Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Kremlin has unleashed a new weapon in its information war with the West: the fake celebrity cameo.

“Hi, Vladimir, Elijah here,” the actor Elijah Wood said in a video packaged to seem as if Mr. Wood were addressing Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. The actor, best known for playing Frodo Baggins in “Lord of the Rings,” urged the president to enter treatment for drug and alcohol abuse. “I hope you can get the help you need,” Mr. Wood signed off.

The video was recorded on Cameo, the popular, though now struggling, app where users can pay for personalized messages from famous people — in Mr. Wood’s case, starting at $340. While a genuine video, it was repurposed as part of Russia’s efforts to falsely denigrate Mr. Zelensky as a drug-addled neo-Nazi. Beginning in July, according to a report released on Thursday by Microsoft’s Threat Analysis Center, the video and others like it ricocheted through Russian social media and were ultimately featured by news organizations owned or controlled by the government.

Other celebrities used in the videos — all unknowingly, it seems — included Shavo Odadjian, the musician and producer, and the actors John McGinley, Dean Norris, Priscilla Presley and Kate Flannery. Mike Tyson, the former heavyweight champion boxer, appears in a video taken from his own promotional page on Cameo. It was repurposed without any recording of his voice, though a voice-over intones a similar plea to Mr. Zelensky.

Ms. Flannery, known for her role in the television comedy series “The Office,” teasingly holds up a bottle of whiskey before turning serious in her message. “Seriously, it will be wonderful,” she says. “Just do it.”

The campaign was one of a flurry in recent weeks intended to build support for the war at home in Russia while stoking opposition to it abroad.

“Russian cyber and influence operators have demonstrated adaptability throughout the war on Ukraine, trying new ways to gain battlefield advantage and sap Kyiv’s sources of domestic and external support,” Microsoft wrote in its report, referring to Ukraine’s capital.

Cameo said in a statement that videos like this would violate the company’s community guidelines. “In cases where such violations are substantiated, Cameo will typically take steps to remove the problematic content and suspend the purchaser’s account to help prevent further issues,” the statement said.

The celebrities used in the videos did not respond to requests for comment, but a representative for Mr. Wood said that while the actor had recorded the message on Cameo, it was “in no way intended to be addressed to Zelensky or have anything at all to do with Russia or Ukraine or the war.”

The novelty of exploiting commercially available cameos underlines the ingenuity — and persistence — of Russia’s efforts to try to justify its war in Ukraine. Although Microsoft’s researchers did not establish the exact source of the videos, experts who reviewed the findings said the campaign bore the hallmarks of previous covert information operations from Russia.

A separate campaign began last month with posts on Facebook and the social media platform X. The posts included photographs of more than 75 global celebrities — including Oprah Winfrey and the Portuguese soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo — with block quotes echoing key Kremlin propaganda messages, according to Antibot4navalny, a prominent group of anonymous volunteers who have exposed Russian trolling efforts online.

“I know the U.S.A. blew up the Nord Streams,” said a post accompanied by a photograph of Beyoncé, referring to the underwater gas pipelines destroyed in the Baltic Sea in September 2022. “Does anyone seriously think otherwise?” The same phrases appeared in a post with a picture of the billionaire businessman Richard Branson.

In fact, American and European intelligence agencies have evidence suggesting that Ukrainian intelligence operatives carried out the pipeline attack, though no conclusive case has been made public.

The group of anonymous volunteers, whose name refers to Aleksei A. Navalny, the jailed Russian opposition leader, attributed the campaign to a coordinated information operation called Doppelgänger. Since 2017, Doppelgänger has been linked to numerous other efforts, including the creation of fake websites impersonating actual news organizations in Europe and the United States.

The group’s researchers and others say Russia’s latest efforts have been bolstered by artificial intelligence, which experts have warned could speed the production and dissemination of disinformation.

The Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a research organization in London that tracks extremism online, reported on Tuesday that it had uncovered a network of 64 bot accounts on X that appeared to be using content generated by the A.I. chatbot ChatGPT to criticize Mr. Navalny and his organization, the Anti-Corruption Foundation.

Although the content had some quirks and oddities, including one reply on X that included ChatGPT’s disclaimer against hate speech or harassment, the institute’s report said the capabilities of A.I. tools made it increasingly difficult to distinguish between content that was generated artificially and content created by humans.

“For most people scrolling casually through a platform like X, the content could easily pass as authentic,” the report said.

The cameo videos had the benefit of being real recordings. They first appeared on social media accounts in Russia, including Telegram and VKontakte, whose content hews closely to Kremlin views. Almost all were in Russian, suggesting the intended audience of the campaign was domestic. One post with Ms. Flannery’s message had more than 11,000 likes.

The posts were then amplified by Tsargrad, a media network owned by Konstantin Malofeyev, a conservative businessman who has been under sanctions by the United States since 2014 for his support of Russia’s initial invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine at that time.

Articles about the videos later appeared in prominent Russian news organizations, including the state news wire, RIA Novosti, and the official government newspaper, Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

“The internet has repeatedly noticed the strange behavior of Volodymyr Zelensky in public and during his video messages, often linking this with drug addiction,” RIA Novosti wrote in August. The article included a footnote warning that Facebook and Instagram, both owned by Meta, are banned in Russia as extremist.

Check out our other content

Check out other tags:

Most Popular Articles