Unraveling viral disinformation and explaining the place it got here from, the hurt it is inflicting, and what we must always do about it.
Patrick Lancaster appears to have a knack for being in the precise place on the proper time.
In February, on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Lancaster gave the impression to be first on the scene to report that three Russian civilians had been killed when Ukrainian forces set off an improvised explosive gadget (IED) alongside the nation’s jap border with Russia.
A month later, because the struggle raged, Lancaster reportedly discovered himself trailing a Russian soldier by way of the burnt-out stays of a Mariupol college that had allegedly been used as a base for Ukraine’s navy. Within the basement, Lancaster’s footage confirmed the physique of an area girl who the Russian troopers claimed had been raped by members of the Ukrainian navy and had a swastika painted in blood on her chest.
“It was a base of the National Guard and presumably the fighters of the Azov Battalion,” a Russian soldier instructed Lancaster on his YouTube channel.
However the explosion on the Russian border turned out to be a faux, concocted by the Kremlin as a strategy to justify its imminent invasion. And proof means that the troopers who painted the swastika on the lady’s physique had been from Russia.
As Russia’s invasion started, the EU and tech platforms moved swiftly to stem the movement of disinformation coming from the Kremlin concerning the battle. However these measures have principally failed, and for Lancaster, the struggle has been an enormous boon, serving to him increase his YouTube subscribers from simply over 50,000 when the struggle started to over 500,000 followers in the present day.
It was no shock that Lancaster, a former Navy intelligence officer from St. Louis, was the one sharing these tales. Over the past eight years, he has embedded himself with pro-Russian separatist forces in Donbas, unfold pro-Kremlin disinformation concerning the downing of Malaysian Airways flight MH17, labored with quite a few Kremlin-backed Television stations, and most just lately appeared on Alex Jones’ Infowars spreading pro-Kremlin narratives concerning the struggle.
Lancaster is only one of a dozen Western influencers from eight international locations who’ve seen their follower counts skyrocket as they evade the restrictions put in place by the EU and tech corporations to assist unfold Russian propaganda, in line with new analysis by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue that was shared with VICE Information.
Lancaster didn’t reply to VICE Information’ efforts to contact him for touch upon the Institute for Strategic Dialogue’s report.
Reasonably than their audiences shrinking on account of the constraints imposed in current months, these disinformation influencers have seen their following on platforms like YouTube, Fb, Twitter, and Telegram explode because the struggle started.
Final month, the 12 influencers had a cumulative complete of 1.57 million subscribers on YouTube, and movies on their channels have been considered 187.6 million instances. Together with Lancaster, the record contains Canadian activist Eva Bartlett, who up to now has pushed conspiracy theories concerning the actions of the White Helmets in Syria. Alina Lipp, a German content material creator who has over 160,000 followers on Telegram, can be on the record; she’s claimed that supporting Ukraine is akin to supporting Nazism.
The video Lancaster posted claiming to indicate a girl who’d been raped by Ukrainian troopers has over 660,000 views on YouTube, and although the platform has positioned a label on the video warning “it may be inappropriate,” it’s nonetheless obtainable to view.
“The increase in followership for the 12 influencers demonstrates that there is a growing audience receptive to this kind of content,” Sasha Morinière, an Institute for Strategic Dialogue, instructed VICE Information, including that the disinformation is having an impression.
“In France for instance, more than half of French people believe at least one of the Kremlin theories on the origins of the war in Ukraine,” Morinière stated. “This is concerning and these influencers can play a part in this.”
Key to Russia’s effort to justify its brutal struggle on Ukraine is the narrative that the invasion is designed to rid Ukraine of Nazis.
This baseless conspiracy has taken maintain inside Russia, due to the Kremlin’s strict management of the media inside its personal borders, however elsewhere on the earth, Russia has struggled to get its message throughout.
That’s partly as a result of the EU ordered tech platforms to clean all references to Russian state media retailers like RT and Sputnik from search outcomes, and ban social media accounts linked to these entities.
That’s the place Lancaster and his fellow influencers are available in, covertly spreading Russian President Vladimir Putin’s narrative after the Kremlin grants them entry to Russian navy personnel and specifically picked areas on the battlefield – the place they’ll discover “evidence” that seems to again up the Kremlin’s claims.
Whereas there’s no conventional path to changing into a Kremlin influencer, Lancaster’s background didn’t counsel he would find yourself being a pawn in Putin’s disinformation marketing campaign. In June 2001 he joined the Navy, the place he labored as a technician sustaining the tools on board ships such because the plane provider USS Kitty Hawk. He labored as a cryptologic technician and sure held a top-secret clearance, in line with Navy paperwork reported by Grid. Throughout his service, he took half within the U.S. authorities’s Warfare on Terror in response to the 9/11 assaults, stationed within the Persian Gulf.
After leaving the Navy, Lancaster labored as an actual property agent in St. Louis, in line with his LinkedIn profile, however in 2011 his profession took a totally completely different path when he determined to develop into an impartial journalist primarily based in Europe.
In 2014, whereas he was in Greece, he noticed the Maidan revolution going down in Ukraine and instantly moved to the nation to cowl the story, in line with an interview Lancaster gave to a newspaper primarily based in Donetsk in March 2022. By April 2014 he had settled in Donbas, and later that 12 months he met the lady who would develop into his spouse.
Since taking over residence within the metropolis of Donetsk in Jap Ukraine, Lancaster has labored for a spread of Kremlin-backed media retailers, working as a contract reporter or just promoting his footage concerning the battle in Jap Ukraine to these retailers.
Lancaster additionally depends closely on crowdfunded donations to facilitate his work. In addition to accepting donations to his Russian checking account, he additionally makes use of websites like Purchase Me a Espresso and Patreon.
Evaluation of current donations to his Purchase Me A Espresso account, performed by Ukrainian open supply intelligence group Molfar and shared with VICE Information, reveals that Lancaster has roughly 50 followers paying him $1,250 a month. General, the account has collected donations totaling $77,000.
On Patreon, Lancaster has over 1,000 paying subscribers with tiers starting from $3 to $200 per thirty days. Subscribers are promised early entry to his newest experiences and personal reside streams, and even one-on-one video calls to debate doable additional areas of protection.
Social media posts reviewed by Molfar present that Lancaster’s spouse initially refused to go away Donetsk on the outbreak of the struggle, however on March 14 moved to Russia with their two sons. Lancaster visited her there in April, in line with a photograph posted on his spouse’s social media accounts.
Lancaster was again within the U.S. as just lately as 2021, leaving a Google Maps evaluate for an area storage service. “By far the best storage place in St. Louis, hands down,” he wrote underneath a five-star evaluate.
One other member of the dozen Western influencers tracked by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue is Graham Phillips, a British man who has labored intently with Lancaster since 2014, when each of them moved to the Donbas area.
Like Lancaster, Phillips has seen his social media following develop considerably because the struggle started, together with his YouTube subscriber base greater than doubling to over 315,000 within the final six months.
Regardless of Phillips being accused of spreading Kremlin propaganda by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and of finishing up a doable struggle crime by one other British lawmaker, his YouTube account stays lively.
Nevertheless, it seems that his relationship with Lancaster could also be at an finish. In a Fb put up final month, Phillips criticized Lancaster as a journalist and stated they now not talk immediately. Lancaster, in line with Phillips, is nothing greater than a “harmless clown who runs around in a panic, like a rabbit in headlights spouting phrases in broken English.”
In a follow-up remark, Phillips calls Lancaster an “illiterate, grifting charlatan, with a journalistic acumen and ability lower than a potted plant.”
Lancaster’s newest YouTube video, entitled “Headed To Frontline With The Russian Army” was posted on Thursday morning, and inside hours had clocked up tens of 1000’s of views.
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