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Z-Bloggers Exploit Russia-Ukraine Conflict and Profit From War Propaganda

Wesam Abo Marq Wesam Abo Marq
3rd September 2023
Z-Bloggers Exploit Russia-Ukraine Conflict and Profit From War Propaganda
Influencers were invited to the Kremlin (Sputnik)

The BBC has discovered that Russian social media influencers, "Z-Bloggers," who advocate for the war are earning substantial advertising income. These influencers, often referred to as "Z-Bloggers" in Russia due to their endorsement of the war, regularly share disturbing drone strike videos, spread false information about Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky, and promote various products, including cryptocurrency and fashion, in addition to being closely associated with the Russian military. 

Z-Bloggers Are Promoting the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

Since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, pro-war influencers have seen a significant increase in their follower counts on Telegram, the social media platform that gained popularity among Russians after President Vladimir Putin banned Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. This surge in users has resulted in a rise in Telegram's advertising market.

Pro-war influencers have capitalized on this trend by offering advertising space to companies aiming to reach their young audience. 

Putin's Appreciation of the Z-Bloggers Efforts

Throughout the duration of the war, President Putin has demonstrated his appreciation for the contributions made by the Z-bloggers. He appointed Alexander Kots to the presidential human rights council and also selected Semyon Pegov, along with several other bloggers, as members of a working group focused on mobilization efforts.

In June, President Putin extended an invitation to pro-war influencers and state media reporters to visit the Kremlin for a lengthy two-hour conversation. During this meeting, he emphasized the significance of the battle in the information space, describing it as a critical battlefield. He expressed his reliance on their assistance, stating, "And I really count on your help."

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A photo of the  influencers who were invited to meet with the Russian leader in June.

The BBC Revealed the Z-Bloggers' Outcomes From Ads

To determine their advertising rates, members of the BBC's Global Disinformation Team posed as hotel owners interested in placing ads on their channels.

Among the individuals contacted were prominent figures like Alexander Kots, a seasoned correspondent for a pro-government newspaper who transitioned into a war influencer, boasting over 600,000 followers on his personal Telegram channel. Another figure approached was Semyon Pegov, widely known as WarGonzo, perhaps the most famous Z blogger with a following of more than 1.3 million.

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A photo shows Pro-war blogger Alexander Kots.

Alexander Kots provided a pricing range of 48,000 to 70,000 Russian roubles (£440 to £680) per post on his channel, with the actual cost depending on how long the advertisement remained at the top of his Telegram feed. WarGonzo, on the other hand, quoted a rate of approximately £1,550 per post. These top war influencers typically share at least one advertisement each day, making their potential earnings significantly surpass the average monthly wage in Russia, which stands at 66,000 roubles (£550).

Furthermore, an advertising agent associated with Wagner-linked channels indicated a rate of around £260 per advertisement in the Grey Zone, a Telegram channel with exclusive access to Wagner and a follower count exceeding 600,000.

To advertise on Alexander Simonov's channel, who is a correspondent for the Ria Fan website founded by the late mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, the agent quoted a rate of £180 per post. Another Ria Fan reporter, Alexander Yaremchuk, who has a smaller following, offered advertising at a lower rate of £86 per post.

Among the Z-bloggers, there is a mix of experience levels when it comes to war reporting. Some, like Maryana Naumova, lack professional training in journalism. Maryana Naumova, a former powerlifter, underwent a reporting course on a Wagner mercenary base and has now established her own show on national television.

It's worth mentioning that the aforementioned blogger declined to engage in a conversation with the BBC regarding her earnings from advertisements. However, she did share an image with the media outlet.

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A photo shows war blogger Maryana Naumova

The BBC attempted to conduct interviews with well-known war bloggers, but Alexander Kots was the only individual who agreed to participate. Speaking from the occupied Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, he characterized himself as a journalist engaged in an information war. However, he acknowledged the role that figures like him played in Russia's propaganda efforts.

Kots mentioned, "The Ministry of Defence often listens to us, and we have a direct channel to privately communicate information to them. It's all behind the scenes, and I do that." 

Z-Bloggers Share Exclusive Fake Content

The flourishing market for Z-bloggers' content is fueled by the constant dissemination of exclusive videos. These videos attract a diverse audience, ranging from domestic pro-war viewers to Western and Ukrainian analysts seeking to gain insights into the real happenings in the Russian military trenches.

However, it is important to note that not all videos shared by pro-war bloggers are real. In a notable case from last March, prominent influencers such as Alexander Kots posted a dashcam video supposedly featuring two Ukrainian soldiers stopping a car with a woman and a small child. In the video, the gunmen insulted the woman for speaking Russian and threatened her, with Z-bloggers presenting the video as a prime example of how Ukraine mistreated civilians.

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A screenshot of the BBC’s YouTube video.

Upon investigation by the BBC, this video was geolocated to Makiivka, a town near Donetsk, an area in Ukraine that has been under the control of pro-Russian proxy forces since 2014. It would have been impossible for a uniformed Ukrainian soldier to operate in this occupied territory. Furthermore, the use of dashcams is illegal in Ukraine, a measure imposed after the full-scale Russian invasion to safeguard the secrecy of troop movements.

Moreover, the cross displayed on the vehicle in the video differed from the one used by Ukraine's armed forces. All of this evidence strongly suggests that the video was staged.

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A screenshot of the BBC’s YouTube video.

This example is just one of many instances where Z-bloggers have shared fabricated content to encourage young Russians to support the war.

Z-Bloggers’s Influence on Russians

There is evidence indicating that they have been successful in disseminating disinformation. In one video, a Russian man who had been mobilized stated that he decided to visit a recruitment center after watching numerous videos from Vladlen Tatarsky, one of the most vocal bloggers. Tatarsky was killed in April 2023 during a meeting with his followers.

Similarly, another Russian man who volunteered to join the conflict in Ukraine attributed his decision to having watched many reports by WarGonzo. He mentioned, "I follow all the military news and analysis on Telegram."

Telegram Clarified Regarding the Surge of Pro-Putin Content

When asked about the rise of pro-Putin war bloggers on its platform, Telegram responded by stating that it served as the "last platform through which Russians can access independent media outlets like Meduza, uncensored international news like the BBC, or [President] Zelensky's speeches." A spokesperson further clarified that Telegram treated all parties equally but also respected international sanctions, blocking Russian state media where laws forbid it.

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