Russian President Vladimir Putin's government has been accused of boosting anti-LGBTQ disinformation. (Photo by Sergei SAVOSTYANOV / SPUTNIK / AFP)
A deceptively edited video posted by the LibsofTikTok Twitter account earlier this month has helped supercharge a Kremlin-backed anti-LGBTQ disinformation campaign. The video, published on August 10, appears to suggest that a Pennsylvania-based therapist is advocating for social acceptance of pedophilia. It’s been used by pro-Kremlin Telegram channels, and even a Russian TV station closely linked to the Kremlin, to push the claim that the West is openly embracing pedophilia and encouraging children to invite them into their homes. The campaign has now spread to countries around the globe and racked up hundreds of thousands of likes and shares.
LibsofTikTok, the online persona of Brooklyn real estate agent Chaya Raichik, has been at the forefront of the right’s anti-LGBTQ campaign, targeting schools, hospitals, and libraries in recent months.“It absolutely petrifies me that hostile foreign powers are listening in to the anti-gay culture wars that she is stoking,” Ernie Piper, a researcher at misinformation tracking group Logically who uncovered the Russian campaign, tweeted.Russia’s campaign began on August 8, when a couple of local St. Petersburg news pages on the Russian social network Vkontakte (VK) posted images of a leaflet that was reportedly brought back from the U.K titled “What to do if a stranger comes up to you on the street?” The leaflet, the posts claimed, had been distributed to school children in the U.K. that gave instructions telling children “DO NOT be afraid! DO NOT scream and cry!"A third instruction reads: “DO NOT call him a pedophile! This can be just as offensive as n-word!” Then, children are supposedly encouraged to invite the stranger home.
The leaflet looks fake, or, at the very least, not something that would be distributed to young students. There isn’t any branding from a government or educational body on the visible pages and there are obvious grammatical errors. The leaflet also uses the U.S. spelling of the word pedophile rather than the British version.
There is no evidence that such a leaflet was ever mass-produced and Piper, the researcher, was unable to find a single reference to this leaflet online prior to the VK posts.As Polish fact-checkers later pointed out, the material distributed to British schoolchildren about their safety comes from an organization called the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and does not resemble the messaging nor images on the leaflet at all.The origin of the images posted to VK is unclear. "I strongly doubt that that's the first place it actually appeared but wherever the first place that it appeared is it's either a private page or it's since been completely deleted,” Piper told VICE News. The fake leaflet may not have spread beyond these VK posts, but two days later Raichik of LibsofTiktok tweeted an edited video featuring a sex therapist from Pennsylvania who works with jailed sex offenders. The video was edited to suggest that the counselor was advocating for social acceptance of pedophilia as a practice. An archived version of the unedited video makes it clear that she was condemning sex crimes against children. Though Raichik never mentioned the leaflets, within days of the video being posted, major Russian disinformation networks on Telegram, some with hundreds of thousands of followers, began sharing it alongside the images of the fake leaflet. These networks suggested that the existence of the video proves the claims made in the pamphlet.
“But this is definitely not a fake,” a message stated on a Telegram channel with 180,000 followers. A licensed sex therapist in the USA, in Pennsylvania, says that the designation of a pedophile as a pedophile offends this category of people. It defends pedophiles… Against the background of this video, the pedophile pamphlet from the previous post looks real.”While initial posts simply used the fake leaflet and edited video to promote the idea that the West was degenerate, that argument soon morphed to an attack on the LGBTQ community. One Telegram user responded to the above post linking the leaflet to teaching transgender studies in schools in Germany and describing it as “hell.” On 4chan, a user posted an image of the leaflet with the comment: “Globohomo no.”“Right at the point where the pamphlet and the video were presented together, both of them create the anti-LGBT narrative,” Piper said, adding that he sees the intermixing of disinformation from different sides of the world as a worrying new trend.“The narrative itself looks much more solid if you can repeat the false claim in a dozen different ways with a dozen different pieces of propaganda and leave people with the impression that this is a real danger when in reality, each piece of propaganda is false or altered or misrepresented in some way,” Piper told VICE News.The posts referencing the leaflets and the LibsofTiktok video were picked up by a Russian Telegram channel with 400,000 subscribers. Soon the claims spread to Tsargrad TV, a Russian TV channel whose founding editor was Alexander Dugin, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest allies whose daughter was killed by a car bomb in Moscow earlier this month.The anti-LGBTQ narrative quickly gained traction on other platforms and was shared on Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok where it spread far beyond Russia’s borders, with fact-checkers in Poland, Spain, and Iran all flagging instances of viral posts referencing the fake leaflet. Other users in Italy and Korea also flagged similar posts in their own countries. And the ability to spread disinformation on a global scale is something the Kremlin has been focusing on in recent years. “We do know that Russia has invested a significant amount of resources in spreading disinformation in non-English language speaking countries, for instance, right at the start of the invasion of Ukraine,” Piper said. Piper also added that LibsofTikTok's huge following "massively increased” the reach of the likely fake posts about the British leaflets because LibsofTikTok already has its own big platform. However, that platform may soon be much smaller after Twitter imposed a seven-day suspension on the account for continuing its campaign to encourage threats against children’s hospitals over their treatment of transgender youths.