Hollywood actors cast in Russian propaganda

Would you be the face of a Russian disinformation campaign for $200? Well, that’s exactly the situation in which a handful of celebrities found themselves this week.  

Driving the news: Several famous faces like Elijah Wood and Priscilla Presley were tricked into making videos that were edited and used to attack Volodymyr Zelensky, the latest in a series of organized efforts by Russian trolls to warp perceptions around the war in Ukraine. 

  • Microsoft discovered the videos through recent cybersecurity research on the war. While some failed to pick up traction, others managed to rack up thousands of views. 

Here’s how it happened… a Russia-aligned internet troll leveraged Cameo, a platform where people pay public figures for personalized video messages, to get celebrities to make support videos for a guy named Vladimir, who was suffering from substance abuse issues. 

  • These messages were then edited and shared online to perpetuate false claims made by Russia: That Volodymyr Zelensky suffers from drug and alcohol problems.

  • Some clips were by ex-boxer Mike Tyson, Dean Norris (Hank from Breaking Bad), John McGinley (Cox from Scrubs), and Kate Flannery (Meredith from The Office).

Why it matters: Microsoft’s findings signal that new disinformation tactics are getting more personal, and extreme. The company said Russian-linked trolls have also started to focus on capitalizing on polarization around the Israel-Gaza war and the 2024 U.S. presidential race. 

Bottom line: It’s hard not to feel bad for anyone unwittingly roped into propaganda efforts, but it shows you can’t be too careful with what you share and see online these days.—SB