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Victims of “Donbas genocide” were paid actors, Prigozhin’s fired trolls reveal 

Actress Donbas Genocide Russian propaganda
Screenshot of report by Russia’s state Pervyi Kanal aired on 12 July 2014, showing an actress claiming to be a Donbas local witnessing “crimes” of the Ukrainian Army
Victims of “Donbas genocide” were paid actors, Prigozhin’s fired trolls reveal 
Article by: Iryna Voichuk, Alya Shandra

In the aftermath of Prigozhin’s media empire collapse, former employees spoke out about the dark tactics employed, including hiring individuals to portray “victims of Ukrainian Armed Forces” in staged reports that underpinned Russia’s fake pretext for the full-scale invasion of Ukraine — its Big Lie about alleged “genocide in Donbas.”

Following the unsuccessful mutiny of the Wagner Private Military Company, its financier Evgeny Prigozhin had closed down his media empire, including the infamous troll factory. This included Prigozhin’s media holding “Patriot” and such media outlets as RIA FAN, Politics Today, Economics Today, Nevskiye Novosti, and Narodniye Novosti.

Employees of the Prigozhin media were long unable to disclose the state of affairs in the editorial offices, as they were all forced to sign non-disclosure agreements. However, now, they speak. Russian media website Bumaga interviewed several former employees of “Patriot,” who revealed unknown details about its operation and propaganda tactics.

Notably, one RIA FAN journalist who worked with military coverage from Donbas told that the source files of the interview often contained off-screen instructions for the heroes of the reports, who were hired people coached by an off-camera operator who offered advice on how to say their pre-memorized lines more realistically (and with more propaganda effect):

“Most of the people who were portrayed in such stories as ‘victims’ of the Armed Forces of Ukraine were stand-ins, hired individuals. These characters repeated pre-memorized lines to themselves, trying to ‘squeeze out a tear.’ They were also instructed off-camera by the operator to speak ‘slower’ or to ‘repeat this moment again’,” told the former employee of RIA FAN.

This admission is crucial, as it offers more proof of how Russia fabricated its 9-year-long propaganda narrative about the Ukrainian “Nazis” deliberately attacking the “people of Donbas.”

Other famous debunked examples of this narrative included a story that state TV channel Pervyi Kanal ran on 12 July 2014, showing an “interview” with a woman who claimed to have witnessed the crucifixion of a three-year child by Ukrainian nationalists. However, bloggers and journalists from Ukraine and Russia could quickly prove that the woman was an actor and the story was a hoax.

Another well-known debunked “Donbas genocide” propaganda case happened in April 2015. The Russian TV channel NTV claimed that a ten-year-old girl had been killed by Ukrainian government forces in eastern Ukraine, echoing the disinformation story about the crucified boy from the year before. A BBC reporter working on the ground in the conflict managed to prove that also this story was a hoax. (For more examples of Russian propaganda that demonizes Ukrainians, check out our article A guide to Russian propaganda. Part 1: Propaganda prepares Russia for war).

Since Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014 and occupied part of eastern Ukraine’s Donbas, Russian propaganda has meticulously demonized Ukraine and the Ukrainian Army. One of the grand narratives of its propaganda claimed that the Ukrainian forces attempting to liberate their lands from the Russian invaders were actually “punishing” the Ukrainians in occupied Donbas for their alleged “choice” to be with Russia, which is how Russia called its fake “referenda” that led to the creation of two puppet republics, the Luhansk and Donetsk “People’s Republics.” The revelation from Prigozhin’s media empire’s employees reveals how this narrative was forged, one fake report played by actors after the other.

The final result was the creation of Russia’s Big Lie, the alleged “Donbas genocide,” which Putin used to launch an invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022.

Putin’s Big Lie: the “Donbas genocide” and “impending Ukrainian attack”

Bumaga’s material revealed other fascinating details about the operations of Prigozhin’s media empire.

Former “Patriot” employees revealed the security checks and the workplace atmosphere to Bumaga anonymously. According to a former employee, each media was allocated a floor, and smaller editorials sat together.

They did not check me on a polygraph, but I heard stories from newcomers. They were taken to a room where security service specialists worked with them and asked questions,” said the source.

These questions, asked during a “lie detector” test, intended to weed out any drug addicts or Russian opposition sympathizers, especially fans of Alexei Navalny, another source told Bumaga.

Moreover, the media empire had extensive surveillance measures in place. An anonymous source disclosed that they “followed electronic passes, cameras, and all records from computer screens were broadcast to the security service.” When Patriot was just opened, a special department existed in the holding that was engaged in custom materials about the opposition.

Two former employees of the Patriot holding, in a conversation with Bumaga, claimed that everyone at the “troll factory” knew that the goal of Evgeny Prigozhin’s media was to create informational noise to “clog the agenda.”

“Information noise was generated along with the implementation of Prigozhin’s interests. While some [journalists] distracted people with the problems of other countries, with these reports from Africa and so on, with our local celebrities and reviews of dumb movies, others, on the front lines, were brainwashing people with materials from the ‘Special Operation Zone‘,” a former journalist of RIA FAN told, referring to Russia’s codename for its invasion of Ukraine, where Prigozhin’s Wagner PMC played a key role.

Now, the former employees of Prigozhin’s once-famed “troll factory,” who sowed disinformation in Russia and abroad, are left without a job. Luckily for them, prominent Russian media managers are stepping in to give them decent work in top Russian outlets:

“Dmitry Sherikh, the head of the St. Petersburg branch of the Russian Union of Journalists, has volunteered to help the employees of the ‘Troll Factory’ find jobs: ‘The Russian Union of Journalists will, whenever possible, appeal to the heads of other media outlets to help find employment for our dismissed colleagues, as well as provide other information support.’ The chief editor of ‘Moskovsky Komsomolets in Petersburg,’ Timofey Shabarshin, who is also the former head of ‘Nevsky News’ (up until 2021), also agreed to welcome the colleagues.

 

Vladimir Yagudaev [an SMM manager from Prigozhin’s media empire who talked with Bumaga – Ed.] does not know if the Union of Journalists helped his former colleagues, but he notes: ‘Certain chief editors have begun to hire the most interesting employees into St. Petersburg publications. However, this is a limited contingent.'”

Located near St. Petersburg, Prigozhin’s troll factory, also known as Internet Research Agency (IRA), was one of the more-studied elements of the Russian propaganda machine. To achieve its goals, the troll factory employed fake accounts registered on major social networks, online media sites, and video hosting services. It expanded threefold in 2018. The troll factory’s employees were given messages they should push in social media and online debates in what a US indictment called “activities as a strategic communications campaign with an emphasis on target group awareness.”

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