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Pro-Russian Disinformation Campaign Tries to Erode Sympathy for Ukraine With Celebrities

The latest Russian disinformation efforts in the nation’s anti-Ukraine campaigns include U.S. celebrities.

As part of its ongoing hybrid war against Ukraine—fighting on the ground as well as through cyber and influence campaigns—Russia is leveraging celebrities’ influence to try to hamper support for Ukraine. Microsoft Threat Intelligence’s December report on “malign influence activity” analyzed Russian and pro-Russian efforts to accomplish this between March 2023 and October 2023.

“During this time, Ukrainian military and civilian populations were again in the crosshairs, while the risk of intrusion and manipulation grew to entities worldwide assisting Ukraine and seeking to hold Russian forces to account for war crimes,” the report said.

Pro-Russia influence actors successfully tricked several U.S. celebrities into recording video messages that appeared to ask Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to seek help for drug abuse. These efforts support claims made by Kremlin officials and state-sponsored propaganda that Zelensky abuses substances.

“Unwitting American actors and others appear to have been asked, likely via video message platforms such as Cameo, to send a message to someone called ‘Vladimir,’ pleading with him to seek help for substance abuse,” the Microsoft report, released on 8 December, said. Cameo is an app where users can pay a celebrity to deliver a personalized message.

The celebrities included actors Kate Flannery, John McGinley, Dean Norris, Priscilla Presley, and Elijah Wood; musician Shavo Odadjian; and boxer Mike Tyson.

The report noted that the video campaign began in July 2023.  

The video messages were edited by an unknown individual to feature emojis and links, and they were then distributed on pro-Russian social media communities and Russian-state affiliated or controlled media outlets. Sometimes, other media outlet logos (such as TMZ) and social media usernames were added to the videos, too.

A different tactic was the result of a pro-Russian network of fake Facebook and X accounts that created and spread images of other celebrities, such as Beyonce and Taylor Swift, next to quotes disparaging Ukraine’s ongoing defense against Russia and the support other nations have given it. Other celebrity images used in this campaign have included those of Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Gigi Hadid, Kim Kardashian, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Oprah, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Shakira.

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“Though the images make it look like these quotes were said by Swift, Gomez, and Kardashian, they weren’t. …It’s still in progress, and two separate groups of disinformation researchers believe the campaign is run by a notorious Russian influence operation dubbed Doppelganger that has in the past been linked to the Kremlin,” WIRED reported.

Microsoft’s report, Russian threat actors dig in, prepare to seize on war fatigue, noted that cyber threats and “malign influence” generated by pro-Russia or Russian actors were not limited to the tricked celebrities.

Russian military, cyber, and propaganda directed targeted attacks against Ukrainian agriculture and military sectors, plus foreign supply lines, according to the report. “As the international community sought to punish war crimes, groups linked to Russia’s Foreign Intelligence (SVR) and Federal Security (FSB) services targeted war crimes investigators within and outside Ukraine,” the report said.