Valerii Zaluzhnyi, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, bought himself a house in Argentina worth €10 million, Prime Minister Denys Shmygal purchased a chalet in France for € 20 million, and Ruslan Martsinkiv, mayor of Ivano-Frankivsk indeed managed to buy a villa in Italy for € 53 million. Are you shocked, indignant, disappointed? That’s the reaction creators of “exposing” videos shared in social media expect from you.
These videos often get millions of views. Regardless of the fact they are usually cobbled together, even if using newest AI technologies, all of them are a part of Russian propaganda.
Short videos about unbelievable possessions of Ukrainian top-officials have been periodically appearing on TikTok during past several months. They’re mostly about elite immovable property in Europe that belongs to Ukrainian politics or high-ranking military. These stories are quite easy to believe, for sometimes it really happens – it’s enough to remember the exposure of Odesa chief enlistment officer Ievhen Borysov or his colleague from Lviv.
However, for one real example of corruption, dozens and hundreds of fakes appeared on TikTok with an obvious aim to discredit the largest possible number of politicians and officials in the eyes of gullible Ukrainian users.
These videos on TikTok are up to 20 seconds long and follow the same pattern. The main idea the authors of these videos are pushing forward is cliched: while ordinary Ukrainians are fighting and volunteering, civil servants and military authorities of the country are buying luxurious villas and cars, making profits from the war. According to the Centre of Countering Disinformation with the National Security and Defense Council, that’s the narrative most often used by Russian propagandists.
“A theme is being pushed into public consciousness that “Ukrainian army is mostly supplied by volunteers”, and Western financial and military aid is being embezzled by the authorities and military command. Despite most recent polls and actual evidence refuting this theme, certain part of the society is supporting it and spreading it around their network”, one of the latest Centre’s reports states.
At the same time, authors of the videos don’t strain themselves too much about the cut or original information. Photos of luxurious houses in Italy or Spain are taken from the first results of Google search, and the text is supported by emotional statements. “A destitute third-world country with elites thriving. We used to think that about Somali or Bangladesh. And now?” – for instance, these are the words the video about the Minister of Defense Oleksii Reznikov ends with.
NGL.media found certain consistency in appearance of these videos. This spring Russians launched videos about Ukrainian top-officials: Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, Head of National Bank of Ukraine Andrii Pyshnyi, Minister of Defense Oleksii Reznikov, Head of the Chief Intelligence Directorate Kyrylo Budanov, Commander-in-Chief of Ukrainian Armed Forces Valerii Zaluzhnyi, Head of Mykolaiv Regional State Administration Vitalii Kim and others.
Then publications of videos about foreign property and vehicles belonging to chief enlistment officers started і Heads of regional territorial centres of enlistment and social support – Uzhhorod, Ivano-Frankivsk, Poltava and other cities. Presently the published videos are mostly about mayors: Andrii Sadovyi (Lviv), Ihor Polishschuk (Lutsk) Ruslan Martsinkiv (Ivano-Frankivsk), Vitalii Klychko (Kyiv) etc.
As a result, protagonists of these videos are forced to refute concocted accusations which can only enhance inexperienced users’ suspicions (“there’s no smoke without fire”) and increase law enforcement’s workload. “It’s another example how Moscow IPSO і an abbreviation which stands for “informational psychological special operation” works. People are willing to believe anything, even without any evidence. I contacted law enforcement agencies regarding slander. Let them investigate it!”, mayor of Ivano-Frankivsk commented the video about his “fancy” villa in Italy.
Who is watching it?
Owing to common tags, we managed to find dozens of similar short videos on TikTok. Each of these videos was published from the newly created accounts that contain no other contents. Still, it didn’t prevent some videos from generating millions of views. Social network algorithms work in the way that any video may become viral if the first viewers watch it to the very end and react.
Among fake videos NGL.media found on TikTok the most shares had videos about the Minister of Defense Oleksii Reznikov (1.5 million views) and head of Lviv regional territorial centres of enlistment and social support Oleksandr Tishchenko (1.3 million views). Sure enough, direct accusation of Reznikov in purchasing a car worth 11 million hryvnias and Tishchenko owning a villa in Italy aren’t supported by any evidence.
Other videos have very different number of views: from several thousand which is regarded as low views for TikTok to hundreds of thousands. By the way, accounts that publish these videos have several thousand subscribers – most likely, bots that are writing comments under these videos.
AI serving the propaganda
Several voices generated by artificial intelligence (AI) are used for voice-over. One can figure it out from peculiar intonation of the voices as well as word stress and accents which aren’t typical for the Ukrainian language. Several online-services are being used for this purpose, though all of them are producing similar voices and are reading the texts with equal lack of emotion. The only thing that differs is the speed of reading (voice-over speed can be later adjusted in video editing application).
Oleksandr Uspenskyi, a developer of Ukrainian startup Elai.io who is using AI to create videos, watched several videos and told NGL.media that these voices are used, among others, by Microsoft Azure system and Google Text-to-Speech program. Further on, once the audio is obtained, one can put it together with a sequence of pictures in any video editing application
NGL.media generated a similar video – try to find differences.:
As TikTok profiles that published videos contain no contact information, it’s impossible to learn who was publishing and from where, Paul Myers, BBC OSINT-analyst explained NGL.media. However, we can state with the reasonable safety that these videos were created by Russians, as they contain translation mistakes і for instance, Kateryna Kot-Sadova instead of Kateryna Kit-Sadova) and wrong word stresses (TernopOlia, SadOvyi etc) .
Several tips to help you avoid falling for Russian propaganda on TikTok:
Follow a link to the profile that published the video. If a user has no avatar or has one not showing a real person (a cartoon character, anime, a plant, an animal etc) and it’s the only video in this profile, it should raise a red flag.
Analyze the information contained in the video. Were popular mass media writing about it? Was this information published earlier? Who is the primary source? Is it trustworthy?
Listen to the text or read it carefully – are there any word stresses not typical for the Ukrainian language, strange word order in a sentence or any other signs showing that it can be a translation from Russian?
Calm down your emotions and try to look at this information using common sense. What message are you getting from this video? Is this information useful or does it only incite emotion, feeling of indignation and betrayal? You can as yourself directly – may I be falling for Russia propaganda right now?
You can ask for fact checkers’ help і organizations or individuals who specialize in checking the reliability of information – for example, Centre of Countering Disinformation with the National Security and Defense Council, VoxCheck or Po toi bik novyn.
This material was prepared with the financial support from National Endowment for Democracy. The publication contents is a sole responsibility of the editorial team and does not reflect the views of National Endowment for Democracy.