The Real Problem With the AP’s Firing of Emily Wilder

By Janine Zacharia | May 26, 2021

In the aftermath of The Associated Press’ May 19 firing of Emily Wilder, a spirited discussion has broken out about social media policies and practices in newsrooms. Wilder, a 22-year-old news associate in Arizona with an online record of pro-Palestinian activism in college, was dismissed, according to the AP, for “some tweets” it said “violated AP’s News Values and Principles.” Which tweets? The organization didn’t say. But Wilder’s firing came on the heels of a campaign by the Stanford College Republicans and allies to portray her as an “anti-Israel agitator” and thus call the AP’s objectivity on the issue into question.

For me, the issues surrounding her firing are important for journalism, but they’re personal, too: She was my student at Stanford.

Since her dismissal, many journalists and commentators have focused on the dissatisfaction and disagreements in newsrooms over how reporters should behave online. It’s a cacophony that’s creating headaches for reporters and managers alike. Without consensus, McClatchy News, for example, says it’s OK to put #BlackLivesMatter in your Twitter handle, while Wilder’s AP editor told her to delete it from hers.

This all needs to be fixed. But unclear, opaque and inconsistently enforced social media policies aren’t the biggest problem here. For the AP and other news managers, the most urgent issue in Wilder’s dismissal is that a reporter was targeted by a disinformation campaign—in this case, by people who took issue with Wilder’s documented pro-Palestinian views—and rather than recognizing it as such, the organization essentially caved to it.

Disinformation campaigns against journalists are a growing problem in our age of information overload, and it’s essential that news outlets in particular are able to distinguish between organic outpourings of outrage or grievance online and targeted campaigns that seek to undermine the legitimacy of news organizations and obscure the facts around conflicts.

As someone who spent many years reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including posts in Jerusalem for Reuters and the Washington Post, I am more sensitive than most to the kind of scrutiny newsrooms face over their coverage of this issue.

But I am perhaps even more sensitive to disinformation campaigns. I also spent two years recently as part of a Stanford working group studying the way actors use information warfare for political purposes.

And during those discussions, my colleague Andrew Grotto, a former senior director for cybersecurity at the White House, and I concluded journalists were themselves vulnerable to propaganda campaigns by foreign and domestic actors who want to harm our democracy. We realized that newsrooms could benefit from a straightforward protocol for situations involving various forms of propaganda. The first news outlet we consulted as we were developing our guidelines was the AP.

“Remember that journalists are a targeted adversary and see yourself this way when digesting disinformation,” we wrote in our playbook. “Familiarize everyone in your newsroom with this minefield so they are aware of the risks.”

The campaign against Wilder is an excellent case study of these risks. On May 17, the Stanford College Republicans posted a Twitter thread of old social media posts and articles from her undergraduate years and described her as an “anti-Israel agitator.”

Soon, conservative commentators and news outlets were circulating the tweets to increasingly wider audiences.

These attacks on Wilder came at a particularly useful time for defenders of Israel’s military operations in Gaza. Israeli forces had recently destroyed the building where the AP was located in Gaza City, alleging Hamas operated out of it, too, a claim for which Israel has not yet given evidence. But the confusion over the strike was fertile ground for those who allege pro-Palestinian bias in the media.

The disinformation in this case was that Wilder’s college advocacy for Palestinian rights would “fuel concerns about the AP’s objectivity amid revelations that the news outlet shared an office building with Hamas military intelligence in Gaza,” as the Washington Free Beacon wrote, echoing a theory about possible cooperation between Hamas and the AP made by prominent Republicans, including Senator Tom Cotton.

Within hours of a story on Fox News’ website May 19, Wilder was fired. The Stanford College Republicans responded. “Emily Wilder is not a journalist, she is an unhinged, Marxist, anti-Israeli agitator. We are proud that our efforts directly led to this outcome—the leftist media must be held accountable, and that happened in this case,” the group gloated. They thanked those who amplified their original Twitter attack, including former Daily Wire editor Ben Shapiro and Cotton.

It bore all the classic marks of a disinformation campaign. Pushing the Wilder story refocused attention from Israel’s bombing of the AP bureau to a junior news associate who had just started in Arizona. As Grotto and I warned in our guidance: “Beware of campaigns to redirect your attention from one newsworthy event to another.”

This disinformation technique was not dissimilar from the redirect used by Russia in 2016. When the Washington Post published the audio from an old Access Hollywood recording, which featured a famously lewd comment by Donald Trump, WikiLeaks followed less than 60 minutes later with the release of Russian-hacked Democratic National Committee emails. Journalists need to be on high alert for stories intended to shift the news cycle.

Several disinformation experts saw parallels in the Wilder case. “Influence Ops are not just the domain of foreign gov’ts, and journalists are definitely targets,” Nathaniel Gleicher head of security at Facebook, said in a tweet of Wilder’s case. Disinformation expert Kate Starbird at the University of Washington explained how Wilder’s firing was an “example of a coordinated active measures campaign meant to do its damage through the reaction of the target (in this case the AP).”

When drafting our recommendations on how to report on disinformation, I was eager to have the AP adopt them because they are indeed the news organization that customarily leads. When the AP decided to capitalize Black last summer, for instance, most organizations quickly followed.

Perhaps most important, Grotto and I recommended news outlets focus on the “why” something was leaked as opposed to the “what.” In this case, AP managers scrutinized Wilder’s few social media posts since being hired that included one opining on the meaning of objectivity in language chosen to describe the conflict, her retweets of stories about the devastation in Gaza and the digital record of her college activism as opposed to why the College Republicans may have dug up all this stuff in the first place—to go after a former classmate whose views they loathed and to perpetuate a false perception that the AP is biased in its reporting on the conflict.

The AP’s firing of Wilder demonstrates that managers there have not yet digested the threat of disingenuous campaigns even against their own employees. Particularly in an era when operations like Project Veritas exist in part to try to discredit the mainstream media and as hack-and-leak operations become more common, it is especially urgent that news organizations prove they understand the threat and develop a plan to cope with it. Editors’ determinations should be based on their own facts and judgments—not those of Twitter mobs, whether they originate on the right or the left.

Those who shared the thread about Wilder were trying to scare AP editors into thinking that her college activism, as it was documented online, would create the perception that the AP is biased against Israel. As a result of her firing, the AP accomplished, if anything, the exact opposite.

Sadly, Wilder’s dismissal has emboldened those who aim to harm our most important journalistic institutions at a time when restoring respect for fact-based news is paramount for sustaining democracy. This is disheartening for me.

But it was far more heartbreaking to watch my incredibly talented former student be fired only 17 days into her tenure at a news organization she was so very proud to join. I encouraged her to go work for the AP and trusted editors would continue to help her develop her accountability journalism skills while perhaps correcting her if she needed it—in this case, if she tweeted a mild opinion. Instead, I still cannot fathom how they refused to say specifically how she violated company policy, fired her and left her to confront an online mob alone.

Here is what I wish top AP management had said instead. Perhaps this wording can serve as a model for editors looking for one: “We are aware that some online sources, politicians and groups are using the past college activities of a news associate in our Phoenix bureau to try to impugn the integrity of our coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by resurfacing old social media posts and stories she wrote as a student for a campus newspaper. Our impartial coverage of the Middle East is unrelated to one news associate’s beliefs. We judge our employees by the quality of their work. We demand everyone sending our employee vile threats cease this horrific behavior immediately.”

News organizations must urgently draft a plan for the next time one of their staff members is attacked by people who appear to show no interest in a serious dialogue about coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or any other issue. If they don’t, this episode will have a chilling effect on a new generation of bright student-journalists who naturally engage in activism in college, whose lives are documented online and who are exactly the kind of people I train to channel their outrage at injustices into impactful journalism. In fact, it already has.

“Do you know why a news organization like AP would choose to fire people like that?” a young woman wrote to me after Wilder’s firing. “Why are they so beholden to conservative Twitter? I wasn’t sure if I wanted to pursue journalism professionally but now I don’t think I could, even if I wanted to, because I am very vulnerable to smear campaigns from people like [Stanford College Republicans]. I don’t feel very hopeful.”