Kremlin turns to YouTube as new 'propaganda weapon'

Kremlin turns to YouTube as new 'propaganda weapon'

MOSCOW - "I am a Russian occupier," a deep voice says proudly as the video crackles to life with realistic gaming graphics that show a Kalashnikov being loaded by a soldier before the dramatic, throbbing music begins.

"And I am tired of apologising for it!" The slickly designed YouTube video has been viewed more than five million times in two weeks and is the latest hit in a series of posts to an account apparently held by an enthusiastic young Russian merely trying to understand and explain his country's politics.

But upon closer inspection there is no young man at all, but a communications agency which openly admits being hired by people close to the regime to make the videos.

With patriotic slogans, anti-American diatribes and scorn heaped upon those who chose independence from Russia, the videos seek to rid Russians of any guilt over their imperialistic past - or doubts about a present in which their country is maligned for its role in the Ukraine crisis.

The narrator describes how Russia occupied Siberia, turning it from a place which "sold women for sable skins" into a producer of oil, gas and aluminium. How the Baltic States, after rejecting their Soviet master now "sell sprats and some of their people clean toilets in Europe". For its part, Ukraine now only develops "dictatorship".

"I am an occupier by birthright" he says, as images of Russian heroes and historic battles play across the screen.

"Please, understand, I don't need your hypocritical freedom, I don't need your rotten democracy. Everything that you call Western values is alien to me," the narrator says to images of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and gay pride celebrations.

With a final warning that "I know how to fight better than anyone else", an image of the message being sent as an email to US President Barack Obama ends the video.

With subtitles in several languages the video has stirred curiosity outside the country. In Moscow, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin - known for his anti-Western rants - tweeted a link to it proclaiming he too was "a Russian occupier".

As popular as cat videos

Other videos by the same account follow the same formula: 3D graphics and shock phrases about the American conspiracy behind the crisis in Ukraine, a common theme in official media since a Moscow-backed government in Kiev fell in a pro-Western street revolt in February last year.

It is a message which chimes well with Russians in an increasingly nationalistic mood after President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea from Ukraine.

The owner of the YouTube account, subtitled "Russian Propaganda", is Evgeny Yurov, 29. When contacted by AFP through Russian social media site VKontakte, he says he is a graphic designer who lives in the country's third largest city, Novosibirsk, in western Siberia.

He agrees to an interview by email, saying that before the events in Kiev, "I didn't care about Russian politics. But now I need to understand, to explain" protest movements such as that in Ukraine.

Yurov says he has nothing to do with the Kremlin and is pleased at the success of his videos.

"You know, I get as many clicks as some cat videos," he told AFP.

New 'propaganda weapon'

However it quickly becomes clear that Yurov does not exist. A PR company named My Duck's Vision - a specialist in viral videos - which makes strikingly similar videos to those published on his account, admits his identity is fake.

"We have been producing Russian propaganda on YouTube for over five years but this is one of our major successes," artistic director Yury Degtyarev tells AFP of the "Russian Occupier" clip when tracked down. The video, he adds, had been ordered "by people close to the ruling party".

"Ah yes, it's true, this does destroy the myth of the young patriot willing to do anything for Russia," he laughs over the revelation.

Propaganda and misinformation are key to Russia's special brand of what has been called "hybrid warfare" - using deception rather than actually declaring war.

The government has hired large communications companies to defend its views in Europe and the United States, and is also looking to the Internet to spread its message.

Independent Russian media has reported how the government hires people to comment on online articles or react to social media comments. Novaya Gazeta newspaper identified a "troll factory" in the second largest city of Saint Petersburg where more than 360 people were working to defend the Kremlin online.

My Duck's Vision does not mince words about the aims of its videos.

"This is the new weapon of Russian propaganda. And it always works better when the propaganda seems spontaneous," said Degtyarev.

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