How Ukrainians Use Pirated Films to Bring the Reality of War to Russian Viewers – The Record by Recorded Future | Episode Movies

In recent months, many Russians trying to watch popular series like The Walking Dead and Stranger Things have been interrupted by an unusual advertisement. The shows feature a man in a white hoodie telling stories about the war in Ukraine.

“I know this isn’t the content you were expecting, but it is what you need to see. This is the illegal truth about Russia’s war in Ukraine,” the man says, before clips begin playing of a house exploding after a missile attack, parents weeping over the body of a murdered child, or bodies being pulled from under the rubble.

The man in the hoodie is a Ukrainian named Volodymyr Biriukov, one of eight journalists and activists behind a digital campaign called Torrents of Truth. Its members hack pirated movies on torrent trackers to bypass Russian censorship efforts and stream real footage from the war in Ukraine.

Most Russians today can’t easily stream popular Hollywood movies like “The Matrix” or “Doctor Strange.” In response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, major international production companies and streaming services, including Netflix, Disney and Warner Bros, have suspended the release of their films in Russia.

As a result, many Russians resort to digital piracy — some Russian cinemas even openly show pirated films to stay in business. Before the war, US-produced films and TV series accounted for almost 70% of the Russian film market.

These digital piracy habits caught the attention of marketing agencies 72, Sunny and Nebo. In early April, the two companies – which have ties to Ukraine – launched Torrents of Truth to “spread the truth about the war in Ukraine among Russians.”

It works like this: Torrents of Truth members upload videos about the war to popular torrent trackers – RuTracker, Demonoid or The Pirate Bay – and disguise them as pirated movies, music or Netflix shows. Each bootleg contains war footage that interrupts the film like a commercial.

Torrents of Truth is one of many Ukrainian digital initiatives aimed at breaking through Russian propaganda. Ukrainian hacktivists are trying to achieve similar goals with coordinated distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, defacing Russian websites, and hijacking Kremlin-controlled television stations.

Although it is difficult to assess the impact of these actions given that there are still no mass anti-war or anti-regime protests in Russia, Biriukov believes that any cyber efforts give Ukrainians an advantage over Russia. Finally, Russian propaganda still relies heavily on television, which has less influence on the younger generation.

“The internet can be the antidote to Russian propaganda,” he told The Record. “If Ukraine weren’t so successful on the information front, maybe the world would believe more in what Russia is saying.”

Bypass Russian censorship

Since the beginning of the war, the Kremlin has tried to hide the full extent of its military activities in Ukraine from ordinary people. For example, the government ordered the Russian media to describe the war as a “special operation” aimed at “de-Nazifying” and “demilitarizing” Ukraine.

To break through Russia’s Iron Curtain, Ukrainians messaged or even called Russians on social networks, using phone numbers leaked by hacktivists from Russian websites and state registries.

All of these efforts have been chaotic and poorly coordinated. Torrents of Truth has emerged as a more reliable alternative.

“Before launching the project, we surveyed Russian opposition figures to understand which messages would be more persuasive,” Kokoshko told The Record.

For example, it turned out that many Russians don’t know where to get reliable information about the war, so Torrents of Truth adds a text file with a list of trusted news sources to each folder with a pirated movie.

Another distinctive feature of the campaign is that it does not explicitly blame the Russians for the war and the atrocities committed by their army, but calls on them to take action.

In total, Torrents of Truth uploaded 21 torrent files to RuTracker, Demonoid, The Pirate Bay, 1337x and other torrent trackers popular in Russia. Among these files are newly released movies and series like The Matrix, Ozark, Stranger Things, and Peaky Blinders.

According to Kokoshko, the hardest part of the process was uploading the movie to the torrent platform and not getting banned. Another challenge was to make the content popular, since films that are downloaded the most get the most exposure.

Some torrent files have more than a thousand downloads, she said, but it’s impossible to say how many Russians viewed the content.

Torrents of Truth has estimated that around 43% of Russians obtain movies and TV shows illegally. “This means that around 62 million people in Russia have the potential to become targets of our cyber action,” the project creators said.

The risk of telling the truth

Telling the truth in Russia is dangerous. The Kremlin has labeled Russian opposition journalists and celebrities “foreign agents” and forced them to leave the country. Independent foreign media are also banned in Russia.

Those who defy the Kremlin’s disinformation narrative can be fined up to $45,000 or imprisoned for up to 15 years.

The developers of Torrents of Truth have not yet received any threats from the Russians because the name of the project does not appear in the video that the Russians download to torrents.

Volodymyr Biryukov

However, around the same time the project was launched, hackers leaked Biriukov’s personal information, including his phone number and passport details, and published it on the messaging app Telegram.

“The Russians have started and continue to threaten me online because I am telling the truth about the war,” Biryukov said. He does not know if these threats are related to his involvement in the project or his other activities. Biriukov is a well-known person abroad – he is often invited to speak on foreign television about the war in Ukraine and Russian propaganda.

The threats did not frighten Biriukov, he emphasizes. He said Torrents of Truth will continue its cyber campaign until the war ends or the Russians stop stealing content.

If other hacktivists continue their information attacks, he believes they will deliver results sooner or later. “It’s also propaganda,” he said. “If you keep repeating your message, eventually people will start to think that maybe something is wrong in their country and that what we are telling them is true.”

Daryna Antoniuk is a freelance reporter for The Record based in Ukraine. She writes about cybersecurity startups, cyber attacks in Eastern Europe and the state of the cyber war between Ukraine and Russia. She was previously a tech reporter for Forbes Ukraine. Her work has also been published by Sifted, The Kyiv Independent and The Kyiv Post.

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