Russia used US celebrity Cameo videos to spread propaganda, says report

By Isaac M December 8, 2023

Russia tricked American celebrities into providing video messages that were later edited to discredit Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, according to a new report from Microsoft.

Celebrities such as Lord of the Rings actor Elijah Wood were paid to record a message on Cameo for someone named “Vladimir”, asking them to find help for alcohol and substance abuse.

The videos were later altered to include logos, emojis and links to make them look authentic in a bid to target Mr Zelensky amid Russia’s war in Ukraine. Other watermarks overlaid on the videos falsely indicated that they were shared by the celebrities on their Instagram profiles.

Cameo is a service where users pay celebrities to record customised short videos.

Several such videos featuring Elvis Presley’s ex-wife Priscilla Presley, The Office actor Kate Flannery, and boxer Mike Tyson and have been circulating since late July 2023, according to the report published by Microsoft Threat Analysis Center on Thursday.

In another video, the audio of a Tyson Cameo was replaced with music, and overlying text falsely suggested the Ukrainian president seek help at a rehab.

Since Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine invasion, Russia has falsely claimed that Mr Zelensky had been struggling with substance abuse.

Microsoft said Russia has been using videos increasingly in recent months, but “this campaign marks a novel approach by pro-Russia actors seeking to further the narrative in the online information space”.

The short videos, where the celebrities directly looked into the camera and spoke to a “Vlad”, were covered by Russian state media, NBC News reported.

Representatives for Wood, Flannery, and Presley told the outlet that the actors were made to believe they were talking to a fan and did not intend to spread disinformation.

Wood’s representative told NBC News that the “request was submitted through Cameo and was in no way intended to be addressed” to Mr Zelensky, while Flannery’s representative added that “Kate unequivocally, 100 per cent supports Ukraine”.

“The current videos being circulated are false. Mr Tyson has zero involvement with providing information and creating such content,” Tyson’s representative said in a statement.

A Cameo spokesperson told BBC: “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 Ukrainian president’s office said that Russia has been waging an “information war for many years – not only with Ukraine, but with the whole world at various levels”.

“The civilised world and all corporations and companies that work with information in one way or another should be united in the face of this threat.”

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