A new form of fake news: clickbaiters and Russian propagandists mass-produce staged videos
While the world is worried about deepfakes, the internet is flooded with a more primitive but effective form of fake news: videos of false situations, acted out by actors, presented as real life. Initially produced for the purposes of clickbait, such videos have recently been produced and amplified by malicious political actors.
The scene is a classroom in the US; in front of the LGBTQ movement’s rainbow flag, a teacher is giving a lecture to what appears to be a group of high school students. Suddenly, a mother bursts in and tears the flag down, protesting the “brainwashing” of her child. After a long argument with the teacher, she leaves with her son. The video of the scandalous scene, filmed from the rows of seats on a mobile phone, was shared on social media by tens of thousands of people, including Marjorie Taylor Greene, a congresswoman for the US Republican Party, who wrote: “I stand with her! Get the LGBTQ propaganda out of the schools!” It was also circulated on the Russian social media site VK.com.
Among the accounts amplifying the video was the so-called “Legion of Saint Stephen”, a Hungarian propaganda organization connected to the Russian secret services and the international disinformation network NewsFront. The account claims to be a profile of a “right-wing traditionalist organization linking Russians and Hungarians” and is trying to recruit Hungarian citizens to join the Russian armed forces and fight in Ukraine.
The scene justifies right-wing fears about “LGBTQ activists indoctrinating children” – exemplified by the Hungarian government’s “anti-LGBTQ-propaganda” law, which among other things led to the censoring of books.
However, the video was not shot in a school, and the people are not students and teachers, but actors performing a scripted scene.
From clickbait to hate
As AFP pointed out, the video comes from a Facebook account of a man called “Jibrizy”, who describes himself as “a director of videos about controversial topics that seem real”. He produced several similar videos using the same actors that appear in the “classroom” scene. In one video for example, a woman previously playing a teacher appears as a homophobic character breaking up a gay wedding scene.
All videos exploit emotionally and politically charged topics, although the most recent videos almost invariably build on the emotions around LGBTQ issues. Although on his Facebook page, the original uploader indicated that the scenes were staged, there is no such disclaimer in his other social media accounts. Addition, the videos are often downloaded and re-uploaded by other users (such as the aforementioned users of VK), who present them as real-life footage.
Staged videos presented as real have been around since the early days of the internet, but the trend represented by Jibrizy and similar videographers have recently exploded in prominence. The trend appears to have started with fake “Karen” videos – Karen being an internet slang for a (usually middle-aged, middle-class) woman exhibiting entitled and belligerent behavior against undeserving people. After videos of such incidents became viral online, certain videographers started producing staged “Karen sightings” that equally went viral. Creators of such videos have been identified by the Rolling Stone as acting groups producing staged viral videos professionally.
The trend took a more sinister turn in China, where content creators mass-produced staged footage of domestic violence, and in India, where staged videos were used to incite hatred against the Muslim minority, a tendency that has become more and more extreme since the ascension of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Viral videos included false footage of Muslim merchants handing out poisoned food to Hindus, or Muslim men harassing Hindu women as part of the “love jihad” narrative. One Indian videographer who admitted to producing fake “Muslim poisoning” videos claimed to work with a six-man crew and regularly earn over 3000 dollars a month through monetization, several times the value of the average Indian salary.
Fake Ukrainians against Erdogan
Over the past year, Russian state propaganda has also disseminated staged videos to disinform about the war against Ukraine. In March, official Russian state sources shared dashboard footage of supposed Ukrainian soldiers stopping a woman’s car, insulting her for speaking Russian, and then firing shots. However, online investigators, including Geoconfirmed have geolocated the filming location east of Donetsk city, well within the Russian-occupied territory, which means that the people involved could not really be soldiers of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and the scene was certainly staged.
After being caught, the Russian Foreign Ministry removed the video from its social media pages, but Russian embassies continued to distribute it.
Also in the spring of 2023, a video began to circulate showing two alleged Ukrainian refugees performing a Nazi salute in front of a poster with the Ukrainian flag on in, as well as a slogan insulting the victims of the 2023 Turkish earthquakes.
As Le Monde pointed out, a month earlier, one of the two men had been photographed with a protest sign, but this time he was protesting against further financial support for Ukraine. He was among small group holding up signs with slogans such as ‘EU, America, stop supporting the war in Ukraine’, ‘NATO, stop bombing Donetsk’, while taking part in an actual mass protest that opposed President Macron’s pension reforms.
According to a report by Le Monde and the Russian investigative group Dossier Center, pro-Russian activists have staged such protests all over Europe: using an unrelated protest as a background, they were filmed holding their own signs. The footage was than posted around social media, giving the impression that a huge pro-Russian rally was taking place.
In many cases, however, the slogans used were not anti-Ukrainian but anti-Turkish. Investigators, citing insider sources, wrote that these videos were part of an extensive propaganda campaign aimed at weakening relations between the EU, Ukraine, and Turkey. The cited document suggested that Russian intelligence services should hire people in major European cities to film themselves stomping on the Turkish flag or spread slogans attacking the Turkish president. As part of the operation, Russian services have tried to make it appear that Ukrainian refugees are gloating over the earthquakes in Turkey.
According to videos shared on TikTok and other sites, there were some 64 occasions when pseudo-protesters were filmed in Paris, Brussels, The Hague, and Madrid. According to the investigation by Le Monde and the Dossier Center, the operation was coordinated by a man of Algerian origin who advertised in Arabic-speaking groups linked to major European cities to earn money for “taking photos”. He used a Russian phone number to contact them.
Meanwhile, Russian disinformation sources are fond of accusing the Ukrainians of using staged scenes for propaganda purposes. The accusation is most often used in connection with the Bucha massacre, claiming that the victims were in fact actors faking their deaths. In fact, the massacre of 400 victims (and many other similar war crimes, such as the Olenivka prison massacre and the killings near Izium) have been extensively documented by international human rights, law enforcement and media organisations, and not by just a few viral videos.
Written and translated by Zalán Zubor. The original, more detailed Hungarian version of this story can be found here.