Duped Hollywood Celebrities Back in the News After Russian Disinformation Report

A Russian propaganda campaign that recruited famous actors through pay-for-videos site Cameo is the subject of a new article by Business Insider.

The article follows on the heels of a joint report published last week by Graphika and Stanford Internet Observatory. Both pieces cited an article I co-bylined, “How Russia Tried to Weaponize Charlie Sheen,” with Foreign Policy’s Amy Mackinnon in September.

Via “Russian trolls used Facebook, Cameo to help free alleged spy in Libya” by Kevin Shalvey, Business Insider, December 19, 2020:

source

After 18 months in Libyan prisons, alleged Russian spy Maxim Shugaley this month walked free, boarded a plane, and was greeted in Moscow as a returning hero.

During his long absence, Russia Today had aired an action thriller called “Shugaley” that dramatized his arrest, complete with explosions, gunfights, and torture scenes…

A roster of Hollywood actors also had recorded short supportive messages for him via the Cameo app. “Wall Street” star Charlie Sheen did one, speaking to Shugaley from the sparsely decorated kitchen where he did many of his Cameo videos […] according to last week’s report from Stanford researchers, who cited previous reporting on Shugaley and the IRA from The New York Times, Foreign Policy, Bloomberg News, and BBC Africa

Sheen was just one of a few high-profile Hollywood names that sent warm wishes to Shugaley. “Snatch” actor Vinnie Jones and “Rocky IV” star Dolph Lundgren each recorded their own videos, which were later posted on vk.com. “Machete” star Danny Trejo shot one, too, as first captured on Shooting the Messenger.

Click here to read the original story as first reported by Foreign Policy.

Click here to read the Stanford/Graphika report, which covers a larger-context disinformation operation targeting Libya, Syria, and Sudan.

Update, December 28, 2020: Gizmodo, Haaretz, and Inside Hook have also picked-up the story.

Via “Charlie Sheen, Dolph Lundgren, and Danny Trejo All Spread Russian Propaganda on Cameo: Report” by Tom McKay, Gizmodo, December 23, 2020:

News of the actors’ involvement in the odd campaign to free Shugaley was first broken by Foreign Policy, which noted that other efforts to raise the profile of Shugaley’s detention by Libyan authorities included the suspected agent’s election “to the regional parliament in the Komi republic in northwestern Russia.” Foreign Policy detailed numerous other suspicious incidents casting doubts on the Russian government’s claim he was a mere academic, including his alleged involvement in a purported plot to interfere in Madagascar’s 2018 elections. The magazine also contacted several celebrities involved in the Cameo campaign; an agent for one of them, English actor Vinnie Jones, told Foreign Policy that the $300 payment for the video was from an anonymous client.

The Haaretz and Inside Hook pieces, which do not credit Foreign Policy’s reporting, can be read here and here.

Facebook Removes Kremlin-Linked Accounts That Pushed For Release of Russian Operative Maxim Shugaley

The accounts were part of a successful campaign to free Shugaley from a Libyan prison after he was arrested on election-meddling charges.

Now-deleted Facebook page for Russian feature film Shugaley 2 (source)

Via “Stoking Conflict by Keystroke: An Operation Run by IRA-Linked Individuals Targeting Libya, Sudan, and Syria” by Shelby Grossman, Khadeja Ramali, Renée DiResta, Lucas Beissner, Samantha Bradshaw, William Healzer, and Ira Hubert, Stanford Internet Observatory/Graphika, December 15, 2020:

The takedown included a Facebook Page (primarily in Arabic) and Instagram account (primarily in Russian) devoted to a film recounting Russia’s version of the circumstances surrounding the arrest and imprisonment of Russian sociologist Maksim Shugalei (Максим Шугалей) and his translator Samir Seifan in Libya in July 2019. In the “action thriller” film version of events, Shugalei and his interpreter were in Libya on a research mission sponsored by the Foundation for National Values Protection when they uncovered “inconvenient” truths. Because they knew too much, they were arrested, tortured, and thrown in jail by a “puppet government” on completely false charges of meddling in the Libyan election.

In the Western press and the GNA’s version of events, Shugalei and his interpreter were working for people linked to the very same Russian troll farm to which the operations in this takedown have been attributed. Shugalei is a political strategist, a “gun for hire” (per the BBC) who has worked on multiple elections in Russia and achieved some prior media notoriety in 2002 when he ate documents rather than hand them over to a judge during an election dispute. He was, the Libyan government claims, in Libya as part of a Russia-linked operation to promote the political rise of Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, the son of former Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi.

The Foundation for National Values Protection, which is helmed by Alexander Malkievich, head of the IRA and RIA-FAN-linked “news” organization USAReally, fundraised to produce the film. Reporting has found that the copyright for the film is held by Aurum LLC, one of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s many endeavors, which have additionally included founding, funding, owning, or being generally involved with the IRA, RIA-FAN, and the Wagner Group. Shugalei aired on Russian state media property RT’s documentary channel. The film, promoted in the Facebook and Instagram Pages bearing its name, was one of numerous made-for-media moments intended to call attention to Shugalei’s plight; others included having him elected in absentia to a regional parliament seat in Russia (the campaign was reportedly funded by Prigozhin), placing sponsored content about the situation in the Washington Post, having Maria Butina (who pled guilty to conspiracy to act as an illegal foreign agent in the United States) run a one-woman protest outside of the Libyan embassy in Russia, and having Charlie Sheen and other duped American actors record messages of support for Shugalei via the paid app Cameo.

The Instagram and Facebook Pages related to Shugalei were primarily marketing communications for the film, and for its sequel, Shugalei-2. Both parts are presently available, including English-dubbed versions, on YouTube. Part 1 of the dubbed version, “Shugalei | A harrowing yet true story of Russian researchers imprisoned by terrorists” has received 748,305 views, and Part 2, “Shugalei-2 | Russian sociologists got involved in the Libyan government’s political game” has received 1,008,796. The Instagram account primarily posted images from the film; there was a promotional hashtag campaign associated with the film in which individuals, and influencers, photographed themselves wearing t-shirts depicting a still from the film. The Facebook Page had 103 posts overall, and included regular updates detailing Malkievich and the Foundation’s efforts to pressure Libya into releasing Shugalei and Seifan, as well as quotes about the matter from prominent Russian figures such as Vladimir Putin and Alexander Dugin.

The removals were part of a larger crackdown on “coordinated inauthentic behavior” by foreign government-linked entities, as Facebook announced in a separate statement on its site yesterday (Twitter also removed roughly 30 accounts that participated in the Shugaley campaign, according to Stanford’s report):

Today we removed three separate networks for violating our policy against foreign or government interference which is coordinated inauthentic behavior (CIB) on behalf of a foreign or government entity. These networks originated in France and Russia and targeted multiple countries in North Africa and the Middle East.

In each case, the people behind this activity coordinated with one another and used fake accounts as a central part of their operations to mislead people about who they are and what they are doing, and that was the basis for our action…

1. We removed 84 Facebook accounts, 6 Pages, 9 Groups and 14 Instagram accounts for violating our policy against coordinated inauthentic behavior. This activity originated in France and targeted primarily the Central African Republic and Mali, and to a lesser extent Niger, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Cote d’Ivoire and Chad…

2. We also removed 63 Facebook accounts, 29 Pages, 7 Groups and 1 Instagram account for coordinated inauthentic behavior. This network originated in Russia and focused primarily on the Central African Republic (CAR), and to a lesser extent on Madagascar, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Mozambique, South Africa and the CAR diaspora in France…

3. We also removed 211 Facebook accounts, 126 Page, 16 Groups and 17 Instagram accounts for coordinated inauthentic behavior. This network originated in Russia and focused primarily on Libya, Sudan and Syria.

In September, Facebook appeared to remove two paid ads for the Shugaley sequel from its platform and from the Instagram account mentioned in Stanford’s report.

Here is a screenshot of the now-deleted ads:

The ads were removed after I contacted Facebook while researching a story I co-authored with Foreign Policy’s National Security and Intelligence reporter Amy Mackinnon, “How Russia Tried to Weaponize Charlie Sheen,” also cited in Stanford’s report.

In a statement, a Facebook spokesperson told me that any individuals associated with the Russian Internet Research Agency are banned from Facebook as part of its coordinated inauthentic behaviour enforcement. The spokesperson declined to share the names and contact information of the person or entity who placed the ads, citing privacy reasons.

The Russian-language Facebook page for the Shugaley film is still online. Facebook’s “Page transparency” feature states that two people from Russia currently manage the page.

source