In a citizen journalist broadcasting controversial political views on Ukraine from the streets of Cyprus, THEO PANAYIDES finds a man who misses the right to disagree, keen on stressing the right to think for yourself
By the time you read this, the war in Ukraine may be over. (Spoiler: It won’t be.) At time of writing, however, Alex Christoforou was still posting videos on YouTube and other platforms, walking around with a camera and discussing the war, among other topics – both on his own channel and on that of The Duran, the news channel he co-hosts with Alexander Mercouris. Alex has 159,000 subscribers all over the world; The Duran has 335,000. His videos get around 100,000 views every single day – and that’s just on YouTube. What’s perhaps most intriguing for our purposes, however, is that many of them begin with the following stock intro: “This is my first video update, coming to you from Nicosia [or sometimes Limassol or Larnaca], Cyprus…”
Alex isn’t affiliated with the quote-unquote mainstream media; he’s not even a professional journalist – “I’m just a geopolitical analyst. Part journalist, part entrepreneur” – yet he might be the most-watched Cypriot journalist on the planet (albeit not in Cyprus), part of a growing groundswell of canny amateurs offering an alternative take on the day’s news. It’s no secret that ‘alternative’ has become something of a dirty word these days – and his politics do indeed provoke a reaction, in some quarters. (Does he get threats? “All the time.”) “Who is Alex Christoforou?” asked a user on Reddit a couple of months ago. “A Cypriot-American conservative who heavily flirts with the far right,” replied another user.
Actually he’s not Cypriot-American – he’s entirely Cypriot, though his dad was a diplomat so they moved around a lot. (Alex grew up mostly in the US, Mexico, and what was then the Soviet Union; he comes here often, staying for weeks at a time, but “I’ve never really lived in Cyprus consecutively… I don’t think I’ve [ever] done a full year in Cyprus”.) What about the rest of that Reddit description? “How am I ‘far-right’? I would say I’m more of a traditional liberal,” he replies with a certain exasperation, then shrugs: “But everyone’s branded ‘far-right’ now. Whoever doesn’t agree with you is ‘far-right’, whoever doesn’t agree with you is ‘fascist’… Whoever doesn’t agree with you is a ‘Putin troll’, before that you were a ‘Trump troll’, and before that you were an ‘anti-vaxxer’. I mean, you may be none of those things.”
So they’re just labels, then?
“Of course they’re labels. To demonise you, because they don’t have an argument… But if someone watched our shows, I think they’d realise we’re definitely not far-right.”
The precise content of those shows – the walkabout videos, plus live Zoom discussions with Mercouris; three to six videos a day, going up on six or seven platforms – is a subject that’s probably better left unexplored for this interview. “I know your readership is –” he begins, then checks himself: “I would imagine that your readership probably doesn’t agree with my videos. Or maybe it’s split”. He’s chatty and ebullient, a tall, bearded man sipping coffee at Pieto in old Nicosia – yet we chat across an unspoken gulf, mainstream and alternative on opposite sides of the divide. That said, the videos are copiously researched. Alex spends a few hours each day just trawling through sources – Telegram, mapping channels, mainstream media. On Ukraine, for instance, he’ll check assorted Telegram channels that might be considered pro-Russian (Slavyangrad, Rybar, Intel Slava) but will also check the Institute for the Study of War, a US think-tank that’s very much on the other side. “If you have three or four different sources that line up, then you can kind of say ‘OK, this looks like it’s happening’,” he explains. “You just have to use logic.”
Ukraine has been the making of him, a process that happened organically but is still rather stunning. A year ago, his personal YouTube channel was active (The Duran has been active even longer, since 2018, having started as a news blog a couple of years earlier) but his videos were getting around 5,000 views; then came the war, and his popularity exploded. Those 159,000 subscribers are mostly male, mostly over 35, hail from many different countries – and seem to lurk in unexpected places, if my own experience is any guide. We meet at Pieto on a mild Thursday evening. There’s a kiosk nearby, whose clerk I occasionally greet when he happens to be standing outside the store. Can’t talk now, I call out in passing, I’m on my way to an interview. He asks who I’m interviewing; I explain as best I can, wondering how to describe my subject (“Do you watch YouTube…?”) – and, to my surprise, this random clerk turns out to be a fan, his eyes lighting up when I mention Alex; he even comes by Pieto a little later, to shake his hand and thank him for the videos. Does this happen often? “More and more now. In Cyprus not so much, I don’t think I have that big a viewership here.” Even here, though, he tends to get recognised about once a week.
You’re putting Cyprus on the map, I note lightly.
“I hope so,” he replies at once. “That’s another thing I want to do. Once again, I’m sure my political views probably don’t line up with many of the political views of high-level officials here… But I do feel like I’m working very hard to promote Cyprus – and there’s been many people that have travelled to Cyprus because of my videos.”
Really? How does he know?
“They’ve actually come in contact with me – and sometimes I’ve run into them, just out of the blue. One time I was at Mackenzie in Larnaca and I ran into someone who was like, ‘Alex, I came way all the way from California to visit Cyprus, and I was hoping to run into you’. Actually, just the other day I ran into another person who was travelling round the island, from Germany – also at Mackenzie! He was hanging out at the Nero and I ran into him, and he was like ‘Alex, I’m from Germany. I came because of your videos, to see Cyprus’.”
He’s recognisable, of course, with his beard and big, stocky frame – and besides, how many other people are you going to see walking around talking to themselves for half an hour, filming the whole thing on their phones? He doesn’t have a selfie stick (remarkably, given how steady the picture is), let alone a cameraman; it’s just him, walking and talking and trying to avoid getting hit by a car, or bumping his head on a tree. He tries not to cut, and hardly ever goes for a second take – though he might start again “if I can’t get the groove going… Once I get the flow, though, and I’m past the first 20-30 seconds, I’m going to the end,” he declares with a big laugh. “I’m going for the 20 minutes, that’s it, whatever mistakes I make! And I make a lot of mistakes in my videos – on dates, on times. But the general analysis, in my opinion, is as accurate as I can get it.”
The Duran isn’t a big operation; still, “I would say when it comes to Russia, Ukraine, Europe, in the alternative sphere of news, we’re one of the top”. There’s a change stirring in the world, and they’re clearly a part of it; that said, it’s undeniable – and a pretty demoralising caveat – that the majority of people still haven’t stirred. “To be fair,” admits Alex, “if my video gets 100,000 views, someone else reporting about how evil Russia is, or how great Biden is – they’re getting millions of views. Millions!” He grins wryly: “That’s why I find it very interesting when people say ‘You’re doing this for the money’, or for the glory, or ‘You’re a stooge for the Kremlin’… Because I could make 10 times more viewers, money, fame, all that stuff, you can have 10 or 20 times more – and without all the hassle! – if you just peddle the BBC narrative. I mean, I could read a BBC article and I’d probably get 400,000 views. And I could read it verbatim.”
Well but, after all, what’s so wrong about the mainstream narrative? Why would you support a dictator like Putin?
“Well, who says I’m supporting him?” It’s not so simple, he demurs; even calling Putin a dictator is not so simple. At the end of the day – irrespective of ideas or ideology – two things hold true, declares Alex. Firstly, people need to go to the source, “listen to his speeches and judge for yourself”; it’s all on the Kremlin website, “and they translate everything into English pretty much within a couple of hours of what Putin says”. Secondly, “you have to listen to them”, ‘they’ being the Russians; it’s entirely immature and unhelpful to be ostracising Russia and shutting down Russian media, thereby also losing sight of your enemy’s viewpoint. “You can’t ignore them – even if you think everything they’ve done is wrong… You can’t cancel them.”
Both those tenets are central to what he does. The first is citizen journalism, people learning to think for themselves. The second is engagement, as opposed to so-called cancel culture – not just with Russia, but the culture in general. “Back when I was growing up, it was cool to disagree and to argue,” he recalls, “it was no problem. You could argue with someone – you could even come to blows with some of your buddies. But, at the end of the day, you’d shake hands and go grab a beer together.”
That was quite a while back, long before the polarisation of today’s culture. Alex doesn’t give his precise age, but he was in his mid-teens at the collapse of the USSR in 1991 – he was actually in Moscow, home from boarding school and staying with his parents for the summer; he recalls walking by Red Square and seeing people flying the blue-white-and-red Russian flag, while three busloads of soldiers watched the scene unfold without intervening – which would place him in his late 40s now. He studied business in the US, then got into tech as a web developer and entrepreneur in the early 2000s. It’s unclear at what stage he became political, but he mentions the invasion of Iraq (and the WMDs debacle) as an early lesson – and at some point the first of his tenets must’ve kicked in, the importance of thinking for oneself.
“It was an evolutionary process, I think, where you start to see things differently.” At some point, you go (for want of a better phrase) down the rabbit hole. “Y’know, once you see things for how they are, it’s hard to see things another way… It’s hard to just close your eyes and say ‘This world leader is bad because you tell me he’s bad’, or ‘This event started on this day because of the reasons you say it started’.” He’s a part – or a sign – of the times, those 159,000 subscribers prove as much. “We’re a small channel, compared to some others – but I mean, people are upset. People want answers, they’re upset with how things are going. They’re upset with the fact that their quality of life is degrading. They’re upset with the fact that leadership is not being transparent with them. And people can see through a lot of the BS of the mainstream media, of the ‘soft power’.”
What’s Alex like as a person? “Just a normal person, I think”; an ordinary citizen, as befits a citizen journalist. His hobbies tend to be sporty (he was a star basketball player in his teens), his favourite foods are burgers and pasta. He doesn’t claim to be an intellectual; Mercouris is more the eloquent intellectual in The Duran, “when I listen to him sometimes I’m like ‘Wow, my brain hurts’”. His own strengths are “ingenuity” – thus, for instance, coming up with a mechanism to make videos by himself and keep them watchable – and above all consistency, “to the point of probably a disorder! Like, if I start going to the gym, I’m gonna go to the gym for the rest of my life… I always make sure I follow through on my tasks. I’m very task-oriented”. Interestingly, though he (obviously) reveres free speech and laments the way Greece used to be more anarchic – before being subdued by years of crisis – he shakes his head when I ask if he has any anarchist leanings himself. “No, I like order! But I think the two can co-exist.”
Alex Christoforou comes off in real life much as he appears in his videos: bluff, good-humoured, straight-talking, an ordinary guy with a sense of fun – and, no doubt, some dangerous ideas, though he doesn’t see why they would be dangerous. His life must’ve changed a lot in the past few months, becoming so visible and recognisable – but he just shrugs. “To be honest, I don’t notice any of it. I’m just a guy with a camera, walking around. Maybe my political analysis is way off-base, maybe it’s spot-on. I think it’s spot-on, for the most part… I think history will prove me and The Duran correct”. Meanwhile here we are, with rising prices and pandemics, and Europe in a state of “de-industrialisation”, and the world fragmenting and a never-ending war on our doorstep. And you wonder why people subscribe.