In 2014, long before it became generally accepted that the Russian government had meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election using what Russia experts call "active measures" (a term that generally refers to influence campaigns), former RT America anchor Liz Wahl may have provided Americans with the first high-profile warning that the Kremlin was feeding disinformation meant to discredit the United States through the English-language station formerly known as Russia Today.
Wahl resigned dramatically on air, expressing her discomfort with working for the Kremlin-funded organization and its manipulation of the narrative:
Last night RT made headlines when one of our anchors went on the record and said Russian intervention in Crimea is wrong and indeed, as a reporter on this network, I face many ethical and moral challenges. Especially me personally, coming from a family whose grandparents — my grandparents came here as refugees during the Hungarian revolution, ironically to escape the Soviet forces.
I have family on the opposite side, my mother’s side, that sees the daily grind of poverty and I’m very lucky to have grown up here in the United States. I’m the daughter of a veteran. My partner is a physician at a military base where he sees every day the firsthand accounts of the ultimate prices that people pay for this country.
And that is why, personally, I cannot be 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 and that is why, after this newscast, I'm resigning.
In March 2016, Wahl wrote about her decision to resign, noting:
RT’s main goal is not to to seek truth and report it. Rather, the aim is to create confusion and sow distrust in Western governments and institutions by reporting anything which seems to discredit the West, and ignoring anything which is to its credit.
In the piece, she described being bullied by her superiors to present information she knew to be false, if only for the purpose of discrediting the West. One year later, the nation would be embroiled in multiple investigations and an ongoing scandal over Russia's use of active measures in an attempt to manipulate the United States presidential election in favor of now-President Donald Trump.
The term "active measures" is a term that refers to overt, semi-covert and covert campaigns to destabilize adversaries with propaganda and disinformation carried out by the Russian government and its predecessor, the Soviet Union. Organizations like RT and Sputnik are considered "white" (overt) measures, because their Kremlin funding is made known to the public. In April 2017, U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire) introduced legislation to investigate RT, noting that recent revelations have given reason to believe the outlet aims to "spread misinformation and undermine our democratic process."
Chris Donnelly, director of the UK's Institute for Statecraft, said the Russian government's use of its state-run media outlets to produce propaganda is nothing new. A recent example of such an exploit was the 10 May 2017 visit by Russian envoys Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister, and Sergey Kislyak, Moscow’s ambassador to the United States. President Trump invited the men into the Oval Office, and while he barred American reporters from witnessing the meeting, a photographer from the Russian agency TASS was allowed inside.
The result was that pictures of the U.S. president holding a jocular conversation with Lavrov and Kislyak were immediately published — apparently against the wishes of the White House. The Trump team was reportedly "furious" over the publication of the photographs from the meeting, with one official telling CNN, "They tricked us. That's the problem with the Russians — they lie."
It was a major score for Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, in terms of propaganda. Donnelly told us:
TASS, RT and Sputnik are not news agencies as we think of them, they’re outlets of propaganda. Therefore any employee of those organizations is really acting as an agent of the Russian state, and that means of its leadership — not in the interest of the Russian people. That’s the difference.
This is how the Russian system works. There is no excuse for people in positions of authority to be ignorant of how the current world works.
Lavrov and Kislyak faced American reporters briefly, and were asked if President Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey just one day earlier cast a cloud over the visit. Comey was heading the agency leading an investigation into Trump's alleged ties to Russia. Lavrov mocked reporters by waving his hand and sarcastically saying, ""Was he fired? You're kidding. You're kidding."
Mitchell Orenstein, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and professor of Russian and Eastern European Studies at University of Pennsylvania, told us it was no accident that the Russian government officials came to visit and reporters started getting treated harshly:
I think the issue is that they excluded the American press and included only TASS, which sent a very strong message to the press and people in general that only press agencies that are lapdogs to the government are going to get near the president. ...
It wasn't any coincidence that the Russians came to town and people are treating the press worse. A lot of people believe that Trump is Putin’s puppet and he is, and essentially he is taking cues from Putin. He’s learning about how to control the press, how to intimidate the press, how to behave with impunity. This is all the school of dictatorship and he’s a student.
President Trump’s views toward the news media comport with those of the Putin regime. Ben Nimmo, Information Defense Fellow at the Atlantic Council (an international affairs think tank) told us that the Russian government regularly casts the Western news media as “fake news” while simultaneously inundating their populace with actual disinformation.
The relationship between the Kremlin and the Western media is deeply antagonistic from the Kremlin’s point of view. In Russia, Putin‘s staff tell the newspapers and TV stations what to report, and and if you get into that mindset and then find media that doesn’t do what you tell them, it’s annoying.
That is not to say that there are no independent journalists in Russia working against the odds. The problem is that Putin opponents and Russian reporters who focus on topics like government corruption and hypocrisy do so at grave risk. This year alone, two journalists, Yevgeny Khamaganov and Nikolay Andrushchenko, died after being beaten in separate incidents. Political opponent Boris Nemtsov was gunned down near the Kremlin in 2015, and critic Vladimir Kara-Murza was poisoned twice, once in 2015 and again in 2017, but survived. Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption activist who plans to run against Putin in 2018, had a green substance thrown in his face and has lost partial vision in one of his eyes as a result.
The same day the Russian envoys visited, American reporter from Public News Service, Dan Heyman, was arrested after asking Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price about health care legislation. Six days later, the New York Times reported that during a meeting between Comey and Trump, the president told Comey he should consider imprisoning reporters who publish stories containing classified information.
It's a topic Yale history professor Timothy Snyder has been trying to drive home. In his new book, On Tyranny, the Holocaust scholar instructs Americans on the signs of a looming regime change and what to do to protect democracy. In a 15 November 2016 Facebook post, he addressed readers directly and chastised the idea of a "post fact" or "alternative fact" universe:
Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.