EletiofeElijah Wood and Mike Tyson Cameo Videos Were Used...

Elijah Wood and Mike Tyson Cameo Videos Were Used in a Russian Disinformation Campaign


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For around $340, actor Elijah Wood can record you a personalized video wishing you happy birthday. John McGinley, best known for his role in medical TV show Scrubs, will give you a lengthy pep talk for around $475. Priscilla Presley will record a clip talking about everything from Christmas shopping to Graceland for around $200.

These celebrities all use the video-sharing platform Cameo to quickly snap homemade videos for fans who pay them for the honor. They can be seen celebrating anniversaries, lightly roasting people, or offering advice. This summer, however, some videos have been weaponized by an unknown Russian group, which has crudely edited the clips and used them as part of its wide-ranging information warfare tactics against Ukraine.

At least seven seemingly unaware celebrities, including those listed above, have had their Cameo videos manipulated by pro-Russian actors to appear as if they are criticizing Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, according to new Microsoft research published today. The altered Cameo videos were shared on social media then heavily reported on by Russian government-owned or controlled newspapers and TV channels, the research says.

The videos started appearing in July and follow similar patterns. “It’s at a regular interval,” says Clint Watts, the general manager of Microsoft Threat Analysis Center, which published the research in an update on Russian information and cyber activities. “It’s a different actor or actress popping up saying a very similar script,” Watts says.

The videos often see the celebrity talking to “Vladimir” and saying they should get help with possible substance abuse. The videos are later edited to appear as if the celebrity were addressing Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky—the Kremlin has consistently pushed disinformation calling Zelensky an addict. The videos can have emoji, links, and social handles added to them before they are shared on social media.

The seven celebrities Microsoft highlights are actors Elijah Wood, John McGinley, Dean Norris, Kate Flannery, and Priscilla Presley; musician Shavo Odadjian; and boxer Mike Tyson. There is no suggestion that the celebrities knew their videos would be edited or manipulated in this way.

“I just want to make sure you are getting help,” Wood, the former Lord of the Rings actor, appears to say in the video. The manipulated video has a Ukrainian flag, a social media handle for Zelensky, and a link to a drug and alcohol research center, and has been made to look like it appeared on Instagram. The video has several jarring cuts throughout and is evidently altered. “I hope you get the help that you need. Lots of love, Vladimir, take care,” Wood seemingly says at the end of the footage. In another video, Kate Flannery, who starred in The Office, appears to say, “You need to go to the rehab,” and that Vladimir deserves a good life.

Over the past decade, Russian disinformation efforts have evolved to keep up with the current web trends, Watts says. Around the 2016 US elections, pro-Russian accounts were sharing their messages using blog post links. Watts says that the Cameo videos did not appear to have reached a wide audience, but the effort was “novel” and part of Russia’s ever-changing tactics. “It’s very hard to influence if you’re not in video, in the current era,” Watts says, adding that the Cameo videos were not edited to a high quality.

“The request was submitted through Cameo and was in no way intended to be addressed to Zelensky or have anything at all to do with Russia or Ukraine or the war,” says a representative for Elijah Wood. A spokesperson for boxer Mike Tyson says the video of him is “false” and he does not produce such content. “Anything outside of his usual lighthearted Cameo videos [is] being altered,” the representative says. Representatives for other celebrities in the Cameo videos did not immediately respond to requests for comment or could not be reached ahead of publication.

Brandon Kazimer, a spokesperson for Cameo, says it is the company’s policy not to comment on any trust and safety investigations. However, Kazimer says the kind of videos described in the research would violate the company’s community guidelines, and “Cameo will typically take steps to remove the problematic content and suspend the purchaser’s account to help prevent further issues.”

Additional analysis of the Cameo videos shows how they spread through Russian government-owned or backed media outlets. Antibot4Navalny, an anonymous Russia-based disinformation research group, looked at mentions of the seven celebrities and the videos and found they appeared dozens of times in Russian media, which is largely state-backed or owned.

An Antibot4Navalny member, who was not involved in the Microsoft research, says it appears that one celebrity was targeted each week for nearly two months. The researcher says that Priscilla Presley’s video was mentioned on one of the biggest “prime-time political talk shows” in Russia. The “widest coverage, as measured by number of major media agencies mentioning [them], was received by John McGinley,” the researcher says. This included news service RT, which is sanctioned in Europe. They add that Russian fact-checking website Provereno has debunked several of the videos.

The Cameo videos are not the first time that pro-Russian actors have used celebrities to try and push their messages. This week, WIRED revealed how a notorious Russian disinformation effort called Doppelganger, which has links to Russian military intelligence, has been using images of celebrities, including Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Oprah, Justin Bieber, and Cristiano Ronaldo, to promote anti-Ukraine messages on social media. The efforts reached more than 7.6 million people on Facebook in November, according to an analysis of ads on the platform.

The Antibot4Navalny researcher says people trust well-known, public figures, even if they are not an expert on a subject area. “This is exactly what is exploited by Russian media domestically, and in a quite similar way by Doppelganger operators targeting other countries,” the researcher says. “If you are out of experts saying what you need, just use a video footage (or a photo) with whoever looks familiar, and add subtitles, voiceover, or a written ‘quote,’ with whatever talking points you are seeking to amplify.”

“When the Russians are particularly successful is when they’re quick and tied to current events and news stories,” says Microsoft’s Watts. In recent weeks, researchers, including those at Microsoft, have linked some disinformation about the Israel–Hamas war to Russian actors trying to capitalize on the moment. Videos faking news reports from the BBC and Bellingcat have been posted on Russian Telegram channels in the past two months. The videos, according to researchers, include false quotes attributed to Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins and use a similar style to the BBC. The videos push messages incorrectly claiming that Ukraine is selling weapons to Hamas.

Most of the Russian narratives highlighted by recent research focus on discrediting Ukraine and its leadership as Russia’s full-scale war enters its second winter. However, next year, dozens of countries—including the US, EU, and UK—are set to hold elections. As this happens, Russian influence operations may also change course. Microsoft’s Watts says he expects that by March, one of the biggest concerns will be whether Russian malicious actors, including hacker groups, are targeting more European and North American targets to potentially conduct “hack and leak operations to drive narratives around any sort of political warfare that they want to pursue.”

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