Last month, Putin encouraged Russians to download Western entertainment illegally from “unfriendly countries” by decriminalising intellectual property theft and lifting copyright laws, in a bid to counterattack the economic sanctions taken against Russia during the war. Against the backdrop of the widespread misinformation about the brutal war in Ukraine, and Russian media portraying it as no more than a “special military operation,” journalists saw the opportunity to spread the truth through the pirated content en masse.
By making pirated content legal, the Kremlin ended up accidentally opening a loophole in the propaganda wall of the war, and unwillingly doing a service to all of the journalists in Russia and abroad, who are trying to fight against Russian state media. In other circumstances, any journalistic work or information against the government is punished by a number of fines, ranging from $45,000 to 15 years in prison. This loophole gave 72andSunny Amsterdam and Kyiv-based creative agency Nebo, the opportunity to start their cyber initiative called ‘Torrents of Truth’.
The initiative took advantage of the loophole by allowing Ukrainian journalists to tell the truth about the war, by masking it as pirated torrents of movies, TV shows, software, music and books. The journalistic reports were launched across P2P platforms in Russia and reached every Russian citizen that was attempting to pirate content online. Those who downloaded the hacked torrents were greeted with a message, as soon as they clicked on them, saying “This isn’t what you expected to see. But this is something that you should see. The truth.” Users of the torrents are also then invited to open the ReadMe.txt file attached to the torrent package, including sources of information about the Russian attacks, an extensive list of verified links, resources and tools people can use to seek the truth.
In one of the most hard-hitting videos of the initiative, Ukrainian journalist Volodymyr Biriukov talks about what he witnessed during the war in Irpin and Bucha, “I saw with my own eyes how exactly people were killed. They were set on fire, tied up, shot in the head at point-blank range, their nails were cut off right from the fingers. As a journalist, I never thought that I would have to face such brutality and horror. A mother was tied to a chair and her 14-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son were raped in front of her eyes. And they (Russian soldiers) said, ‘This is for you because you do not like Russians’. But all this can be stopped if you speak the truth, if you don't remain silent, if you send this video and other videos related to the war to other people.”
LBB’s Zoe Antonov spoke to Guillaume Roukhomovsky, associate creative director at 72andSunny Amsterdam and Olga Kokoshko, owner and CEO at Nebo Ideas Agency, to find out more about the technical challenges of this exercise, the effectiveness of the campaign and what it was like working with the journalists on the campaign.
LBB> How did you come up with this project and what was the most difficult aspect of it?
Guillaume> When Russia lifted copyright laws at the beginning of March and essentially encouraged its citizens to download films, series, softwares, games and books from ‘unfriendly countries’, we immediately asked ourselves: what if this could be an opportunity? What if this could be a chance for freedom of speech to strike back? What if this could be an actual loophole, a way for Russians to access the very thing their government had forbidden and silenced? The truth. The truth about this unfair war. From that moment on, the question was never IF we should do it, but HOW to do it—no matter how difficult it would get.
There were quite a few arduous challenges to tackle in order to pull it off, especially on the technical side. Indexing the torrents on popular Russian trackers without getting banned or noticed was a delicate operation: we created multiple fake user accounts to upload the content but also to endorse it with comments and likes. We even create fake torrent trackers like http://trutracker.xyz/ or http://torrus.co/. And we also set up a dozen of ‘seedboxes’: high-bandwidth remote servers located in Poland, the Netherlands, France and Germany to broadcast the torrents of truth at very high speed.
LBB> What was your strategy from the getgo of the campaign?
Olga> We wanted to use the channel as effectively as possible, this is why we’ve arranged some interviews with people from Russia. We were looking for the messages and tone of voice that would persuade them. While digging deeper we formulated our challenge: to spread doubt upon Russians concerning the propaganda they receive. The most reliable sources are journalists since they have to take into account all sides. To make the campaign impossible to ignore we’ve chosen the journalists that were witnesses of the war and its consequences. Documentary videos became the visualisations of journalists' words. Some of the footage that we use in the campaign is made by the journalists themself.
LBB> How long did it take for you to craft all the disguised blockbuster movies and TV series, and what research went into it?
Guillaume> It took a while to create all the disguised content as we wanted to ensure Russians would watch it. That’s why, for instance, with all films and series, we made sure to keep a bit of the original content upfront so it would give viewers the time to get comfortable and drop their guard before the truth hits.
We also carefully looked into Russian trends and what content from ‘unfriendly countries’ was popular in Russia at the time of the launch; what films, series, software and music were the most downloaded (or awaited). This way we created 21 torrents that we knew would be extremely in-demand and get a maximum of downloads.
LBB> How did the launch of the project go and what were the immediate results of it?
Guillaume> While it is impossible to know precisely how many times in total the torrents have been downloaded in Russia, we can tell how many times they’ve been downloaded from our own servers. On the day of the launch, it was around 400 downloads. As we speak this total is so far over 8500 downloads and counting.
Now imagine out of these 8500 downloads, if only one works. If only one Russian starts doubting, if only one Russian breaks free from the Kremlin disinformation narrative. That’s huge.
LBB> What was it like working with Volodymyr Biriukov and the rest of the journalists involved with the project and did all of them take a different approach to the information included?
Olga> Working with journalists was hard for several reasons. First of all many of them were losing hope that the Russian people will ever change their mind. When the pictures from Bucha were published, several journalists decided not to take part in the project. Secondly, all journalists that were involved in the project are constantly doing volunteer work, illuminating the truth on the international stage and staying in danger 24/7. We did not have any moral right to cause them more stress with deadlines or edits. Thirdly we did not want to control their words, since the project had to be as sincere as possible. We could not predict which materials we were going to recieve. Despite our worries the videos that we got were above our expectations: concrete and detailed, emotional and professional, trustworthy and personal.
LBB> What was the reaction of the audiences?
Guillaume> As torrents are in practice more or less anonymous, it is impossible to get in touch with the Russian citizens who downloaded them and we can’t know for sure their reactions.
But another key side to the campaign was actually... the rest of the world. Indeed, in order to make the torrents popular on Russian trackers, we needed high numbers of seeders (uploaders) so we thought: let’s make it public. Indeed, anyone, anywhere could help spread the truth in Russia by sparing a bit of bandwidth and seeding the torrents of truth from their own computer. And it worked! Some people even told us they got their whole family to do it and use their old computers to seed the torrents.
LBB> What was it like working with 72andSunny on this and what was their involvement in the project?
Olga> Working with 72andSunny is definitely one of the best collaboration experiences we’ve had. It helped us to define a standard of what creative collaboration can look like within the tolerance, accuracy to deadlines and human approach. Despite this project being always about war 72andSunny made every meeting warm and pleasant. Guillaume Roukhomovsky (creative director at 72andSunny) was leading us respectfully while covering a lot of work on his side.
LBB> What was the main aim of the project and do you believe it should be launched in countries beyond Russia that also might be lacking awareness of what is happening in Ukraine?
Guillaume> The main aim of Torrents of Truth was to bypass the extreme censorship raging across Russian media in order to spread the truth about the war in Ukraine. It opened up a mass, undercover channel for journalists to keep spreading the truth, and that in a country where the truth itself has become illegal and banned from TV and newspapers.
Even though it is an operation that could technically also be replicated and launched in countries beyond the Russian Federation, it obviously makes the most sense in Russia where piracy is a common practice (with an average 43 percent of Russians reportedly obtaining movies and TV shows via pirate platforms).
LBB> Any final thoughts?
Olga> This project helped Nebo to feel a part of the bigger creative community. To work together on a project that is helping to end the war in Ukraine was priceless. It was also challenging, but gave us a belief that we are doing our best to spread the truth in Russia. All those discussions and researches we went through affect us as professionals and human beings. ‘Torrents of Truth’ wasn’t not another project to launch, it was an impulse from like-minded people to help Ukraine. Today the whole world sees that Ukraine is a modern country with European values, the same values that were guiding us throughout this project. The name of Nebo agency means ‘the sky’ in Ukrainian. We hope that with this project our dream to see the peaceful sky above Ukraine became one step closer.