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Hollywood plays unwitting Cameo in Kremlin plot to discredit Zelensky

An unknown pro-Russia influence group spent time recruiting unwitting Hollywood actors to assist in smear campaigns against Ukraine and its president Volodymyr Zelensky.

Exploiting platforms like Cameo, which allows people to pay public figures for personalized videos, usually for events like birthdays, this influence operation compensated US celebrities to record videos for a “Vladimir,” supporting his fight against substance addiction.

The videos are then edited to include emojis, links, and overlays to make it seem like they came from the actor’s Instagram page, and shared on Russian social media networks to promote the country’s long-running claim that Ukraine’s leader suffers from addiction.

The activity exploiting actors via Cameo began in July and has so far seen stars such as Elijah Wood, Kate Flannery, Mike Tyson, Dean Norris, Priscilla Presley, John McGinley, and musician Shavo Odadjian roped into the fraudulent scheme, Microsoft said.

As well as sharing the videos on social media, Russian state-owned media outlet RIA Novosti published a story in August following the circulation of McGinley’s message, again referencing “Vladimir’s” drug addiction.

It also made explicit note of Meta’s social media platforms, such as Instagram, being banned for “extremism.”

In none of the videos were celebrities seemingly aware that the purported recipient was Zelensky, rather, they seemed to believe he was a regular citizen of the same first name. However, with Ukrainian flags and Zelensky’s Instagram account appearing to be tagged in the post, achieved through video editing, the videos were made to appear as if they were addressing the president directly.

Two other ongoing video-based campaigns also further promote Zelensky’s fictitious substance addiction by spoofing mainstream media’s reporting.

Such propaganda has been rife throughout Russia since the conflict broke out in early 2022, and even before too, but the activity accelerated throughout the summer of 2023, according to Microsoft. 

The activity was first spotted in April 2022 with a spoofed BBC News report claiming that a Ukraine missile strike killed many civilians. Over the summer of 2023, more than a dozen spoofed videos were circulating on Telegram, and then mainstream media, copying the branding of outlets such as BBC News, Al Jazeera, and EuroNews.

It’s been previously reported that Russians are using bot farms located in Ukraine and operated by Russian insiders to disseminate fake news and propaganda at scale.

Back in July, Ukrainian police seized an assortment of equipment powering the propaganda machines, including around 150,000 SIM cards, mobile phones, and GSM gateways.

Campaigns have targeted both Russian nationals and Ukrainians, attempting to sow doubt over the country’s true role in the conflict and demoralize its troops.

Russia isn’t alone in the digital propaganda war. Ukraine has launched its own campaigns, and even allied nations like the US and UK have pedigree in the area.

Microsoft said it expects these kinds of influence operations to intensify as the conflict continues, and as we head into the winter months, attacks on critical infrastructure such as power plants are also likely to ramp up, as will Ukraine’s reliance on its energy grid. ®