reject it. There is a fundamental difference between opinion and manipulation of the facts. And in the case of RT denigrating and dividing the West makes its journalistic mission. That and muddying the waters of reality when Russia is accused of wrongdoing.

The general disinformation and cyber campaigns around the US presidential elections fit in this mission well.

Yes, we know that Russia actually hacked the DNC [Democratic National Committee] and leaked the emails. They were meddling in our elections. They vilified Clinton whom they didn’t want in power, as she had taken really a hard stand against Russia. However, Russia did not  leak anything that would make Trump look bad. It’s not difficult to see why Russia would want a President Trump. The president-elect’s lack of commitment to NATO – that’s the first thing Russia would love to see. His ignorance on what has been happening in Ukraine means he might consider Crimea to be recognised as a part of Russia. His glowing praises for Putin as a strong leader.

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Trump was the best Russian disinformation outlet just by himself.

Plus his former campaign adviser Paul Manafort who led pro-Russian Viktor F. Yanukovych to the election in Ukraine. His other advisor, Carter Page, also has Russian ties with Gazprom, as well as General Michael T. Flynn who also has very sketchy ties to Russia. He actually attended the RT Celebration Gala in Moscow in 2015. It makes you ask why is he surrounding himself with this people?

But in March 2014 you resigned. It was a heroic move. But nothing is either black or white. Why did it take you as long as three years to resign. And why did you it in the end?

Things took a turn for the worst during the crisis in Ukraine. That was a turning point at the channel and Russian disinformation in general. Since then, it has gotten more bold, more aggressive, and more shameless in manipulating reality. Russian disinformation campaigns, whether through its media, paid trolls, hacking, or funding extremist politicians has rapidly become a national security issue on both sides of the Atlantic.