Putin social media influencers profiting from war propaganda

Semyon Pegov
Pro-war blogger Pegov aka WarGonzo charged £1,500 per post on his Telegram channel

Russian pro-war influencers generate large advertising revenues from conflict coverage, the BBC has found. They share ads for anything from cryptocurrency to fashion alongside gruesome videos of drone strikes and false claims about Ukraine's President Zelensky.

(Or: They augment their daily ration of gruesome videos of drone strikes and false claims about Ukraine's President Zelensky with ads for anything from cryptocurrency to fashion).

Known in Russia as "Z Bloggers" ('Z' is used to show support for the invasion), they embed with the army, share exclusive footage from the frontline and call on young Russians to enlist in the army.

Since the start of the war, pro-war influencers have gained millions of followers on Telegram, the social media platform many Russians turned to after President Vladimir Putin banned Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

The explosion in users meant the advertising market on Telegram grew rapidly.

Ad in a Telegram channel
Z bloggers post ads for anything from Telegram

War influencers have taken advantage of this. They sell ad spaces for companies looking to reach their young audiences.

To find out how much they charge, members of the BBC's Global Disinformation Team posed as hotel owners interested in posting ads on their channels.

We reached out to some of the most prominent players.

One of them was Alexander Kots, a veteran correspondent for a pro-government newspaper turned war influencer, with more than 600,000 followers on his personal Telegram channel. Semyon Pegov, known as WarGonzo, was another. Perhaps the most well-known Z blogger, he has over 1.3 million followers.

Kots said it would cost from £443 to £678 per post on his channel, depending on how long the ad was kept at the top of his Telegram feed. WarGonzo quoted us £1,570 per post.

Top war influencers post at least one ad per day, meaning their potential income dwarfs Russia's average monthly wage of £550.

We also talked with an advertising agent working with Wagner-linked channels. He quoted us with an equivalent of £26 per ad in Grey Zone, a Telegram channel with exclusive access to Wagner and over 600,000 followers. For the channel of Alexander Simonov, a correspondent with Yevgeny Prigozhin-founded website Ria Fan, he quoted an equivalent of £180 per post. Another Ria Fan reporter, Alexander Yaremchuk, has less followers and lower rates with £86 per post.

This growing advertising market is sustained by a steady stream of exclusive videos that brings Z bloggers a diverse following, from domestic pro-war audiences to Western and Ukrainian analysts trying to glimpse the reality in the Russian trenches.

fake video
Top bloggers shared this video, but the BBC analysis suggests it is staged

But some of these videos are fake. In March 2023, prominent influencers, including Alexander Kots, shared a dash cam video with their followers. It claims to show two Ukrainian soldiers stopping a car with a woman and a small child. The gunmen in the video call the woman "a pig" for speaking Russian and threaten her. Z bloggers said the video was a perfect example of how Ukraine treats civilians.

We geolocated this video to Makiivka, a town near Donetsk. This area of Ukraine has been occupied by pro-Russian proxies since 2014. It is impossible for the uniformed Ukrainian soldier to operate in this occupied territory.

Moreover, the use of dashcams is illegal in Ukraine. It was banned after the Russian invasion to keep the troop movements secret. The cross on the vehicle is different from the one used by Ukraine's armed forces. All these elements suggest the video was staged.

This is one of many fakes spread by Z bloggers to encourage young Russians to support the war, and there is evidence that they are succeeding.

In one video, a mobilised Russian man says he went to the recruitment centre after watching a lot of videos from Vladlen Tatarsky, one of the most vocal bloggers. Tatarsky was killed in April 2023 at a meeting with his fans.

Another Russian man who volunteered to fight in Ukraine told a blogger that he did so after watching a lot of WarGonzo reports. "I follow all the military news and analysis on Telegram," he said, referring to the Z bloggers.

Over the course of the war, Putin shown his appreciation of their efforts.

He appointed Kots to the presidential human rights council and made WarGonzo's Pegov and several other bloggers members of the working group on mobilisation.

In June, he invited pro-war influencers and state media reporters to the Kremlin for a two-hour long conversation.

"The fight in the information space is a battlefield. A crucial battlefield," Putin told them.

"And I really count on your help," he said.