Celebrities tricked into recording videos made into anti-Ukraine propaganda

Pro-Russia propagandists tricked multiple American celebrities into recording videos that were then doctored and used to try to discredit Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, according to NBC News’ review of the videos and a new report from Microsoft.

Recordings of at least five American celebrities — Elijah Wood of the “Lord of the Rings,” Elvis Presley’s ex-wife, Priscilla Presley, “Breaking Bad” actor Dean Norris, “The Office” actor Kate Flannery, “Scrubs” actor John McGinley and System of a Down bassist Shavo Odadjian — appeared to have been purchased on Cameo, where all the celebrities have accounts, and turned into propaganda through strategic video editing.

Cameo is a service that lets users pay celebrities to record short, customized online videos. It’s not known who was behind the campaign that tricked the celebrities on the service.

The doctored videos have flourished on Russian social media since this summer. NBC News found them repeatedly uploaded to VK, Russia’s counterpart to Facebook, and Telegram, a Dubai-based social media platform popular in Russia.

The originally purchased videos do not appear to be viewable on the public Cameo pages belonging to the celebrities, but Woods’ representative confirmed that the source of the doctored videos of the star was a Cameo request.

In each of the doctored videos, viewed by NBC News, the celebrities address the camera directly. They usually speak about a person named “Vlad” about a substance abuse problem, and overlaid text falsely indicates the celebrities are referring to Zelenskyy. Other watermarks overlaid on the videos falsely indicated that the videos were uploaded to the celebrities’ Instagram profiles, rather than sent privately via Cameo. None of the celebrities mention Zelenskyy by name or otherwise indicate he’s the subject of the video.

In another version of the propaganda, the audio of a Mike Tyson Cameo was replaced with music, and overlying text falsely claims he too suggested Zelenskyy go to rehab.

The doctored videos received substantial misleading news coverage in Russian news media, including from RIA Novosti, Sputnik and Russia-24, which are state-owned news agencies and often reflect the Kremlin’s perspective. The outlets all painted a false picture of Hollywood pleading with Zelenskyy to get help.

There is no indication that Zelenskyy has substance abuse problems, and the claim that he does is a commonly debunked theme in anti-Ukrainian disinformation.

Screengrabs from doctored videos of U.S. celebrities and actors.
Screengrabs from doctored videos of U.S. celebrities and actors.via Microsoft

According to Microsoft’s report on the propaganda effort, “Kremlin officials and Russian state-sponsored propaganda have long promoted the false claim that” the Ukrainian president “struggles with substance abuse; however, this campaign marks a novel approach by pro-Russia actors seeking to further the narrative in the online information space.” 

In an emailed statement, the press service of the Ukrainian president’s office said that “Russia has been waging an information war for many years — not only with Ukraine, but with the whole world at various levels.”

“The civilized world and all corporations and companies that work with information in one way or another should be united in the face of this threat,” the statement said.

Representatives for Wood, Flannery and Presley said that the actors simply recorded those videos thinking they were helping a fan with addiction and had no intention of denigrating Ukraine or its president.

“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,” Wood’s representative said.

“Kate unequivocally, 100% supports Ukraine and this has been very upsetting,” Flannery’s representative said.

“It was not intended to be addressed” to the Ukrainian president “or have anything at all to do with Russia or Ukraine or the war,” Presley’s representative said.

A representative for Tyson said, “The current videos being circulated are false. Mr. Tyson has zero involvement with providing information and creating such content.” 

Woods’ and Tyson’s Cameo pages both now say the celebrities are “temporarily unavailable” for Cameos.

The videos highlight a fundamental vulnerability with Cameo, where celebrities often can rack up thousands of dollars in a few hours recording videos for fans. While the videos are usually intended for a small audience, they are oftentimes reshared on social media, and there is no mechanism preventing them from being widely shared if the performer is tricked into saying something embarrassing or that can be taken out of context.

A Cameo spokesperson declined to comment on whether it was investigating the campaign but said the use of the service to trick content 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,” the spokesperson said.