Unmasking the Man Behind One of Russia’s Most Popular Propaganda Channels

6 minute read

Of all of Russia’s online propaganda campaigns in the early days of the war in Ukraine, none was more successful than the “War on Fakes.”

Set up on the day Russian soldiers invaded last February, the popular Telegram channel, which claims to offer “objective” and “unbiased” fact-checking of news about the war, ballooned to half a million followers in just one week, and soon was averaging 20 million views a day. For the past year, its barrage of “verified” allegations that support pro-Kremlin narratives, defend the Russian military’s actions, and deflect responsibility for atrocities against civilians have been widely cited by Russian government accounts and Kremlin boosters. But the person behind the popular pro-Kremlin channel has been unknown.

A new investigation by Logically, a U.K.-based technology firm that tracks online disinformation, says the organization has identified the man behind “War on Fakes” as Timofey Vasiliev, a former Russian journalist who has worked with Kremlin-tied organizations and currently hosts a segment on Russia’s most popular state television channel. Researchers pieced together Vasiliev’s ties to the channel when recent changes to the “War on Fakes” site’s registration revealed his name, phone number and email address, they tell TIME.

Vasiliev did not respond to TIME’s request for comment. But a review of his career indicates that he has apparently worked for government-linked communications and media organizations since 2011. Vasiliev has worked in various capacities as a “citizen journalist” for pro-Kremlin outlets, including allegedly reporting on Russian military operations from Syria and Crimea. He also worked at ANO Dialog, a Russian nonprofit that called itself a “high-tech state-owned IT company,” which worked on partnerships with the Russian government focused on social media management, targeted advertising, content marketing, and crisis communications, according to Logically’s review.

Read More: Inside the Kremlin’s Year of Ukraine Propaganda

By 2021, Vasiliev had styled himself as a fact-checking and social-media expert. That September, he spoke about the dangers of online disinformation posed to people’s health during the COVID-19 pandemic at a conference hosted by the state-run Roscongress Foundation. “War on Fakes” sometimes quoted Vasiliev as an expert, as in an August 18 fact-check last year claiming to debunk Ukrainian reports that Russia had placed equipment and ammunition in the engine room of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.

The success of “War on Fakes” highlights how Russia’s misinformation ecosystem relies on citizen propagandists looking for opportunities to forge ties to the Kremlin that they might leverage into state television gigs or business ventures. Logically’s report identifying the proprietor of “War on Fakes” as Vasiliev also illustrates that these propaganda outlets don’t necessarily require the backing of or direct coordination with state institutions. The power of Russia’s state-run media provides plenty of openings for “trolls, guided by financial, influential or political interests, or useful idiots actually believing in their own propaganda,” says Lukas Andriukaitis, a Lithuania-based expert in Russian disinformation and a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “These citizen propagandists are the Kremlin’s, or pro-Kremlin forces, answer to the Western fact-checkers and OSINT analysts.”

A journalist takes video of a mass grave in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Sunday, April 3, 2022. Ukrainian leaders have encouraged journalists to document what is happening in the country.Rodrigo Abd—AP

Vasiliev appears to have been skilled at co-opting Western fact-checking formats to lend his channel an air of authenticity. Set up on Telegram, the key digital battlefield of the war, “War on Fakes” created quick counter-narratives that appealed to both pro-Russia followers and global audiences inclined to be skeptical of traditional news sources. It also created channels in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, and Spanish, although most non-Russian channels stopped posting last summer when they failed to grow subscribers. Posts on the “War on Fakes” Telegram channel and content from its website were soon being regularly shared by official Russian government accounts, including the Ministry of Defense and embassies around the world, as well as top media personalities like Margarita Simonyan, the Editor-in-Chief of Russia Today.

Read More: How Telegram Became the Digital Battlefield in the Russia-Ukraine War

As evidence emerged of mass civilian casualties in Bucha last April, for example, the “War on Fakes” channel posted a skeptical analysis. It falsely claimed that after Russian forces left the area around March 30 the bodies were “laid out” to accuse the Russians of killing civilians, and posted videos claiming to show these bodies moving. This post was shared by Russia’s Ministry of Defense, claiming it was proof of a “coordinated campaign” by foreign media, and widely disseminated from there, including by American film director Oliver Stone. The channel has also frequently disputed Russia’s responsibility for bombings, sharing “evidence” of the weaponry used to blame Ukraine.

The goal of channels like the War on Fakes is not to convince large audiences, but rather to seed doubt and make it seem impossible to know what’s really happening on the ground, Andriukaitis tells TIME. “If you believe in Kremlin disinformation and Kremlin narratives, you will be actively looking for “facts” to base your opinions on,” he says. “And this kind of a ‘fact-checking’ page gives you just that.”

Read More: A Visit to the Crime Scene Russian Troops Left Behind At a Summer Camp in Bucha.

As the channel took off, Vasiliev gained more visibility, giving interviews as a disinformation expert. Since August he has hosted a segment called “Fake Control” on the show of one of Vladimir Putin’s most powerful propagandists, Vladimir Solovyov. one of the most prominent Russian state propagandists. Vasiliev used his new prominence to launch other ventures, including a network for monthly donors to Russia’s military that organizes trips to the “Special Operation Zone” in Ukraine, and a Telegram channel where he airs live news broadcasts.

“His entire career trajectory is interesting because it paints him in some ways as an opportunist,” says Kyle Walter, the head of research at Logically. “He had done all these things in the past for some form of attention, and then he just honed in at the right time, with the right connections, and was able to make this account really blow up quickly.”

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Write to Vera Bergengruen at vera.bergengruen@time.com