a Russian-influenced operation targets French Youtubers

Almost a year ago, while France was in the middle of the vaccination campaign, Youtubeur with 1.3 million subscribers, Léo Grasset, publicly revealed on his Twitter account that he had been contacted to misinform the Pfizer vaccine. . Behind the puppet company that had contacted him and which called itself “Fazze” the hand of Russia had quickly pulled the hand of Russia. Since then, Léo Grasset thought he was done with foreign disinformation operations.

However, on May 5th, the Youtuber received an email that caught his attention. In very rough French, the representative of a company called “VEUL” contacted him to offer him a commercial offer that was anything but trivial. The market consists in broadcasting a turnkey video on your paid Youtube channel. How many ? “Your conditions are ours” explains the mysterious interlocutor who claims to work on behalf of a client who would be “a research organization” eager to “Gathering new opinions from people around the world”.

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The approach is not usual and arouses the curiosity of Léo Grasset who clicks on the link provided in the email and discovers a 40-second video titled “Who is responsible for this mess? “ and who is content to hammer home a clear message: the war in Ukraine is the fault of the West. It’s ugly, badly done, badly executed but tailor-made to achieve maximum virality on social media. The mention “FR” accompanying the video suggests that other Youtubers, in other countries, could, in turn, be contacted by VEUL. What to warn Léo Grasset who contacts Marianne keep up and enjoy: “I’m happy to see they haven’t forgotten me.” Our title is also able to confirm that VEUL has contacted at least one other Youtuber: Benjamin Brillaud, manager of the historical channel “Nota Bene”.to two million subscribers.

puppet company

On its website, VEUL presents itself as a digital marketing company that “Represents podcast channels and influencers globally”. It boasts of having among its ranks employees located both in Russia but also in Finland and the United Kingdom and to operate all over the world with the exception of the African continent. However, it does not mention its origin or the names of its leaders. Strange for a business “Leader in its sector”. To be at least credible, the VEUL site still mentions five of its alleged “customers”: Nintendo Switch, Tencent, Mattel, NordVPN and Xiaomi. All contacted by Marianneonly NordVPN and Nintendo came back to us with a simple observation: “Never seen, never heard of”.

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Always with the aim of deceiving the vigilance of the people it contacts with, VEUL prides itself on being “certificate” on DesignRush, a directory of digital marketing companies. Contacted, its founder, Gianluca Ferruggia, explains that the verification process “ could have failed “ on their case and ensures that supervision is strengthened in the future. Since then, VEUL’s DesignRush page has been removed. Another problem: if VEUL claims to have been around for seven years, its website was only created a little over a year ago. An anomaly for a company whose entire model relies entirely on the Internet.

Overwhelmed with negligence, the “company” created some fake employee profiles on the LinkedIn professional social network. But the illusion doesn’t hold up because the person or people behind these creations didn’t even deign to put something other than the VEUL logo as their profile picture. Last annoying detail, all the “employees” have the same skills, written in Russian, including one Thomas Lawrence, resident in the UK! Only one profile seems very real: that of Luiza Markosyan. This 25-year-old Russian woman of Armenian origin lives in Vidnoye, in the Moscow oblast. On her profile, she claims that she is the general manager of VEUL while the company, after verification, has no legal existence in Russia.

Who is behind VEUL?

Who is hiding behind VEUL then? To find out, just follow the small pebbles that lead to their home. Here we are dealing with digital traces which, placed one end to the other, end up constituting a bundle of clues. All lead to the Russian company “IP Team”. A very real company this time and referenced in the Russian commercial register. It also offers the same services as VEUL and forms partnerships between influencers and companies to promote it. According to its website, IP Team has 150 employees in two offices, one in Sochi, Russia, the other in Hong Kong. In its client portfolio, the company claims to have served multinationals such as Coca-Cola, Samsung, Adidas or even Auchan.

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At this point, several clues tend to show that VEUL is actually a shameful and hidden offshoot of IPTeam … a company for which Luiza Markosyan worked as the head of the “international clients department”. Even though she stipulates on LinkedIn not to work there for more than a year, her professional email of hers is still very active. Another disturbing coincidence, IPTeam has a whopping seven years of experience in its field. Numerological possibility? This is exactly the experience VEUL claims to have. The two structures also share customers. On her DesignRush page, the puppet company mentions having as a client the games company “Wizards of the Coast”, which Luiza Markosyan promoted on her social networks when she worked for IPTeam.

After contacting her and questioning her on all these points, the only answer we got was the total removal of the digital traces that linked IPTeam to VEUL and the limitation of access to Luiza Markosyan’s social profiles. The 40-second video broadcast to Léo Grasset about the war in Ukraine, previously hosted on the Russian search engine Yandex, has also been deleted. As in the “Fazze case”, the real gray area remains the customer who commissioned VEUL. It is in the interest of the ultimate beneficiary of the disinformation to go through relay races that guarantee him near-perfect confidentiality. If we go back to the video message sent to Léo Grasset, it is obvious that such an operation, if it worked, is directly part of the information warfare waged by the Russian state.

Kalashnikov 2.0

If one is tempted to imagine the Kremlin’s hand behind this action, other actors are also conducting disinformation operations from Russia. Influencers acting out of political or financial interest, ideology, or both. In the case of VEUL, this “influencer entrepreneur” could lead to the sulphurous founder of IP Team, Kirill Vitalyevich Kalashnikov. A businessman from Sochi, very well known in Russia in the world of Youtubers, especially for acts of violence.

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In 2017, Russian YouTuber Yury Khovansky denounced his Kalashnikov attack in a video and paints the portrait of a “psychopath”, a Russian mafia trend of the 1990s, who does not hesitate to threaten, humiliate and beat people with whom he collaborates or wants to collaborate. When Yury Khovansky wanted to file a complaint about his attack on him, he would have met with the rejection of the St. Petersburg police who would have done everything to bury the case.

A profile that pushes a connoisseur of Russia, who prefers to remain anonymous, to confide Marianne that Kirill Kalashnikov has nothing of a ” small shot of Sochi but it seems to have consolidated networks in the major cities of the country thanks to its numerous companies and foundations. On Instagram, he appears to be a strong supporter of the military invasion of Ukraine. One of his last posts even comes with the caption: ” On the information front Could he be behind this influence operation? At this point, the mystery remains. Contacted through its commercial director, IP Team did not respond to the request for Marianne.

How to fight?

For Alexandre Alaphilippe, director of the Brussels-based NGO for the fight against disinformation Eu DisinfoLab, the use of Youtuber to carry out influence operations corresponds to an evolution of the Russian disinformation strategy. “For a few thousand or tens of thousands of euros and after searching for an unscrupulous content creator, these people can broadcast their messages to several million people simultaneously, He explains. A good deal because they don’t have to install a more sophisticated device that would be expensive, time-consuming and certainly less effective. “

Even more important than the number of people who could be affected by transactions of this type, Léo Grasset points out that “YouTube is targeting a community that is acquired by them and that trusts them”. A confidence that pushes at least a part of the public to weaken their critical spirit. Faced with this new threat, Youtube France, contacted by Marianne, does not hide his concern. It is impossible for the American company to regulate the agreements that users of the platform conclude with companies, especially if they decide not to publicly display them. “Fortunately we have a community of responsible creators” the company breathes, reassured to see how the VEUL operation seems to be stillborn… but until when?

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