UPDATED 16:22 EDT / DECEMBER 07 2023


Microsoft: Russian disinformation campaign used celebrity videos bought via Cameo

Microsoft Corp. has uncovered a Russian disinformation campaign that made use of celebrity clips commissioned through the Cameo video sharing website.

The company detailed its findings today in the latest edition of its biannual report on Russian digital threats. The report is produced by Microsoft’s Threat Analysis Center, which tracks nation-backed hacking and influence campaigns.

Cameo, which is operated by a Chicago-based company of the same name, allows users to commission personalized videos from celebrities. According to Microsoft, Russian propagandists used the website to purchase at least seven celebrity clips. They then manipulated those clips to try and advance a false Russian claim about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Russia has pushed disinformation portraying Zelenskyy as an addict. In the videos that Microsoft uncovered, celebrities plead with a person called “Vladimir” to seek help for substance abuse. The videos were manipulated to give the appearance the celebrities were addressing Zelenskyy.

“The videos were then modified to include emojis, links and sometimes the logos of media outlets and circulated through social media channels to advance longstanding false Russian claims that the Ukrainian leader struggles with substance abuse,” Clint Watts, general manager of Microsoft’s Threat Analysis Center, detailed in a blog post.

The videos were commissioned from actors Priscilla Presley, Elijah Wood, Dean Norris, Kate Flannery and John McGinley, boxer Mike Tyson and musician Shavo Odadjian. Watts told Wired that all the clips followed a similar script. They began surfacing on social media in June. 

Microsoft revealed the disinformation campaign in a report published this morning that also detailed several other Russian hacking and influence operations.

According to the company, a Russia-linked threat actor called Forest Blizzard has launched a phishing campaign against defense organizations that uses “novel and evasive techniques.” One August email to a European defense organization masqueraded as a message from European Parliament staff. Meanwhile, a Russia-linked influence actor called Storm-1099 that historically targeted Western Europe has shifted its focus to Israel and the U.S.

Microsoft’s new report also detailed that Storm-1099 was behind Doppelganger, an influence operation targeting Ukraine which came to light on Wednesday. Like the video-based disinformation campaign that the company revealed today, Doppelganger makes use of manipulated celebrity content. Storm-1099 created celebrity photos with fake quotes about Ukraine and spread them via social media ads.

The Doppelganger influence operation reportedly launched in November and has since reached 7.6 million people on Facebook alone. Meta Platforms Inc. has taken down most of the pages that promoted the fake content. However, it’s believed that the influence operation is ongoing. 

Photo: Unsplash

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