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Why Were Lindsay Lohan And Dolph Lundgren Calling For Moldova's President To Step Down?

Brian Baumgartner is seen appearing to call for the Moldovan president to resign.
Brian Baumgartner is seen appearing to call for the Moldovan president to resign.

With a smile on his face and in a cheerful voice, Hollywood actor Brian Baumgartner looks into the camera and, in barely decipherable Russian, calls on Moldovan President Maia Sandu to resign.

Even by TikTok's standards, it was bizarre.

The star from the hit U.S. TV show The Office appears to have been one of many Hollywood stars, including Dolph Lundgren and Lindsay Lohan, hoodwinked into taking part in the latest pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign targeting Sandu, the pro-Western leader of Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries on its eastern fringes.

The Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), a disinformation analytical unit of the Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, found pro-Russian disinformation actors solicited U.S. celebrities to record videos -- apparently reading from a script whose meaning they probably did not understand -- calling for the downfall of Sandu. It said the Sandu smear in October 2023 resembled a similar social-media disinformation campaign falsely depicting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy as a drug addict, which included celebrity appeals as well.

Sandu has been the repeated target of online smears and pranks. Ahead of nationwide elections in 2023, there were several deepfake videos targeting her, including one depicting her appearing to announce her resignation and support for a pro-Russian party bankrolled by Ilan Shor, a fugitive tycoon who has bankrolled pro-Kremlin media and political parties in Moldova and who was implicated in the country's biggest-ever bank heist.

While far from convincing, these cyber-stunts serve a purpose, explains Victoria Olari, the author of the DFRLab report.

"The goal of those behind these campaigns is not necessarily to convince people of their authenticity, though I believe a segment of the population less educated in media literacy and AI [artificial intelligence] technologies might fall [for] these manipulations," Olari told RFE/RL in e-mailed remarks. "Rather, they are trying to test the waters, to monitor public reaction, so that later, in the presidential campaign, they can come with more sophisticated techniques."

While there's no proven Kremlin link to this latest TikTok spoof, it's clear Sandu, a former World Bank economist, is no friend of Moscow's, given her government's desire to anchor the country firmly to the West, including membership in the European Union.

Shortly after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his country's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, experts and others feared Moldova would also be in his crosshairs. A former Soviet republic of 2.6 million people that shares a border with Ukraine, Moldova already contends with a contingent of some 2,000 Russian troops stationed in its breakaway region of Transdniester, making it a strategic morsel with a compliant military, albeit poorly trained and armed, at the ready.

Sandu accused the Kremlin in February 2023 of plotting to overthrow her government amid turmoil that led her prime minister to resign following what she called "energy blackmail," as Russian energy giant Gazprom cut natural gas deliveries to Moldova.

Six television channels, owned by or with links to Shor, had their licenses suspended in December 2023 for disinformation, while access to 20 Russian-language websites was blocked in October.

Such is the scale of Russian propaganda in Moldova that Sandu, in May 2023, established the National Center for Information Defense and Combating Disinformation to counter it.

Hollywood Cameo

On September 26, 2023, a video appeared on TikTok under the account oleg spb2 appearing to show performers and actors, which also included Michael Madsen and the rapper Xzibit, issuing an odd message.

The video is a compilation of shorter clips from an app called Cameo, which allows users, for a fee, to request personalized video messages from celebrities or other prominent people. The video starts harmlessly enough, jumping back and forth from one celebrity to another, each issuing a greeting in English to someone identified as "Sandu." As they speak, however, a more menacing message in Russian scrolls across the screen in blood-red lettering.

"We, Hollywood stars, support the people of Moldova in their desire to overthrow you, Sandu. We are joining the flash mob #DavaiteSkinemSandu" (Russian for #Let'sBringDownSandu).

The video ends with the participants cheerfully repeating -- perhaps as DFRLab suspects, reading from a Russian text transliterated into English -- the same phrase in broken, heavily accented Russian: "Let's bring down Sandu."

The DFRLab said the material did "not appear to be a deepfake, and the artists featured in the video are all on Cameo."

Cameo was also used in a similar prank targeting Zelenskiy in 2023. Celebrities -- from the actor Elijah Wood to former boxer Mike Tyson, among others -- recorded videos in English urging someone only referred to as "Vladimir" to end his drug addiction.

Cameo accounts of the celebrities who appeared in a TikTok video appearing to be calling for the Moldovan president to resign.
Cameo accounts of the celebrities who appeared in a TikTok video appearing to be calling for the Moldovan president to resign.

Microsoft issued a report on December 7, 2023, that said since July 2023, Russian-aligned influence actors had tricked celebrities into recording video messages that were exploited in pro-Russian propaganda to falsely cast Zelenskiy as a drug addict.

One of these efforts, including that of U.S. actor John McGinley, was picked up by Russian state news agency RIA Novosti on August 17, 2023.

Going Viral

The TikTok account that first posted the Cameo video targeting Sandu had previously been posting clips from Russian pro-Kremlin TV talk shows, DFRLab found. It also said the account pushed "messages against Sandu and her pro-European government."

The account is no longer active, and DFRLab said that it was unable to determine whether the platform or the account owner had deleted it.

However, other social-media accounts snatched up and reposted the video. The Telegram channel Revival of Moldova was the first to share the video from oleg_spb2, DFRLab found. That channel was created only a month earlier, on August 24, 2023, DFRLab said. It has less than 500 subscribers and describes itself as an "Information and Analytical Resource for all those who wish for the revival of Moldova." It uses a logo resembling that of the Revival Party, a pro-Russian party in Moldova.

However, this Telegram channel changed its logo and name to Baba Paraska, DFRLab found, also peddling disinformation about multinational military exercises in Moldova.

Lindsey Lohan is seen appearing to call for the Moldovan president to resign.
Lindsey Lohan is seen appearing to call for the Moldovan president to resign.

From there, other Telegram channels, for example, Gagauznews -- with more than 9,700 subscribers -- and Salut Moldova -- with more than 5,600 subscribers -- reposted the celebrity video, DFRLab said, adding that the video ticked up a total of more than 85,000 views as it gained traction on other pro-Russian Moldovan Telegram channels.

What appeared to be a coordinated effort to promote the video by Revival of Moldova, Gaugauznews, and Salut Moldova "was also evident on Facebook," DFRLab found.

Kremlin meddling and pro-Kremlin propaganda, however, haven't stopped Chisinau's European trajectory.

In June 2022, after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Moldova was granted official candidate status for EU membership. Those aspirations were further buoyed in December 2023, when Brussels said it would open accession negotiations for Moldova to the 27-nation bloc alongside Ukraine. In November 2023, Chisinau joined EU sanctions against Russia.

With a presidential election in the fall and Sandu having already declared she will run, the hits against her and Moldova are expected to keep coming, the Atlantic Council's Olari predicts.

"As we head towards the presidential election, we can definitely expect to see more of this stuff popping up and expect the techniques to get sharper."

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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