Russia tricks US actors into appearing in propaganda videos

Elijah Wood at a premiere
Image caption,Lord of the Rings star Elijah Wood is one of the actors named in the report

By Nadine Yousif

BBC News

Russia has tricked several US actors on the video message platform Cameo into spreading falsehoods about Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky.

The latest propaganda push was outlined in a Thursday report by Microsoft’s Threat Analysis Center.

In the videos, celebrities like actor Elijah Wood appear to be sending a personal message to Mr Zelensky asking him to get help with substance use.

Cameo said those videos may violate its guidelines.

The platform, which gained massive popularity during the Covid-19 pandemic, allows users to request recorded messages from celebrities and other public figures in exchange for a fee.

Microsoft’s report stated that the celebrities in the videos were likely asked by a Cameo user to send a message to someone named “Vladimir”, pleading for him to seek help with alcoholism and drug use, unaware that their videos would be used in Russian propaganda.

Russia has long falsely claimed that Mr Zelensky and other Ukrainian leaders are struggling with substance use, in a bid to win support for their ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

In one video recorded by Wood, known for playing Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings, the actor says: “I hope you get the help that you need. Lots of love, Vladimir, take care.”

The Cameo videos were then modified to include emojis and logos of media outlets, and were then circulated on social media, sometimes through Russian government-owned or backed media outlets.

In one instance, the videos were reportedly discussed on a Russian prime-time political talk show.

Microsoft said it has spotted seven such videos since July 2023, featuring celebrities like Priscilla Presley, Breaking Bad actor Dean Norris, The US Office actress Kate Flannery and Scrubs star John C McGinley.

Cameo said that it will not publicly comment on any of its ongoing Trust and Safety investigations, but added that the use of its videos in Russian propaganda would be a violation of its 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,” a Cameo spokesperson said in a statement.

A spokesperson for Wood told media outlets that the actor was only answering a request through Cameo, and the video “was in no way intended to be addressed to Zelensky or have anything at all to do with Russia or Ukraine or the war”.

Russia has been increasingly using different methods to spread falsehoods about the war in Ukraine on social media.

Most recently, a report by American technology magazine Wired found that images of celebrities like Taylor Swift and Kim Kardashian were put side-by-side with anti-Ukraine quotes, making it appear as though they said those things.

That disinformation campaign reached at least 7.6 million people on Facebook alone, Wired reported. Researchers have linked it to a Russian influence operation with previous ties to the Kremlin.

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