Elijah Wood and a handful of other “unwitting” Hollywood actors and celebrities had videos of themselves altered as part of a Russian propaganda campaign pushing the narrative that Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a drug addict.
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In a Thursday report, the Microsoft Threat Analysis Center revealed that seven celebrities were caught up in the campaign, including Priscilla Presley, Mike Tyson, Breaking Bad actor Dean Norris, The Office actor Kate Flannery, Scrubs actor John McGinley and System of a Down bassist Shavo Odadjian.
It appears the stars were solicited via Cameo — a platform where fans can purchase short videos recorded by their favourite celebrities — to film a video message for someone called “Vladimir,” pleading with him to seek help for substance abuse, the report states.
A representative for Wood confirmed that the Lord of the Rings star was contacted via Cameo.
“The request was submitted through Cameo and was in no way intended to be addressed to Zelenskyy or have anything at all to do with Russia or Ukraine or the war,” the representative said.
These innocuous Cameo videos were then taken out of context and doctored to make it seem like the celebrities were referring to Zelenskyy. The modifications included links to Zelenskyy’s social media accounts, emojis and “sometimes the logos of media outlets,” according to the report.
Screengrabs of some of the videos shared by the Microsoft Threat Analysis Center show a TMZ logo superimposed onto Wood’s video. It also appears that some of the videos were photoshopped to make it seem like they had been posted to the celebrities’ Instagram accounts.
The reports says these doctored videos were “circulated through social media channels to advance longstanding false Russian claims that the Ukrainian leader struggles with substance abuse.”
In Wood’s video, viewed by WIRED, the Lord of the Rings actor says, “I just want to make sure you are getting help.” The altered video included a Ukrainian flag and links to Zelenskyy’s Instagram handle as well as a drug and alcohol research centre.
“I hope you get the help that you need. Lots of love, Vladimir, take care,” Wood says. Wired notes that the video had “several jarring cuts throughout.”
Microsoft says the videos started appearing in late July of this year.
Clint Watt, the general manager of the Microsoft Threat Analysis Center, told Wired that new videos would pop up in “regular intervals” throughout the summer and noted that the celebrities were all “saying a very similar script.”
A number of the celebrities named in the Microsoft report have come out to confirm the videos were manipulated.
“Kate unequivocally, 100% supports Ukraine and this has been very upsetting,” said a representative for Flannery, who played Meredith in The Office.
Presley’s representative said her video was “not intended to be addressed” to Zelenskyy, “or have anything at all to do with Russia or Ukraine or the war.”
A representative for Tyson said the “current videos being circulated are false. Mr. Tyson has zero involvement with providing information and creating such content.”
NBC reports that the videos were shared widely on Russian social media, including VK and Telegram. The altered videos were also covered by state-owned Russian media outlets, Wired reports.
Cameo has declined to comment directly on the Microsoft report or whether it was investigating the propaganda campaign. It did say that this type of tactic to trick Cameo creators violates 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 spokesperson stated.
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