September 22, 2022

Ana Romero-Vicente, Researcher at EU DisinfoLab

Executive summary 

  • EU DisinfoLab coined the expression “disinformation entrepreneurs” to describe how some users are taking advantage of major events, such as the war in Ukraine, by spreading false content or propaganda. 
  • Whether motivated by true support for the Russian invasion or simple opportunism, the present study shows how lucrative the conflict is for some YouTube users. 
  • While some disinformation entrepreneurs are creating new ad hoc thematic channels on YouTube, switching the topics of their former channels, others resume the activity of their old, and apparently inactive, YouTube channels.
  • Disinformation entrepreneurship can be a lucrative business: in one case, the economic benefits deriving from it reach up to 94K euros per month, according to a Social Blade estimate.
  • The second part of this study, to be released at a later stage, will focus on the phenomenon of disinformation entrepreneurs on Twitter.

1. Introduction

By now, we are familiar with the notion that some actors take advantage of big international events and crises to disinform and manipulate the public. The war in Ukraine is one of those prominent crises, and at the core of this investigation. 

In particular, we analyse a phenomenon that we feel is still under-investigated, despite the massive amount of research on the war. This is the study of certain users that have found the fastest way to fame by taking pro-Russian positions to spread false statements and propaganda about the war in Ukraine. After studying their behaviour and achievements, we labelled them “disinformation entrepreneurs” for their capacity to exploit informational opportunities.

Overall, disinformation entrepreneurs act fast. Being the first one to break out the news about significant events ensures them fame – which in return brings money and influence – regardless of its authenticity. They rely on disinformation or unethical persuasion techniques such as propaganda, being spreaders of fake information.

2.    Methodology

During our daily monitoring of fact-checked disinformation, we noticed several channels on YouTube that started a systematic and intense online activity from the moment the conflict broke out. We analysed the content and interactions of four YouTube channels broadcasting Pro-Kremlin videos from the beginning of the war until July 13.

The investigation has been developed both through observation and open-source tools.

3. Pro-Russian props to influence and monetise 

Who are the disinformation entrepreneurs in the war?

The channels we selected belong to one of these two categories: 

  • Channels that already existed before the conflict but are now almost entirely dedicated to spreading pro-Russian content.
  • New channels that have carved out a niche for themselves on the platforms since the war started.

Is it all about “the cause”? 

Their strategy is to unleash disinformation and promote propaganda actions that generate hostility against targeted groups while favouring their own.

Whether motivated by support for the Russian invasion or simple opportunism, it seems certain that adopting a pro-Russian position pays off. We have observed that spreading pro-Russian propaganda and false or decontextualised content could be lucrative for some of these users, who make hundreds to thousands of euros. 

4. Steps to starting up a disinformation business on YouTube

4.1 Channels switching topics: Some malicious actors exploit YouTube as a business opportunity and keep on changing their niche and focus area until they become successful. For example: 

Figure 1. Some videos posted on iEarlGrey’s YouTube channel

Describing itself as providing “news from the ‘other side’ from an English ExPat living in Saint Petersburg, Russia“, the account has been active since May 28, 2015, and has now over 72K subscribers and a total of 9.2M views. Before the war broke out, he published 19 videos (16 broadcasted 6 years ago). Since March, he has posted 225 videos, including pro-Russian stances, for which he asks for monetary contributions through Patreon and via cryptocurrencies.

According to Social Blade, a website estimating advertisement revenue, the estimated monthly earnings of this YouTube channel are so far up to 7K USD,  which would imply an annual salary of up to 84K USD. 

To get an idea of the type of content available on his channel, one video is titled “more BS (bulls*it) from Ukraine”. In one of them, iEarlGrey claims that Russian brutalities in Mariupol are just “a tale”.  

iEarlGrey is also present on Twitter (the account has 3K followers), although he claims he was banned from the platform for providing “alternative information”. Until February, his main activity on Twitter was about video games (including the occasional content on the anti-Covid-19 vaccine).

iEarlGrey also has a Telegram channel with over 7K members, and accounts on alternative platforms such as Odyssey or Rumble.

4.2 New ad hoc thematic channels: Other disinformation entrepreneurs managed different thematic channels on YouTube and created new ones specifically dedicated to the war. 

  • Gonzalo Lira II is the geopolitical YouTube channel of Gonzalo Lira, a Chilean American novelist and film director who claims to be living in Ukraine. Before the conflict, Lira was a sort of dating ‘coach’ pushing anti-feminist and misogynistic content on his channel Coach Red Pill, which is currently on hold. Gonzalo Lira is fully dedicated to his new geopolitical channel, exclusively offering misleading pro-Russian content about the war.

In only a few months of existence (since April 30, 2022), the channel has published 108 videos, gathered over 80K subscribers, and had 6.7M views. In a video, he foresees “the sudden implosion of the Ukrainian army” by the end of June, and that “the East and South” of Ukraine ”will fall on Russia’s lap with remarkable speed”, putting an end to the war by September 30.

Figure 2. Screenshot showing an overview of Gonzalo Lira’s YouTube channel

This YouTuber’s estimated monthly earnings are up to 5.1K USD.

Gonzalo Lira has a Twitter account, opened in April 2022, with pro-Kremlin disinformation content and, among other things, he recounted that the Ukrainian security forces arrested him. In three months, he obtained more than 61K followers. 

Gonzalo Lira also has another Twitter account, a YouTube channel created in 2019, an Instagram account, and a Telegram channel, but he claims to have lost access to these four accounts and adds: “Assume someone else wrote any posts after 15/4/22.”

4.3 New life to obsolete channels: In some cases, old and apparently inactive YouTube channels resumed their activity with malicious intentions when Russia invaded Ukraine.

  • PTE Geopolitics World Gone Crazy: The channel gathers over 22K subscribers and a total of 2.2M views. It was established on June 16, 2012, but apparently has only started posting in February 2022 and has broadcasted 116 videos so far. 

The bio states: “I am a young British (…) I discuss Geopolitics, Truth, Politics, Entertainment, and issues around the world (…) Most of my videos do not get monetised because of the sensitive content”. 

For this reason, the user suggests that “Any donations would be appreciated so I can continue providing great videos” and offers several contributions: Patreon, Buy me a coffee, Ko-fi, and PayPal, but also via crypto-funding.

The videos include anti-NATO, anti-EU, and anti-refugee stances. Even the British government crisis leading to the resignation of Boris Johnson was instrumentalised to push pro-Russian claims. There is additional content focused on geopolitics (on India and China), or advancing the idea that Covid-19 was an anti-Chinese US bioweapon. For instance, he denounces in a video an “unprecedented propaganda war on Russia”, asserts that “Ukraine has no democracy”, states that “NATO and the Americans are pushing this war”, and that Zelensky is a puppet to the US and the West, from which he got billions in properties and savings.

According to Social Blade, the estimated monthly earnings are so far up to 1.6K USD. 

  • Chechen special forces in Ukraine”. This YouTube channel was also revived when the war began and is a good example of how to support the Russian cause through propaganda techniques. Its videos, with thousands of views, include rude soldiers, and stereotyped war scenes such as fast-paced chases, all accompanied by intense music. Interestingly, many videos use the Russian Military Marking: ZOV

Also in this case, the channel was active since November 8, 2010, but started posting only in February 2022. It currently has over 193K subscribers and 137M views.

Graphical user interface, website

Description automatically generated
Figure 3. What the “Chechen special forces in Ukraine” YouTube channel looks like

Viewers are asked for monetary contributions via bank transfer and crypto-currency funding.

The estimated monthly earnings of this YouTube channel are over 94K Euros.

Figure 4. Screenshot, taken from Social Blade, of the estimated monthly earnings of the “Chechen special forces in Ukraine” as of July 13

5. Conclusions 

  • The channels analysed in this study were created or relaunched opportunistically when the war started and have pro-Russian positions. Many of the videos we have found contain biased and misleading messages, decontextualised content, or images not supported by any evidence but with clear propagandistic purposes. Still, they are running on YouTube and could be making a profit out of it.
  • The very nature of the channels makes us refer to them as “entrepreneurs” who have found a business niche. This makes us wonder what will become of them when the war is over, or the topic loses the public’s interest, and they no longer have content. As we have seen with many malicious actors about Covid-19 who turned to other topics when the pandemic stopped being beneficial to their monetary and reputational goals, perhaps the protagonists of this study will also delve into a new disinformation business on the next big event to come.
  • The second part of the “disinformation entrepreneurs” is underway. In it, we will analyse the activity of some Twitter accounts that started when the war broke out, and which mostly operate anonymously under the general motto of “for the truth”. Some of them have created their branding around that purpose, while others dangerously claim to be media.