For around $340, actor Elijah Wood can record you a personalized video wishing you happy birthday. John McGinley, best known for his role in medical TV show Scrubs, will give you a lengthy pep talk for around $475. Priscilla Presley will record a clip talking about everything from Christmas shopping to Graceland for around $200.
These celebrities all use the video-sharing platform Cameo to quickly snap homemade videos for fans who pay them for the honor. They can be seen celebrating anniversaries, lightly roasting people, or offering advice. This summer, however, some videos have been weaponized by an unknown Russian group, which has crudely edited the clips and used them as part of its wide-ranging information warfare tactics against Ukraine.
At least seven seemingly unaware celebrities, including those listed above, have had their Cameo videos manipulated by pro-Russian actors to appear as if they are criticizing Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, according to new Microsoft research published today. The altered Cameo videos were shared on social media then heavily reported on by Russian government-owned or controlled newspapers and TV channels, the research says.
The videos started appearing in July and follow similar patterns. “It’s at a regular interval,” says Clint Watts, the general manager of Microsoft Threat Analysis Center, which published the research in an update on Russian information and cyber activities. “It’s a different actor or actress popping up saying a very similar script,” Watts says.
The videos often see the celebrity talking to “Vladimir” and saying they should get help with possible substance abuse. The videos are later edited to appear as if the celebrity were addressing Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky—the Kremlin has consistently pushed disinformation calling Zelensky an addict. The videos can have emoji, links, and social handles added to them before they are shared on social media.
The seven celebrities Microsoft highlights are actors Elijah Wood, John McGinley, Dean Norris, Kate Flannery, and Priscilla Presley; musician Shavo Odadjian; and boxer Mike Tyson. There is no suggestion that the celebrities knew their videos would be edited or manipulated in this way.
“I just want to make sure you are getting help,” Wood, the former Lord of the Rings actor, appears to say in the video. The manipulated video has a Ukrainian flag, a social media handle for Zelensky, and a link to a drug and alcohol research center, and has been made to look like it appeared on Instagram. The video has several jarring cuts throughout and is evidently altered. “I hope you get the help that you need. Lots of love, Vladimir, take care,” Wood seemingly says at the end of the footage. In another video, Kate Flannery, who starred in The Office, appears to say, “You need to go to the rehab,” and that Vladimir deserves a good life.