The man behind the Russian “War on Fakes” propaganda channels

OhIn the early days of the war in Ukraine, none of Russia’s online propaganda campaigns was more successful than the War on Fakes.

Created on the day Russian soldiers invaded last February, the popular Telegram channel, which claims to offer “objective” and “impartial” fact-checking of war news, reached half a million followers in just a week, and was soon on the way. an average of 20 million views per day. Over the past year, his “verified” claims supporting pro-Kremlin narratives, defending the actions of the Russian military and deflecting responsibility for atrocities against civilians have been widely cited by Russian government accounts and Kremlin boosters. But the person behind the popular pro-Kremlin channel was unknown.

A new investigation by UK-based tech firm Logical, which tracks online disinformation, says the organization has identified the man behind the “War on Fakes,” former Russian journalist Timofey Vasiliev, who worked with Kremlin-linked organizations and now runs a On the most popular state TV channel in Russia. Researchers pieced together Vasiliev’s ties to the channel when recent changes to the War on Fakes website’s registration revealed his name, phone number and email address, they tell TIME.

Vassilev did not respond to TIME’s request for comment. But a review of his career shows that he appears to have worked for government-related communications and media organizations since 2011. Vassilev has worked in various capacities as a “citizen journalist” in pro-Kremlin media, including allegedly reporting on Russian military operations from Syria. and Crimea. He also worked at ANO Dialog, a Russian non-profit organization that called itself a “high-tech state IT company” that worked with the Russian government, focusing on social media management, targeted advertising, content marketing and crisis communications. To Logically’s review.

Read more: Kremlin’s “Year of Ukraine” propaganda

By 2021, Vassilev had branded himself a fact-checking and social media expert. That September, he spoke about the dangers of online misinformation to people’s health during the COVID-19 pandemic at a conference organized by the state-run Roscongress Foundation. The War on Fakes has occasionally cited Vasiliev as an expert, as in an August 18 fact-check last year that claimed to have debunked Ukrainian reports that Russia had planted equipment and munitions in the engine room of the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant.

The War on Disinformation highlights how Russia’s disinformation ecosystem relies on citizen propagandists looking for opportunities to establish ties to the Kremlin that they can use for state television gigs or business ventures. Logically’s report, which identifies the owner of War on Fakes as Vassilev, also shows that these propaganda tools do not necessarily require the support or direct coordination of government agencies. The power of Russian state media creates many openings for “trolls driven by financial, influential or political interests or useful idiots who actually believe their propaganda,” said Lukas Andrukaitis, an expert on Russian disinformation. non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Laboratory. “These citizen propagandists are Kremlin or pro-Kremlin forces that answer to Western fact-checkers and OSINT analysts.”

A journalist films a mass grave in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kiev, Sunday, April 3, 2022.  Ukrainian leaders have encouraged journalists to document what is happening in the country.  (Rodrigo Abd-AP)

A journalist films a mass grave in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kiev, Sunday, April 3, 2022. Ukrainian leaders have encouraged journalists to document what is happening in the country.

Rodrigo Abd-AP

Vassilev appears to have been adept at using Western fact-checking formats to lend authenticity to his channel. Created on Telegram, the war’s key digital battleground, the “War on Fakes” produced rapid counter-narratives that appealed to both pro-Russian followers and a global audience that tends to be skeptical of traditional news sources. It also created channels in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German and Spanish, although most of the non-Russian channels stopped posting last summer when they failed to add subscribers. Posts from the War on Fakes Telegram channel and its website content were soon regularly shared by official Russian government accounts, including the Ministry of Defense and embassies around the world, as well as leading media outlets such as Margarita Simonyan, editor; Head of Russia Today.

Read more: How Telegram Became a Digital Battleground in the Russia-Ukraine War

Since evidence of mass civilian casualties in Bucha emerged in April last year, for example, the War on Fakes channel has been skeptical. It falsely claimed that after Russian forces left the area around March 30, bodies were “taken out” to accuse the Russians of killing civilians, and posted videos showing the bodies moving. The post was released by Russia’s Ministry of Defense, claiming it was evidence of a “coordinated campaign” by foreign media, and was widely shared from there, including by American film director Oliver Stone. The channel also frequently disputes Russia’s responsibility for the bombings, sharing “evidence” of weapons used to blame Ukraine.

The purpose of the “war on fake” channels is not to convince a large audience, but rather to sow doubt and make it seem impossible what is really happening on the ground, Andrukaitis tells TIME. “If you believe Kremlin disinformation and Kremlin stories, you will actively seek ‘facts’ to support your opinion,” he says. “And this kind of ‘fact-checking’ page gives you just that.”

Read more: A visit to the scene of the crime by the Russian troops remaining in the Bucha summer camp.

After leaving the channel, Vassilev gained greater visibility by giving interviews as a disinformation expert. Since August, he has been hosting the “Fake Surveillance” segment on the show of one of Vladimir Putin’s most powerful propagandists, Vladimir Solovyov. One of the most famous state preachers of Russia. Vassilev used his newfound fame to launch other ventures, including a network for monthly donors to the Russian military that organizes trips to the Special Operations Zone in Ukraine, and a Telegram channel where he broadcasts live news broadcasts.

“His whole career trajectory is interesting because it paints him as an opportunist in some ways,” said Kyle Walter, head of research at Logically. “He had done all these things before for some attention, and then he just honed in at the right time, with the right connections, and was able to make this account blow up really quickly.”

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