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Wolves in sheep’s clothing: The rise of the Kremlin’s starlet bloggers

After launching its full-scale bloody war against Ukraine in late February, Russia tried to ensure the zombification of its population by shutting down Western social networks and domestic opposition media. The Kremlin has combined strict censorship with criminal penalties for anyone who does not toe the official line of its so-called special military operation.

But the invasion proved so outrageous on a global scale that even Chinese and Indian television stations – Russia’s main allies serving billions of viewers – reported on the madness without the direct support of the Russia and often standing on the side of Ukraine.

As the Kremlin attempted to produce fake news and propaganda – using bloggers and paid pundits with enough English to appear on TV – their voices were drowned out by coverage of real actions and war crimes of Russia by global media like BBC, CNN, France 24, The New York Times, etc.

Many countries around the world reacted by banning Russian TV channels that aired the twisted Kremlin narrative.

But Russia, the golden champion of disinformation, never gives up. In late March, a month after Russia’s aggressive and cynical invasion began, messages from the Kremlin became more prominent in India, China, Turkey, Israel, Arab states and Latin America.

After retreating into itself as an economic pariah, the Kremlin began hiring well-known bloggers to promote its narrative to large swaths of ordinary Russians and (if possible) beyond. This includes the use of mom bloggers, as well as specialists in the beauty, fashion and entertainment industry.

These bloggers praise the Russian military, downplay the effects of sanctions, defend Russia’s top leaders, and discuss the noble victories over the “Ukrainian Nazis.” All this while Russian soldiers are killing Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population, raping and torturing women and children, and bombing schools, hospitals and homes.

Kristina Potupchik

Kristina Potupchik, a Russian political strategist, social media expert and Kremlin spokeswoman, had previously been accused of bribing bloggers to promote Kremlin narratives, pressuring mainstream media, as well as tracking and reporting on behavior opponents and activists. This all surfaced from email correspondence discovered by hackers in 2012.

Now Russian opposition journalists believe she is back in the Kremlin. When I questioned journalists on the veracity of this claim, they replied that they had no information on Potupchik’s return to the Kremlin. But as she remains a member of the team of Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s former aide who was fired in 2020, they called it ‘irrelevant’.

From day one of the war, Potupchik has been enacting the Kremlin line and using her Telegram channel, where she has more than 140,000 subscribers, to spread Russian lies and propaganda. She also visited Mariupol and posted claims on Instagram that Russia never bombed the drama theatre.

A Russian fashion blogger (her Instagram account has been closed) cut out clothes from “enemy” Western brands in front of the camera. Others claimed to have ties to key decision makers to back up claims that Moscow was succeeding in its military operation and that everything was going according to plan.

At the same time, bloggers promoting Russian stories on the ground have started to appear in Russian-occupied territories. Some describe how good it is to live in Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014, and in the southern region of Kherson now under Russian occupation. Others describe the advantages of living in the pseudo-republics of Donbass, namely the so-called people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Kira.Bonye and the Moldovan information space

Moldovan blogger Kira.Bonye launched her TikTok account at the end of March and gained around 50,000 followers in two months. In her videos, she personifies different countries as members of one family.

The audience simply can’t get mad at “baby Belarus” with her naïve big eyes and playful, protruding ponytails. She describes how the once large family in the USSR broke up and “baby Belarus” tried to live happily with her mother Russia and older sister Ukraine. Then Ukraine turned into a complicated teenager and quarreled with “mom”.

The playful blog is not at all reminiscent of today’s Belarusian dictatorship, where Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994, runs in front of cameras with machine guns and gives orders to beat, imprison and torture those who protest against elections. rigged.

Kira.Bonye portrays Poland as a greedy sister, who just wants to “take a bite” from Ukraine. The United States is presented as a tyrant, while the blue-haired EU tries to fight mother Russia, but without success. It portrays President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as an empty-headed idiot and exaggerates Ukrainian patriotism on an absurd scale to make Ukrainian patriots look like fools.

Anyone who sees these videos will note the time that obviously went into preparing them. This, of course, is how bloggers make money – by creating engaging videos for high-paying clients. And by devoting her life to such interpretations of geopolitics, Kira.Bonye knows that she can make a fortune quite easily.

Russia has certainly tried to bolster its narrative in Moldova, which – when I last visited in 2014 – was leaking from every crevice. In an attempt to avoid this, the Moldovan parliament passed a law on June 2 to combat disinformation, banning the broadcast of Russian news and propaganda broadcasts.

The abundant evidence shows how Russia weaponizes social media and information and relentlessly expands its propaganda machine. The free world must wake up and take action to fight back on the virtual battlefield as well as on the frontline.

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